As per the United Nations Environment Program, only 9% of all plastic ever manufactured has been recycled.
Most of us have seen the universal symbol for recycling, known as the “chasing arrows” or “Mobius Loop” stamped on the packaging. Its ubiquitous presence on just about any product lends credence to the recyclable properties of packaging. But that is not true, especially when the logo is used on plastic items. This symbol is used in different packaging in different contexts and that’s where the confusion starts. For instance, when used on non-plastic items, it has a percentage at its center which represents how much of the product has come from recycled material. Whereas, in plastic items, its main purpose is to identify the type of resin used to make the plastic. This confusion surrounding the logo has led California to ban its use on any non-recyclable product last year in October.
It all started in 1970 with a nationwide contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) for symbolizing recycling. Gary Anderson, a college student won it by creating a design that was inspired by Mobius Strip.
And has since been commonly adopted as the universal symbol for recycling. It stands for reduce, reuse and recycle.
In 1988, the Society of Plastic Institute (SPI) create its own system of codes and symbols for facilitating the better sorting of plastics. The created Resin Identification Code (RIC) symbol consisted of the same Mobius Loop as for the recycling symbol but with a single number present at the center. The number 1 through 7 represents the type of plastic material used.
Simply, RIC was initially designed for people working in the recycling and plastic industry to help them sort and recycle the plastic and had nothing to do with consumers. But due to their similarity, both symbols are taken to be symbols for recycling and increase the confusion.
Affecting plastic recycling
The similarity between the recycling symbol and RIC as well as the lack of knowledge makes it difficult for customers to distinguish between them. And most of the time RIC is assumed to symbolize the recycling nature of the plastic item. This negates the very meaning of the symbol for which it is placed there in the first place. This is just one aspect that prevents the recycling system from being broadly effective.
It puts the burden on individuals to figure out whether an item is recyclable or if local recycling plants accept it. The system largely relies on individuals to do the right thing where they can easily trip up by the details.
According to Greenpeace report in 2020:
Only some PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable. Whereas plastic food service and convenience products do not fall under the recyclable category.
Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and fall under a category of products that recycling plants may collect, but are not actually recycled but rather sent to landfills or incinerated.
The full body shrink sleeves on PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make them non-recyclable.
Additional factors hampering efficient recycling
However, even if people are able to understand the numbers present at the center of the chasing arrow symbol and sort their garbage accordingly, there are other aspects as well that hamper the efficient recycling of plastic.
Like a lack of nearby recycling facilities and even if there is one that accepts certain items doesn’t mean that everything will be recycled. The recycling industry at large operates on a rule of thumb: Rigid plastic packaging goes into recycling and anything that isn’t rigid doesn’t.
The other issue is the process of sorting, and recycling plants employ various technologies like optical scanners along with workers to sort through the mountain of plastic items efficiently.
But these scanners can have a hard time detecting flat items or reading darker colors.
This sorting process is further increased owing to people wish-cycling and putting something in a recycling bin that doesn’t belong there. It puts the issue of sorting and separating on the recycling plants which are already under strain.
The recyclable plastic is downcycled to make products of lower quality like polyester for carpets and the rest is dumped or burned in incinerators. This is so because other than type 1 and 2, it is difficult to recycle the rest. And even if they are somehow recycled, there is very little demand in the market for recycled material. So, it is often cheaper to just make new plastic.
EPR – Extended Producer Responsibility
The way forward is to consider Extended Producer Responsibility EPR laws which shift the burden of recycling to the producer and away from the consumers. Clear labeling and segregation at the source before they reach recycling plants will ensure efficient solutions for plastic recycling.
When done rightly and efficiently, recycling saves energy, reduces carbon emissions, and reduces pollution of air and water- all of which help to protect the environment and public health. However, only a few plastic products can be legitimately told to be recyclable at present and most of the plastic is literally dumped or incinerated. But the presence of the chasing arrow symbol on nearly every plastic product would have the public think otherwise. As long as there is mislabeling on plastic items, it will keep adding to the confusion around recycling.
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