Environment

California’s recycling label bill won’t increase recycling rates and creates new problems

California’s new recycling bill will not cut down on waste, nor will it increase recycling rates in the state.

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California’s new recycling bill will not cut down on waste, nor will it increase recycling rates in the state.

Recycling is a proven solution and one of our best tools to tackle plastic waste in the United States and worldwide. However, California’s recently passed bill to relabel recyclable products will exclude many items that are currently recycled and will not increase recycling rates in the state, nor will it reduce waste flows.

Part of the impetus for this legislation is to address consumer confusion with regard to the chasing arrows symbol. Originally conceived as a way to indicate which resin was used in a product, the chasing arrows symbol has become synonymous with recyclability. Unfortunately, the California bill fails to address this gap in consumer information and education.  

Narrow definitions do more harm than good

California Senate Bill (SB) 343 would reassess which products can be designated with the triangular chasing arrows recycle symbol based on how often and where they are recycled. If signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, only products that are recovered and recycled by at least 60% of the state will be considered recyclable and allowed to use the recycle symbol. Additionally, the bill reviews which products can use the symbol based on end markets for post-consumer recycled material.

This move will not increase recycling rates across the state as the bill aims to do, but will instead render fewer products recyclable, increasing waste flows and placing more stress on overburdened waste management infrastructure. By defining what is and is not recyclable by a threshold based on current recycling rates, this bill does the opposite of its intention, and it doesn’t envision or plan for a future with better recycling infrastructure. The bill would effectively give up on a number of products that are actually recyclable and recycled in many parts of California.

Plastic yogurt cups, for example, which are accepted for recycling in some cities where more advanced recycling infrastructure exists, do not meet the 60% threshold on a state-wide scale. If SB 343 is signed into law, these products will no longer be allowed to include the chasing arrows symbol and the millions of yogurt cups used each week would instead be sent to the trash. This is also true for numerous other everyday plastic products that currently display the recycle symbol and are, consequentially, recycled. This new threshold requirement will reduce recycling rates and send up to 4.5 million tons of recyclable polypropylene products to the landfill, throwing away millions of dollars in usable materials that would have otherwise reentered the circular economy.

Relabeling does not support consumer education

Another goal of the SB 343 bill is to reduce contamination among recycling. While this is an important part of the puzzle, addressing contamination requires consumer education, not fewer recyclable items. Resources to educate consumers on what can be recycled will reduce contamination and ensure that all products are properly recycled. Programs like How2Recycle, which is easily accessible and highly informational, help consumers learn more about their recycling systems to ensure that more products are recycled and fewer bins face contamination.

Instead of reducing the pool of items that can be recycled, California should increase support for useful tools that give consumers what they need to recycle correctly. This is how the state can move forward and increase recycling rates.

Real solutions invest in more recycling

Rather than passing legislation that brings the state backwards in recycling rates, California should focus on investing in and expanding recycling systems throughout the state to ensure that more products can be recycled everywhere. Plastics are 100% recyclable, and expanded infrastructure will ensure that recycling capabilities match increasing demand for recycling and recycled goods. This will avoid further consumer confusion with constantly changing recycling laws. Understanding this, industry is already investing billions across the country in new recycling infrastructure and technologies to ensure that more products are recycled and stay in our economy, especially ones that require unique processing.

Investment in mechanical and advanced recycling systems that work together will ensure that more products are recycled. Already, advanced recycling systems are working to ensure that even hard-to-recycle plastics are recycled. Flexible plastic packaging and single-use plastic bags, for example, are being turned back into basic polymers to then be transformed into new products. Keeping plastics in the economy, and out of the environment, by increasing recycling capabilities is the solution to increased recycling rates.

Instead of creating more consumer confusion, governments should work with industry and consumers to increase access to and availability of recycling options. While lawmakers claim that SB 343 works to reestablish recycling labels to encourage less contamination in curbside recycling, it will only make recycling challenges in the state worse. Furthermore, it does nothing to invest more in recycling infrastructure, which is a proven solution to reducing waste. This is not a truth-in-labeling bill seeking to keep producers honest. Rather, it is exclusion-based, misguided legislation that takes away consumer options, strips industry of proven solutions, and fails to account for its real consequences.

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