The “chasing arrows” symbol has been ubiquitous since its introduction in the late 1980’s. Consumers interpret packaging bearing the symbol as recyclable, but according to CalRecycle, the state agency with authority over recycling and waste management, whether a material is accepted for recycling and actually recycled is often dependent on geographic location. In other words, just because something is capable of being recycled and is labeled with chasing arrows does not guarantee it will be accepted for recycling in a particular area.
Two years ago, the California Legislature addressed potential consumer confusion over recyclability claims by passing Senate Bill 343, which restricts the use of the chasing arrows symbol and other recyclability claims to specific circumstances. To make a recyclability claim, the new law requires that the material must be both:
- Collected for recycling by area recycling programs that collectively encompass at least 60 percent of the population of the state; and
- Sorted into defined streams for recycling by processing facilities, that collectively serve at least 60 percent of recycling programs statewide.
The law directed CalRecycle to conduct a survey and prepare a report by January 1, 2024, regarding what materials meet these criteria. CalRecycle recently released its “SB 343 Material Characterization Study Preliminary Findings.”
The CalRecycle study has been widely anticipated by businesses seeking to plan product and packaging lines and labelling while complying with the new law. Instead of simply listing what types of material may be labelled recyclable, however, the study breaks up the two criteria above into multiple tables. This may create more confusion among businesses.
Nonetheless, the CalRecycle study is a useful tool and gives much needed direction and lessens the ambiguity left in the wake of the law’s passage. For example, the study found that 95 percent of the state’s population accepts various glass containers and aluminum cans for recycling, but that various plastic bag material types (including those designed for reuse, such as shopping bags) are only accepted for recycling by 25-30 percent of the population. Glass containers and aluminum cans may therefore be labelled with the chasing arrows symbol, but most plastic bags cannot. Other common materials that meet the threshold include:
- Aluminum foil
- Tin/Steel aerosol containers
- Uncoated corrugated cardboard
- Bottles made of PET, HDPE or LDPE plastic resin
- Clamshell containers made of PET plastic resin
Other materials and items that may be perceived as recyclable do not meet criteria for labelling with the chasing arrows symbol because, as the CalRecycle study finds, they are not collected for recycling by area recycling programs that collectively encompass at least 60 percent of California’s population. These include egg cartons made of paper fiber, gable top cartons such as milk boxes and fiber-based food service ware such as napkins, paper cups and take-out containers. The study is preliminary, with the final report to come around mid-April, after a public comment period and hearing has taken place. We are closely monitoring this issue, the public’s reaction and CalRecycle’s response.