Quick poll: You know the little numbers on the bottom of plastic containers? Which ones are okay to put in the recycling bin?

If you said “1s and 2s,” we hate to break it to you. That was a trick question!

Rest assured, there’s good reason for our collective confusion about those little numbers (it’s not just you!). We’ve been led to believe they are a helpful shortcut for determining if something is recyclable, but that’s only sometimes true. So, why are they there? What do they mean? And what is the best way to know if something will be recycled?

Read on to find out.

The Advent of Modern Recycling

It seems unthinkable now, but in the mid-1980s no one was thinking about recycling plastics. There was no infrastructure for recycling like we have today – no trucks picking recyclables up and no material recovery facilities (MRF) to sort them. Even if we had wanted to recycle plastics back then, it was costly, inefficient, and, frankly, cheaper to make plastics from virgin materials. So where did the notion of recycling plastics come from? From the plastics industry!

It’s true. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, use of plastics was on the rise. Things that had traditionally been made of paper (like grocery bags) were being converted to plastic and it was worrying environmentalists. There was talk of bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam because of concerns over litter and the growing amount of trash we were producing. (Doth history repeat itself, or merely rhyme? ????)

To redirect the narrative, the plastics industry began running ads on the virtues of plastics and heavily promoted the idea of plastics recycling. It was a great concept and a shrewd move by the plastics industry. Consumers felt good about buying plastics because they believed they were making an environmentally friendly choice. Everyone started to believe that it was only a matter of time before all plastics would be recyclable. Even Greenpeace and other environmental groups jumped aboard the plastics recycling barge (so to speak).

Modern recycling was born.

The Resin Identification Code

You might be wondering where the numbers come in. Well, in order to build interest in and infrastructure for plastics recycling, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), the trade organization for plastics producers, had to develop a way to identify plastics so that they could be sorted efficiently. Enter, the numbering system. [SPI is now known as the Plastics Industry Association, or PLASTICS.]

The numbers on the bottom of nearly every plastic container and package we touch are known in the industry as resin identification codes (RIC). Each number (1-7) represents the kind of resin used in the manufacturing of a product or package. They do not indicate whether something is recyclable.

Note the toothpaste tube under HDPE. While HDPE, PET, and PP all have consistent markets in MA, not everything made from those resins can be recycled. Flexible plastics like tubes have a different melting point than rigid containers, which makes them undesirable in the recycling. When in doubt, ask yourself: Is this a bottle, jar, jug, or tub? And of course, check the Recyclopedia.

A Triangle of Chasing Arrows ♻️

And yet, many of us believe that the RIC is shorthand for “recycle this!” It’s no surprise we’re all confused. The issue is that those little numbers (which do serve a purpose) are wrapped up in the very recognizable international recycling symbol, a triangular logo comprised of three clockwise “chasing arrows,” also known as a Möbius loop. And that symbol definitely gives the impression that something should be recycled.

So then why include the chasing arrows if the code is only meant to identify the type of resin? According to a 1993 white paper produced by the SPI and the National Recycling Council, the arrows “helped to indicate that the container was potentially recyclable.” It was a subtle, yet intentional message, developed at a time when there was little to no plastic recycling. Unfortunately, the operative word – potentially – was lost on most consumers. It just doesn’t jive with what we’re seeing, which is very clearly the recycling symbol. [reference]

It’s the Law

At this point, you’re probably wondering why we still use the RIC with the chasing arrows if it doesn’t mean that something is recyclable. The reason: It’s the law. Thirty-six states still require the use of the RIC on certain plastic containers, and the laws spell out how the symbol should look (including this language found in Mass General law Chapter 94 Section 323A: Such code shall consist of a number placed within a triangle of arrows and letters placed below the triangle of arrows.) According to a story on Planet Money from 2020, those laws were the result of lobbying by the plastics industry. Conversations with lawmakers apparently did not include environmental groups, who considered the use of the chasing arrows a problem.

As far back as 1994, SPI and the National Recycling Council acknowledged that the symbol was causing confusion. Notably: “The code lacks technical specificity. Sometimes plastic resins coded with the same number cannot be recycled together; and consumers are misinterpreting the chasing arrows. Not all local recycling programs accept materials with the chasing arrows.” While there were discussions about improving the code or eliminating it 30 years ago, it didn’t happen. We are still dealing with the confusion because few states have repealed their laws. [reference]

Greenwashing

Greenwashing: the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is. Some manufacturers claim their products are 100% recyclable just because of their resin codes. This is despite having no practical evidence that a material recovery facility can properly sort them out, or that plastics recyclers can efficiently and economically recycle those products. Examples include the plastic insulation in food delivery boxes, toothpaste tubes, and the blue garbage bags marketed as “recycling bags.” While those products may be 100% PET or HDPE and recyclable in a lab (or “potentially” recyclable at the curb in some places), they are not recyclable in typical recycling programs today.

Misleading claims of product recyclability are not limited to the resin codes on plastics. Greenwashing abounds in labels claiming products are “eco-friendly” or “all natural,” and in corporate sustainability goals that are never met. Further, it isn’t just plastic products making those claims. Paper products also have misleading labels sometimes.
Have you seen confusing labels? Let us know! If we are made aware of products making inaccurate claims about their recyclability, we will share that on social media.

Rethinking Recycling

All of this leads us to our main point: We need to rethink how we consider symbols and claims of recyclability on packaging. There are no magic numbers, no magic slogans. The best place to look for information about what can be recycled in Massachusetts is the Smart Recycling Guide and the Recyclopedia. The Smart Recycling Guide pictures common recyclable items and is pretty comprehensive. The Recyclopedia offers even more information.

We also need to reconsider our wishcycling habits. That is, the idea of putting something in the recycling with the hope that it is recyclable or with the belief that somewhere, someone will sort it out. We promise we’re not calling you out, we have ALL done that! ???? But, wishcycling is counterproductive. Not everything made of plastic is meant to be recycled nor can be. Read our January newsletter, All About Plastic, to better understand how recycling rules are made.

If you want to be mindful of your waste, your best bet is to consider the environmental impact of what you’re purchasing. When it comes to packaging, refuse it, or consider refillable options. Take the extra effort to repair, donate, gift, or find a recycler whenever possible. And if you need to put something in the trash, that’s okay!

Truth in Labeling

If all this talk about poor labeling is frustrating you, you are not alone! The good news is that there are states pushing back on false claims of recyclability. Last summer, Connecticut’s Attorney General, William Tong, sued Reynolds over claims that Hefty bags “falsely and deceptively marketed Hefty ‘Recycling Bags’ despite full knowledge that their bags were incompatible with recycling facilities in Connecticut. In fact, these ‘recycling’ bags are no more recyclable than any other Hefty garbage bag product.”

In October 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law “The Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials” bill, SB 343. The law “targets inaccurate and misleading product labeling to eliminate confusion about which plastics are recyclable and which are not.” The law goes into effect Jan 1, 2024, and raises hopes for better recycling labels across the US come 2024.

For our part, Recycle Smart MA is dedicated to sharing accurate information about recycling in MA. Our goal has always been to educate the public about what can and cannot go in the recycling because we don’t want to burn or bury materials that are valuable feedstock for the circular economy.

We Can Recycle More!

Did you know that nearly 40% of what Massachusetts residents and businesses send to landfills and incinerators is recyclable? That includes cardboard, paper, plastic beverage bottles, glass containers, and aluminum and metal cans – the easy stuff! The truth is, we have a long way to go to improve our recycling of the “core” materials. And though we can’t recycle everything, we can certainly recycle more, so please continue to recycle 100% of what can be recycled and follow us to stay up to date on all things recycling in Massachusetts.

Transparency is important. We hope that by understanding that a lot of what we purchase is NOT recyclable, residents will consider different packaging options, or refusing unnecessary packaging altogether. We want you to feel good about what you put in the recycling bin, because recycling is worth it!

This post was republished from the May 22, 2023 issue of the Recycle Smart newsletter, an initiative of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

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