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Unwrapping Recycling Symbols

The famous chasing arrows recycling symbol is a powerful tool when used properly. Unfortunately, the little arrows can sometimes lead us off course.

The arrows appear on everything from easily recycled materials like aluminum and cardboard to not-so-recyclable materials like insulation and clothing. The confusion is often linked to the fact that, in theory if not practicality, most materials are recyclable somewhere. But just because an item has the recycle symbol, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable everywhere.

Let’s take a look at the recycling symbol’s history and get the story straight on what is and isn’t recyclable.

What does recycling really mean?

We know that recycling is the act of converting waste into reusable material. So when we see the chasing arrows recycling symbol, it’s easy to assume that item can go in our recycling bin for collection and eventual reuse.

Some materials, like aluminum, can be recycled over and over again. Others, like paper and plastic, are not infinitely recyclable – but they can go through several uses.

But not all recyclable materials can go in our curbside collection bins and there are slightly different rules from city to city depending on their haulers and the varying contracts they have to sell that material.

For example, glass is recyclable. But: Here in Utah, you have to sort it separately from your normal curbside recyclables. Why?

In Salt Lake City, recyclable materials picked up through the City’s curbside program go to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF), where all of the different materials are sorted by type, and then bailed to be shipped to recycling facilities. Glass is recycled separately at Momentum Recycling’s local facility.

We separate glass because when mixed with other recyclable materials, glass can damage those materials and render them unrecyclable. By separating glass from other recycling, we help ensure that all of the recyclable materials end up in the right facilities.

Unfortunately, although all these materials, from glass to plastic bags to aluminum cans, often have a recycling symbol on them, there is no national legislation or standard around recycling labels and what is even considered “recyclable.” So why use the arrows at all? Let’s take a look at the origins of the recycling symbol!

Where does the symbol come from?

This year marked the 50th birthday of the recycle symbol. As part of the first Earth Day efforts in 1970, the Container Corporation of America sponsored a design contest for a symbol that could indicate recycling. The Container Corporation of America specialized in manufacturing cardboard boxes, and was eager to demonstrate their economic and environmentally conscious recycling abilities through modern graphic design. Gary Anderson won the prize after submitting the design we all recognize today.

The plastics numbering system – not as simple as it seems

As materials, especially plastics, started to evolve, a plastic numbering system (designating “resin codes”) became an important way to indicate what type of plastic a material was made from, and, in theory, how you could recycle it. Different types of plastic are labeled with different numbers (1 through 7).

These numbers formed the basis for how many people understood whether something was “recyclable.”

However, the numbering system is problematic.

What is misleading about the plastics number system is that it indicates what type of plastic resin a product is made of, not whether it’s “generally recyclable.”

And indeed there are even differences even between products labeled with the same number. For example, plastic #1 (PET, or Polyethylene terephthalate) includes readily-recyclable items such as water bottles and soft drink bottles. It also includes clamshells (the kind your berries come in, as well as many different types of product packaging), which are more difficult to recycle. Please note: Salt Lake City accepts all plastic #1’s including clamshells.

Indeed, as we’re learning, not all plastics are accepted in every recycling program due to different technologies at different recycling facilities, regional differences in market access and transportation costs, the ability for those facilities to find buyers for different types of material, and the overall cost to recycle various products (and how much a municipality is willing to pay to achieve that).

In Salt Lake City, plastic #1’s and #2’s are recycled through our local recycling facility.

A visual description of the items Salt Lake City accepts and does not accept in the curbside recycling containers.

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We also accept other #3-7 plastic containers as you can see in the graphic above and on our recycling website. For those #3-7’s that we can’t currently recycle (recycling is a market-based industry which changes frequently), we send these hard-to-recycle plastics to a Utah cement plant to be used as fuel feedstock. The ash is even used in the cement.

While energy recovery is not considered the “highest and best use” in the waste management world, it does have a place in the hierarchy. These materials are being used as an alternative to fossil fuels, and we’re committed to accepting and diverting as much material as possible from the landfill.

Recycling markets are always changing; technology is evolving; and we continue to seek out recycling opportunities for as many plastics and other products as possible. Stay tuned!

Confusing symbols

Have you ever had a package that didn’t seem recyclable but then saw it had the “chasing arrows” symbol on it? Every now and then, materials are completely mislabeled.

What is more common is to see materials that are labeled as, essentially, “Recyclable . . . if (big if) certain steps are taken first.

For example, the popular mail-order meal kits have recycling symbols all over their packaging, but they’re often made of soft plastics which cannot be recycled in your curbside container. And they often have liquid or other material stuffed inside. So the symbol is essentially saying “Recycle Me” (but first wash me out and take me to the grocery store where other plastic films are accepted).

The plastic packaging used to contain insulation material is recyclable IF you empty it’s contents into the garbage and take the plastic bag to a drop-off location.

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Unfortunately this confusing labeling means that municipal programs like ours see high rates of “contamination” when these items are placed in our curbside containers.

Ashley, one of our recycling education team members, recently walked through what steps need to be taken to recycle meal kit packaging properly.

What’s even more confusing is the list of recycling symbols that mean something slightly different.

Images like the Tidyman (above left), just encourage us to think about where the item ends up. A recycle symbol contained in a circle (above right) indicates that some or all of the item is made from recycled materials. The “Green Dot” (bottom) expresses that the company participates in recovery and recycling programs.

With such a wide variety of symbols to look out for, it’s hard not to feel frustrated by recycling. We hear you.

So, what to do with all of this confusing information?

One answer is simple: if you’re just wondering what you can put in your home- or work-based recycling container, simply check the website of your municipality or waste hauler. They’ll tell you what is and isn’t recyclable in their program. Then utilize other specialized recycling resources to go above and beyond.

Ultimately, we can also take a closer look at the materials we use every day to ensure that we are diverting recyclables correctly. And thankfully, a “How 2 Recycle” label is becoming more popular. The label features instructions to help consumers do the right thing.

A useful recycling explanation from a cereal box. This recycle guide indicates that the paperboard box is recyclable and that if the plastic bag is clean and dry it can be taken to a grocery store plastic bag drop-off location. https://how2recycle.info/labels

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Recycling in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is dedicated to recycling. Despite changes in the market, we’re actively working to create a recycling system that results in high quality materials at a lower cost. This year, a new Materials Recovery Facility is opening that will improve the value of material and increase the amount that can be processed.

There are many ways to recycle here in Salt Lake City:

Our Waste & Recycling Division’s education team provides us with helpful tips and resources via Instagram. Check out this recycling audit for information about what can and can’t go in your curbside bin!

It is worth it to go the extra mile for recycling. Of course, the best way to avoid confusion is to start by reducing the amount of packaged goods you purchase. You can also help encourage businesses and companies to shift to more sustainable materials.

But when it’s time to throw something away, remember to check whether it is recyclable or compostable. The City currently recycles or composts 42% of the waste collected from residents. Our goal is to reach 50% in the next several years.

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