Can I recycle that?

Tens of thousands of Americans call on the FTC to prohibit the use of the word "recyclable," the chasing arrows recycling symbol, or other statements that imply a product is recyclable on products that cannot be recycled.

Gorlov Studio |
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Everyone knows what chasing-arrows on a piece of single-use plastic packaging means: The product is recyclable. 

Well, maybe. It depends. 

Those chasing-arrows are usually accompanied by a number, and those numbers tell you what kind of plastic the material is made of. Whether an item is actually recyclable depends on which types of plastic are accepted for recycling in your local community. Some kinds of plastic can be recycled in most places, and some cannot.

Currently, no law prohibits producers from using the symbol on non-recyclable materials, and as a result, many products that cannot be recycled come stamped with the chasing arrows symbol, easily misleading consumers. 

So, really, the chasing arrows don’t mean that a product is recyclable after all.

But if a piece of plastic packaging advertises in plain words that it is “recyclable,” or “widely recyclable,” well then you know that it is recyclable, right?

Well, again, maybe. It depends. A new “widely recyclable” label was created by the plastics industry, and this label makes it look like certain plastics can be recycled when the reality is that many of them aren’t accepted in most community recycling programs. 

In the United States, only about 5 percent of plastic is recycled. Most ends up in the landfill, littering our streets, or polluting our waterways and oceans. 

An estimated 13 million tons of plastic waste reaches the ocean every year, which is the equivalent to a dump truck every minute. Over time, these items can break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. As a result, scientists have discovered plastic pollution in every corner of the globe, from the Mariana Trench to Mount Everest. They’ve also found microplastics in our food, our beverages, and inside our bodies, potentially exposing us to hazardous compounds and additives. By one estimate, we each eat a credit card’s worth of plastic every single week (you read that right).

Clearly, we need to move away from using so much single-use plastic, especially plastic that can’t be recycled. Nothing we use for a few minutes should harm public health and pollute our environment for hundreds of years.

We need companies to make less disposable stuff in the first place. We also need them to start using recycled materials to create their products, and ensure those products are designed to be recycled back into new products at the end of their life. But we first need transparency to help drive this shift. Right now, it is impossible for the marketplace to reward good actors and avoid bad actors if consumers are duped.

The Federal Trade Commission is currently updating its “Green Guides,” which are designed to help marketers avoid making environmental claims that mislead consumers. This is an opportunity for the agency to set the standard for what kinds of claims are acceptable and what kinds of claims should be considered misleading. That’s why we submitted more than 52,000 comments from Americans all across the country calling on the FTC to take the common sense step of prohibiting the use of the word “recyclable,” the chasing arrows recycling symbol, or other statements that imply a product is recyclable unless the item can actually be recycled.

Consumers want to make good choices for the environment and drive companies to do the same, but we first need accurate information to do so. The FTC should support truth in labeling and update the Green Guides to prevent the continued use of misleading recyclability claims.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG