Chasing Arrows

COMMENTARY-According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law, by 2050 worldwide plastic production fueled by the fracking boom in the U.S. will have a greenhouse gas impact on the planet equivalent to 615 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants operating at full capacity. 

Only 9% of these plastics are currently recycled. 

The problem 

We in California pride ourselves on our progressive environmentalism but less than 15 percent of our single-use plastic is recycled. Too much still ends up in our landfills, littering our streets or polluting our rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

Until 2018, the United States sent 4,000 shipping containers full of waste to China each and every day. When China and other countries refused to accept American garbage, it caused the markets for plastic packaging that was previously considered “recyclable” to collapse. 

Sending two-thirds of its potentially recyclable mixed plastic waste to third-world countries kept it out of California landfills and artificially inflated recycling rates. And much of what was exported ended up being incinerated or dumped in overseas landfills anyway. 

The Los Angeles Sanitation department’s recycling went from being a profit center to becoming a drain on their bottom line. 

Other cities and municipalities across the state are struggling to find alternate solutions but the financial and environmental costs of garbage will soon start to impact consumers exponentially. 

A step forward 

We need to move away from plastic entirely. 

A tentacle of the petroleum industry developed and marketed a new need for consumers of cheap disposables and then developed a product to fill it. Created from carbon fuels using more carbon fuels, it is now a significant component of global warming as well as continually adding toxins to our air and water and piling up in our landfills. 

Because of its profitability and the power of its lobbyists on all levels of government, the industry has avoided scrutiny and oversight for far too long. 

It will not be easy and until we can wrestle this profit center back into the ground, we need to ensure as many of their products as possible are reusable or recyclable with a robust market for the latter. But that's almost impossible when there is no easy way to sort what is and isn't realistically recyclable. 

At present, no law prohibits producers from using the well-known chasing arrows symbol on non-recyclable materials. As a result, some producers indiscriminately use the symbol to intentionally mislead consumers into purchasing their products. 

Allowing manufacturers to continue lying on their packaging is a betrayal of their customers trust – we all want to do the best we can to protect our world – and increases the costs of recycling by having to pull these products from the heap and dispose of them. 

Requiring manufacturers to be honest about the recyclability of their items will help end consumer confusion and ensure that the recycling process actually works. 

Almost every piece of plastic has the chasing arrows impression whether recyclable or not. While they help waste facilities to properly sort plastics, most consumers simply see the chasing arrows and assume that a product can be recycled. 

Plastics made from resins 4, 6, and 7 need to be removed from a manufacturer's supply list because they are not recyclable. 

Furthermore, the symbol impressed in the resin is often so small that it is difficult to make out the number even when consumers are aware and try to act on that fact. Or if there is one at all. 

It's time for more truth and clarity when it comes to recycling. 

Truth in Environmental Advertising 

As a matter of public policy, California intends consumers to have accurate and useful information about the environmental impact of plastic products. 

Despite pressure from the lobbyists for the plastics and packaging industries, state lawmakers have just approved SB-343 which will significantly reduce consumer confusion about what materials are suitable for the blue recycling bin. 

The bill expands and clarifies existing laws that prohibit the use of the word “recyclable” or use of the chasing arrows symbol or any other suggestion that a material is recyclable unless that product truly meets stronger criteria for statewide recyclability and is routinely sold to manufacturers to make new products. 

It requires all environmental marketing claims to be truthful and accurate in conveying to consumers how to dispose of plastic products and make it a misdemeanor to misuse the chasing arrows symbol. 

The bill builds on existing legislation that all such marketing must adhere to uniform and recognized standards, and that any claims, explicit or implied, must be substantiated by competent and reliable evidence to prevent deceiving or misleading consumers. 

The bill has now been proofed, finalized, and printed before going to the governor for signature. And, with the failure of the recall, it is less than likely to languish on what shall remain Newsom’s desk. 

Once implemented, CalRecycle (California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) will publish a list of acceptable materials that may continue to have the chasing arrows symbol on its website.  

You, too 

Clarity will help consumers do their part – we have already passed laws to ban single use plastic bags in grocery stores – but there is still much that can and needs to be done. 

For example, recycling centers can't sort any plastic bags, plastic films, or other thin-plastic materials because they bind up the machinery. Go back to the old way and drop them off in the dedicated bin at your supermarket. 

The City of Los Angeles must provide new decals for their blue pails that tell consumers they CANNOT recycle flimsy plastic and all items 1 through 7. Ensuring only really recyclable items with the chasing arrows go in our blue bins along with clean paper and cardboard would reduce costs for recycling centers. 

Once consumers see how much CANNOT be recycled, they need to double down and demand companies who for decades have claimed their products are "recyclable" but are not, are required to change their ways or face severe penalties. More durable plastics are ONLY the answer if they don’t contain other components making recycling uneconomical, and if they are manufactured from materials that truly have an after-use California market. 

Consumers should also demand development of take-out containers that are really reusable rather than the Styrofoam clamshells and plastic boxes that have to be tossed because their food residues would reduce the value of recyclable paper and cardboard. 

Call on companies to radically reduce packaging as well as making it more eco-friendly. 

Fifty years ago, the grape boycott changed the lives of California farmworkers; a boycott of the manufacturers of shoddy, unrecyclable products would create a market disincentive and reward those companies that produce more eco-friendly goods.


(Liz Amsden is an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.