California Aims to Ban Recycling Symbols on Things That Aren’t Recyclable

In the past year, a number of environmental organizations have filed lawsuits seeking to combat misleading claims of recyclability by major corporations. Environmental groups have also criticized plans by the oil and gas industry to expand its production of petrochemicals, which are the main building blocks of plastic, because the process is highly polluting and creates new demand for fossil fuels.

The recycling symbol is “subconsciously telling the people buying things, ‘You’re environmentally friendly,’” said Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council, which advocates corporations to shoulder more responsibility for recycling their products.

“Nobody should be able to lie to the public,” she said.

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In California, the bill won the backing of a coalition of environmental groups, local governments, waste haulers and recyclers. Recycling companies say the move will help them cut down on the non-recyclable trash thrown in recycling bins that needs to be transported, sorted and sent to the landfill.

Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services, one of the country’s largest waste and recycling companies, said in an interview that more than a fifth of the material his company processes nationwide is non-recyclable garbage. That means that even on its best day, Republic is running at only 80 percent efficiency, processing materials it shouldn’t be processing, he said.

Some of the most common forms of non-recyclable trash marring operations at Republic’s 70 facilities across the United States, which processes six million tons of curbside recycling a year: snack pouches, plastic film, grocery bags and packing material. Plastic bags, in particular, can’t be recycled in most curbside recycling programs and notoriously gum up recycling machines.

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“There are a lot of products in the marketplace today that have the chasing arrows that shouldn’t” Mr. Keller said. “There aren’t really any true end markets, or any real way to recover and ultimately recycle those materials in curbside programs.”

The plastics and packaging industry has opposed the bill, saying it would create more confusion for consumers, not less. An industry memo circulated among California lawmakers urges them to oppose the bill unless it is amended, arguing it “would create a new definition of recyclability with unworkable criteria for complex products and single use packaging.”

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