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The Chasing Arrows Recycling Logo – The Biggest Greenwash Label of Them All?

Tom Szaky | Thursday March 11th, 2010 | 6 Comments

In recent years, after the initial honeymoon of broader consumer interest in all things green, it’s now settled squarely in the space of “prove it to me.” Yet proving something’s greenness, sustainability, fair trade status, organic certification, carbon footprint has resulted in a dust storm of competing certifications, labels, very few of which are gaining traction with the public as credible or recognizable. For all they know, the company could be making it up, doing it themselves, or something similarly “greenwashy”.

And yet, right under our nose is perhaps the most deceptive label of all: the chasing arrows “recycling” symbol.

You know, the triangular shaped graphic with the number 1 to 7 inside. Much like labeling a fruit cholesterol free, it has become at best largely meaningless and at worst deceptive. What am I talking about? The fact that for the majority of categories, 3 and beyond generally, most recyclers don’t process them.

Yes, technically, somebody somewhere may recycle these materials. But in our cash strapped, lower demand for recycled materials market, there’s just not the incentive and ability to do so.

But companies, whether consciously or unconsciously, are allowing you to continue thinking your buying a product from a company that is more ecologically conscious than it is. And that’s damaging, in a few different ways: Directly to the recycling processors who have to spend countless hours either manually sorting through what comes to them, or missing the materials that are of a different kind than their system handles.

Sooner or later, the general public will become aware of this lack of recycling happening, and will have even more distrust for supposed green products and product claims.

What can be done about this? A few things: Be clear on the packaging, right on or near the logo that this category of material may be less likely to be recyclable. Or even simpler, remove the chasing arrows part of the graphic, with only the number remaining. It’s definitely a useful classification tool for product producers and recyclers, but the arrows are for the most part useless.

Will companies protest? Probably. It’s an easy way to look greener without doing anything different. Tough, I say, take the time to make a product that is either truly more sustainable, or be honest and let your product stand on its other merits. In the end it will be more beneficial to all, whether it’s people’s perception of your integrity, money and time saved on the recycler end, and ultimately, companies exploring creating more packaging that is more likely to actually be recycled.

You can do it. We’re counting on you. Do you see any other ways to address this faux recycling issue?


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  • http://twitter.com/JunkkMale JunkkMale

    Good post. We seem in an era where just saying (or creating yet another 'initiative' around) something is conflated with it a) being good, and b) getting done to any measure of enviROI+

    I care… a lot. But I have to say most of these symbols, even when visible, just wash over me now. Especially as there seem about a dozen a day launched with great fanfare.

    I can only wonder what might be achieved with the design, comms and PR budgets these box-ticking efforts consume.

    • uk recycling

      It seems the ins and out of recycling plastic materials are not fully understood – along with the complexities and costs involved.

      The simple fact that the UK plastic recycling industry is not as standardised in such a way as paper – leads to difficulties that other more pro-active countries do not encounter.

      In fact most plastics can be recycled and re-used it is the fact that it is very difficult to recognise these different grades in their different forms and that they are not pro-actively separated to enable their effective recycling.

      As an example the HDPE milk bottle used in the UK typically has a different polymer label and cap which require a different recycling process and are both worth a different value or are for use in a different process or product.

      The initiative needs to start from the top – ie Government implemented otherwise the only people interested in recycling are the ones looking to make money out of it.

  • mcoc

    Tom: There's a much bigger fallacy about recycling that you're not calling out. And that's the notion that most recyclable packaging that is “recycled” is actually recycled. In the case of most plastics, recycling doesn't happen. Rather, the material is turned into something else (fleece, lumber, etc), and virgin material is used to replace it. This is the case for most (all?) plastics used in food packaging.

  • nickaster

    I think we should also add the fact that many products are made of a combination of things, and may in fact have more than one of these labels. Often this stuff gets thrown into a recycling bin and contaminates the whole process.

  • mcoc

    Tom: There's a much bigger fallacy about recycling that you're not calling out. And that's the notion that most recyclable packaging that is “recycled” is actually recycled. In the case of most plastics, recycling doesn't happen. Rather, the material is turned into something else (fleece, lumber, etc), and virgin material is used to replace it. This is the case for most (all?) plastics used in food packaging.

  • nickaster

    I think we should also add the fact that many products are made of a combination of things, and may in fact have more than one of these labels. Often this stuff gets thrown into a recycling bin and contaminates the whole process.

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