Editorial: Mislabeling plastic as recyclable defeats the purpose and damages the planet

A bill passed last week by the California Legislature would ban manufacturers from putting the triangular chasing-arrows symbol, signifying that their plastic products and packaging are recyclable, on items that are not anywhere near recyclable. Although this first-in-the-nation measure didn’t receive much outside attention, the bill deserves to be imposed nationwide in order to halt the widespread and destructive use of the recyclable symbol — along with the overuse of plastics in packaging.

No one can reasonably deny the pervasiveness of plastics in trash that washes up on the nation’s shores, clogs waterways, kills wildlife and makes a mess wherever the wind carries it. Paper litter at least biodegrades, but plastic is a forever pollutant. Waste disposal companies like Republic Services concur with California lawmakers that the problem is out of control, especially because manufacturers are deceptively stamping the chasing-arrows symbol on non-recyclable items.

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The Environmental Protection Agency says such products wind up being incinerated or dumped in landfills regardless of consumers’ good intentions at the recycling bin. Some estimates say only around 8.7% of plastics are actually recyclable. When manufacturers stamp that triangular symbol on their plastic products, they often are lying to consumers. And there’s nothing accidental about this misinformation: It’s part of a deliberate feel-good campaign by petrochemical companies to make their destructive products seem environmentally friendly so consumers will think less of the harm they’re causing to the environment.

Republic Services has an aptly titled website, “Everything You Think You Know About Recycling Is Wrong and Here’s How to Fix It,” that’s well worth a visit.

Deceptively placing the triangular symbol on non-recyclable items adds tremendously to municipal waste-processing costs. Taxpayers must cover the costs of collecting and hauling the plastics along with legitimate recyclables to a recycling center, where bogus items must be separated, then hauled over to traditional landfills where they belonged in the first place.

The misplaced chasing-arrows symbols also create a false sense among consumers that they’re doing the right thing by depositing the waste in their blue bins. People feel good about being responsible when, in fact, they’re making a big problem even worse. They should be complaining loudly to product manufacturers about mislabeling and putting way too much useless plastic into their packaging. They should be demanding that their own state legislatures follow California’s lead and consider imposing surcharges when packaging has excessive plastic.

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For example, consider a small camping knife or multitool delivered by Amazon in a box padded with unrecyclable plastic bubble wrap. The product itself requires only about 6 square inches of packaging, but the manufacturer often insists on wrapping it in 10 or 12 square inches of hard-to-open, heavy plastic to cover its big marketing label. Is all that plastic waste really necessary?

The short answer is no. And before tossing it in the blue bin, consumers owe it to their planet to make sure it really is recyclable.