How the recycling symbol lost its meaning

Despite “fix-it” legislation, California’s plastic reduction laws are still not tough enough, and strong laws remain difficult to pass and enforce. One troublesome trend is the introduction of bad legislation with vague language that effectively enables plastic and fossil fuel lobbyists to water down the state’s plastic reduction regulations.

Recently introduced by Senator Ben Allen (D-CA-24) in California, SB 1231 proposes to “fix” California’s “Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act” (SB 54). But in reality the rule would provide “a huge new loophole that the plastics industry and other packaging industries can drive a semi-truck of plastic pollution through,” as pointed out by experts at The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics.

SB 1231 would allow plastic producers—instead of the state only, as originally designated—to identify and petition plastic products as “recyclable.” While touted by lawmakers, some nonprofit organizations, and the media as the nation’s “toughest” set of rules aimed at regulating plastic packaging and single-use plastic foodware to date, it’s already clear SB 54 misses the mark. But adding another loophole to legislation already full of gaps allows for continued plastic pollution and production by giving more power to the very industry the law needs to regulate.

California Policy Loopholes Enable Plastic Industry to Pollute

If SB 1231 passes, it will provide no guardrails or process for CalRecycle, the state organization tasked with enforcing SB 54, to determine whether they grant the industry’s petitions for “recyclable” status for plastic items that may not actually be recyclable. It also delays implementation of Senator Allen’s “Accurate Recycling Labels” SB 343 law which directs CalRecycle to publish data about the types of materials actually recycled in California

SB 1231 would also expand loopholes that would further delay requirements for accurate recyclability labeling, and weaken reporting of chemical additives in materials collected for recycling. These are serious mistakes, given the urgency of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts—and serious threats to public and environmental health. 

SB 54 requires that producers of single-use packaging make sure 100% of single-use packaging and plastic food service ware sold in California is recyclable or compostable by 2032. By that time, the law also stipulates that 65% of single-use plastic packaging and food service ware is recycled, along with a 25% reduction of sales of single-use plastic packaging and food service ware. But plastic was not designed to be recycled, and plastic that is collected for recycling rarely gets a second life as plastic items. Instead, plastic “recycling” is more likely to be landfilled, incinerated, or shipped to the Global South, driving pollution and injustice. Given the plastic industry’s track record for perpetuating misinformation about plastic recycling, it does not make sense to give plastic makers the responsibility of designating plastic items’ recyclability status. 

SB 54 is masked as an “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) law, which is typically designed to hold industry accountable for the production, use, sale, and pollution of their wasteful single-use packaging. Designed as a law full of loopholes and giving a key role to the very industry it sets out to regulate, SB 54 is a law that continues to perpetuate the problem that it could help end—plastic pollution. 

SB 54 and its loopholes undermine the potential enactment of stronger reduction laws, as well as the real plastic-free reuse and refill solutions we need to stop plastic pollution at the source. Already, much evidence of the failure of California’s efforts to recycle plastic exist, including its imposition of non-recyclable plastic waste inaccurately deemed “recyclable” illegally on Mexico. This waste colonialism drives massive pollution and injustice in communities burdened with California’s trash. SB1231 is likely to make this problem worse by reducing standards on what plastic is considered “recyclable.”

It is no surprise that plastics lobbyist organizations, like the American Chemistry Council, are supporting SB 1231. This is the same plastics lobbyist organization that is suing the California State Attorney General to block the State’s subpoena in the plastic recycling fraud investigation. SB 1231 has now moved through the CA Senate to come before the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

SB 54 Needs Improvements—Not More Loopholes

Shortly after SB 54 was passed in June 2022, a committee was formed to review the law and draft the SB 54 Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act Permanent Regulations, published on March 8, 2024, and opened to a public comment period, which ended on May 8, 2024. 

At that time, many organizations, including Californians Against Waste, NRDC, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Surfrider signed on to individual and joint comment letters that were submitted to CalRecycle. Many of the comments identified in SB 54 problematically vague definitions of “recycling” and “chemical recycling,” weak regulatory language, and emphasized the need for clearer language with more focus on non-toxic reusable, refillable, returnable solutions. Many comments also focused on how SB 54 needs to clearly establish how an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam ban will be enforced when the target mandates are not met. 

Another major concern pointed out by these and other groups is lack of clarity about how CalRecycle will oversee the industry-led producer responsibility organization delegated by the law to implement SB 54’s extended producer responsibility requirements. Again, this strategy only gives a key position to an industry that has a poor track record of self-regulation, and is supposed to be regulated by the law.

Many organizations and businesses have shown their support to stop the latest loophole bill from passage by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Together they point out how SB 1231:

  • Establishes a new big loophole authorizing companies to petition CalRecycle for an exception to the SB 54 recyclable characterization, and requires that CalRecycle must respond in 60 days.
  • Seeks to delay implementation of the SB 343 Truth in Labeling Law from 18 months to 24 months. This just gives producers 6 more months to mislead the public. The SB 343 legislation was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 5, 2021, with a label removal date of Fall 2024, so the producers will already have had 3 years to remove false recyclability labels. They don’t need another 6 months. In fact, many companies are already removing the false labels. 
  • As currently written, the law will not achieve the laudable goals of reducing plastic pollution, nor will it mitigate the climate and pollution impacts of single-use packaging. 

It’s clear there are many existing gaps in SB 54, and SB 1231 would only further weaken this already lackluster state legislation. By contrast, we know that the most effective types of EPR legislation hold polluters accountable by requiring specific cuts in plastic production; in addition to setting strong standards for plastic recyclability, such as removing recyclability labels from impossible-to-recycle plastic items and increasing recycled content; and eliminating toxic substances in products. 

Legislators and the plastics/products industry lobbyists are using SB 54 as a preemption law that could stop any other bill or even enforcement of existing laws on plastics, according to Jan Dell, engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. Read here how the plastic recycling industry is trying to use SB54 as a way to stop the new bag law. The confusion continues on the local level all the way up to the state level, with city council members delaying enacting or even passing ordinances, believing that SB54 will take care of California’s plastic pollution problem.

Take Action

Recycling plastic is not the primary solution to plastic pollution. Instead, we need a reduction in plastic production, and establishment of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerative systems that end wastefulness at the source. What’s more, we need regulators to regulate polluters, and not allow polluters to regulate themselves. 

If you are an Environmental NGO or a CA Business and want to support the letter in Opposition of SB1231, please sign here.

We must convince government leaders to take a strong stance on effective legislation to end plastic pollution. Show your support for the U.S. Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023, which expands and improves upon earlier versions of the bill by tapping into proven solutions that will better protect impacted communities, reform our broken recycling system, and shift the financial burden of waste management off of municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of plastic pollution.

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Plastic “recycling” is a false solution to plastic pollution. How do we know this? Since the 1970s, businesses making and selling plastic, governments, and some organizations have overwhelmingly told the public that it is essential to recycle plastic. Recycling messages have been communicated to us across all types of media and in many different ways: in advertising campaigns, imprinted recycling symbols on plastic products, and much more. Yet, despite this major push for recycling plastic, plastic pollution and its toxic impacts continue to grow. There is plenty of evidence that plastic recycling is not only failing to live up to its promises, it is also making plastic pollution worse. In contrast, by focusing on plastic-free reuse, we can tap into a solution that ends wastefulness at the source.

Recycled Plastics Are Toxic

How can an activity we’ve been told is right actually be wrong? Turns out, plastics were never designed to be recycled. “The future of plastic is in the trash can,” one packaging industry executive said at a plastic industry meeting in 1956—not in the recycling bin. In other words, plastic was designed to be wasted, despite the heavy toll that its full existence—from the extraction of fossil fuels to plastic’s eventual disposal in landfills, incinerators, or the environment—has on people and the planet.

Plastics are Not “Circular”

Today, the plastic and fossil fuel industries continue to perpetuate the myth that plastics are recyclable by promoting the idea of “plastics circularity”—that plastics can somehow be reused endlessly without creating harmful costs. But this idea is false: Plastic recycling as it is today is harmful and cannot be considered “circular,” because plastic recycling processes continue to drive plastic pollution and its dangerous and toxic impacts—including the climate crisis, environmental injustice, chemical pollution, and more. And while we may need to engage in some kinds of recycling of the less toxic plastics we already have in order to mitigate plastic pollution, recycling on its own cannot be seen as the sole solution to plastic pollution. Instead, recycling must be coupled with a drastic reduction in plastic production in order to be more helpful than harmful. 

“Recycled” Plastics are Actually Downcycled

Additionally, even when plastics are recycled, they are most often “downcycled,” or made into items of lesser value and quality (like turning plastic water bottles into plastic fleece jackets or carpet fiber), and continue to cause considerable pollution. When collected for traditional “mechanical” recycling, plastics must be sorted by color and type, washed, and shredded up. These processes burn large amounts of fossil fuel energy–emitting chemicals and greenhouse gases, waste and contaminate water, and create microplastics and nanoplastics. The small plastic particles are then melted down, and manufacturers must mix in a large amount of newly made (virgin) plastic and/or toxic additives to restore some of its useful properties. Recycling increases the toxicity of plastic; there are hundreds of additional toxic chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals, in recycled plastic. And that’s in addition to the mix of more than 16,000 chemicals in newly made plastic.

“Recycled” Plastic is Not Suitable for Food and Beverage Packaging

The toxicity of plastic and recycled plastic presents serious dangers to the environment and public health, and drives environmental injustices. Research has indicated that recycled plastic is not suitable for many uses, particularly when it comes to packaging of food and beverages, as it contains a wide range of dangerous chemicals. Drink bottles made of recycled plastic are even more contaminated than drink bottles made of virgin (new) plastic, and these chemicals easily leach into the beverages they contain. 

Plastics Create Environmental Injustice

Today, most plastic that is discarded as “waste” is never recycled. The global waste industry is more likely to landfill, incinerate, or ship plastic—often to the Global South—where plastic is dumped and sometimes open-burned, driving pollution and injustice as waste colonialism. Meanwhile, these industries only continue to increase plastic production, worsening plastic pollution.

Communities near plastic recycling sorting centers, often called materials recovery facilities (MRFs), and recycling plants are often the most underserved, and face increased risks to their health. People who find employment by picking through plastic pollution as part of the informal waste sector, who often live in the Global South, face serious health hazards and poor working conditions. Plastic recycling infrastructure and activities can cause polluted air, soil, and drinking water; bring constant truck, train, or barge traffic as well as scavenger animals who are attracted to eating waste; and there are often fires or intake of radioactive and other hazardous materials.

Yet Industries Want to Make More Plastic

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and fossil fuel industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with plastic recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 

People are beginning to realize there is simply too much plastic on the planet. More than 10 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced globally to date, and plastic production has increased by more than 18,300 percent in the last 65 years alone. About 460 million metric tons of plastic are now produced annually, and without action, this number is expected to triple by the year 2050. Yet, less than 9% of all plastic ever made has been “recycled.” Recycling rates for other materials, which are fully recyclable, such as aluminum, glass, and paper, are far higher. (Though, for all materials, reuse should be prioritized over single-use, reducing the need for recycling altogether.)

Despite the world’s need for far less plastic, the plastic and fossil fuel industries only want to create more of it. This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling,” sometimes also called “chemical recycling,” to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably turning off the plastic tap. There is nothing advanced about melting down plastic with heat or chemicals to turn it into petrochemical products that are less likely to become plastic and more likely to become dirty fossil fuel energy.

These industries have invested massive funds into lobbying, campaigns, and activities promoting both mechanical and “advanced” recycling, especially among policymakers and investors. Essentially, these industries are trying to reframe the debate around plastic pollution by promoting recycling as an attempt to draw attention away from the real problem, which is plastic production. This strategy is a sneaky approach to continue ramping up plastic production, while seeming environmentally conscious. Some corporations and industry trade groups have gone so far as to form groups that sound like environmentally conscious organizations that outwardly advocate for plastic recycling. But behind the scenes, these groups try to block real solutions to plastic pollution through intensive lobbying and communications campaigns.

Take Action

Scientific experts, Indigenous knowledge holders, and frontline activists have made clear that it is necessary to drastically reduce plastic production to best protect the health of people and the planet. Fortunately, real solutions to plastic pollution already exist today.

You can take action by implementing and supporting plastic-free solutions in your own life, your community, and on wider systems levels. View our guides to learn how to go plastic-free at your home or school, in your community, at your business, or while on the go.

On a systems level, it’s time for policymakers to get serious about addressing plastic pollution and stop wasting time entertaining the plastic and fossil fuel industries’ false solutions. We need policymakers to curb plastics and fossil fuel production, support frontline communities, and implement just, equitable reuse solutions that end wastefulness at the source. Plastic recycling and other forms of greenwashing won’t help us solve plastic pollution. In fact, according to the waste management hierarchy, the first option to take should be to prevent and reduce waste through reuse. We can’t recycle our way out of this crisis, and we can’t afford for the dangerous deception of plastic recycling to be the focus of local or national policies, nor international agreements such as the UN Plastics Treaty. 

You can help reinforce systemic change and real solutions to plastic pollution by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders preparing to enter the final round of UN Plastics Treaty negotiations this November.

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Plastic Pollution Coalition was honored to be named on the 2017 be Waste Wise Pioneers List, an annual compilation by be Waste Wise that recognizes 30 organizations that are effectively sharing solutions to waste management and stories about their work.

PPC spoke with be Waste Wise co-founder Ranjith Annepu about the origins and methodology of the list and critical need for waste-wise communities. 

Tell us about why you co-founded be Waste Wise.

In 2013, I was at a sustainable development conference at the World Bank. They organized one of the best sessions on waste management I have ever been a part of. That day, in a single room, I was surrounded by so many world-class experts that I felt I was in a “black hole” of waste management expertise. Super excited about everything I heard and learned that day, I wished others like me who are searching for solutions to and through waste can also get lucky by being able to access such expertise. I talked about this with my friend Katrina Mitchell and that’s how be Waste Wise started. She and I co-founded it.

How do you decide on the be Waste Wise Pioneers list?

We started with our Twitter Waste Influencers list, which had 95 members on February 17, 2014. That list eventually grew to include 900 members in 2017. 

We look at four key metrics for all members from data which is publicly available. Our goal is to choose influencers who had high content quality, content quantity, and social media popularity. We then created separate lists for individual influencers and influential organizations. 

Specifically, we looked at four key metrics:

  • Follower-to-following ratio on Twitter – this is a measure of popularity, which reflects how connected, relevant or representative they are.
  • Average number of tweets per day – this is one way to measure how active an account is.
  • Social Authority score – this is a metric from Followerwonk that is highly correlated with the number of retweets an account gets. It measures quality of content shared.
  • Klout score – this metric from Klout is highly correlated with follower counts on all social networks. It is another measure of popularity, but across all social channels.
  • Separate lists of individuals, universities, and media organizations will be published soon too.

Why is it important for organizations to share solutions to the waste problem?

We talk about waste being a global challenge with local solutions, but our efforts in disseminating solutions do not reflect that. They are inadequate. Poor and inadequate information is widely available through short blog posts, no pay-wall websites, memes, and infographics on social media. Such information is easily consumed by the public and communicated passionately. However, knowledge about waste solutions is only available in lengthy PDFs, expensive and time-consuming conferences and behind pay walls. The number of waste professionals who communicate regularly about solutions can be counted on fingers. When a project fails due to inadequate information, we incur health and environmental damage, as well as economic and political costs. More importantly, we incur the opportunity cost to create change.

I organized and helped organize many conferences in the U.S. and India, and wrote a report, which was nearly 200 pages long. Those documents and events are very important for a diligent researcher or a waste consultant. However, not all decisions are made by us. They are made by a larger community of people – policy makers, government officials, businesses, and the public – who do not always have enough time or resources to study long reports or attend quality conferences. A few never learn about waste until it becomes a priority in their community. We have to complement the knowledge in reports and conferences with shorter, easily accessible, and more engaging formats of knowledge dissemination.

Sharing solutions is important but that’s not enough. We also have to create engaged communities. 

We have to share solutions consistently in order to create waste-wise communities and individuals who will recognize the importance of waste management and will be aware of their options. Change towards sustainable local solutions cannot happen without the involvement of this wider community.

When my colleagues and I began bringing together leading-edge professionals to engage with the wider community, we realized that there was no community. We do not have a global waste community because we are fragmented, regionally and sectorally. We have only one functioning global organization, one global magazine, and zero global companies. We are divided into composters/bio guys, landfillers, waste to energy guys, anti waste-to-energy guys, recyclers/zero-wasters, social mitigators, etc. This means that there isn’t much incentive to address waste management at a global scale. For us, this meant we had to simultaneously build a global community which engaged people around all types of waste solutions.

Engaged communities enhance the process of learning by providing opportunities for discussion and debate, as opposed to a person learning in isolation. Also, communities outlast individuals. Similarly, knowledge gained by communities outlast individual expertise and can lead to long-term change. Such learning and long-term change will provide us with the most efficient way to address the global waste challenge.

What are some things each of us can do to reduce our waste today?

All of us can REFUSE single-use plastics! Or even better, refuse single-use plastic after a week-long self-exploration with #trashonyourback 

Take the pledge to refuse single-use plastic

Read the facts about plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition. 

“If one of humankind’s desires has been to put its stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission.”

— Brian Thill, Waste

Waste is a global challenge that demands local solutions. Every Wednesday throughout June, Plastic Pollution Coalition and be Waste Wise are bringing together thought leaders on solutions to plastic pollution, one of humankind’s greatest contributions to the global waste stream, during the 4th Global Dialogue on Waste. The annual event explores the need of waste management in improving universal wellbeing.

The four-panel webinar discussions are curated by PPC co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen and be Waste Wise co-founder Ranjith Annepo, and moderated by Cohen:

Outer Space & Deep Oceans
June 8, 4 pm GMT/UTC
Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research, 5 Gyres Institute
Roz Savage, Ocean rower and environmental campaigner
Sourabh Kausha, Space explorer and INK Fellow

Man-made pollution has reached some of the farthest places on and off earth –deep oceans and outer space– which was unimaginable half-century ago.

View broadcast HERE.


Health Impacts of Plastic Pollution
June 15, 5 pm GMT/UTC
Abigail Barrows, Marine scientist, Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation
Dr. Arlene Bloom, Biophysical chemist, author and mountaineer
Stacy Malkan, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics co-founder

Improper waste management has numerous health impacts on humans and ecosystems. One such significant cause of health risk is plastic pollution. 

View the broadcast HERE.


Communications & Behaviour Change to Mitigate Plastic Pollution
June 24, 9 am GMT/UTC
Faye Christoforo, Post-Landfill Action Network
Jane Patton, Managing DirectorPPC

The issue of plastic pollution and improper waste management is out of sight and therefore out of mind for most people. 

View the broadcast HERE.


Plastic Pollution: Solutions, Alternatives & Innovation 
June 29, 2 pm GMT/UTC
Florian Hoffman, Founder of the DO School
Andrew Almack, Founder, Plastics for Change
Doug Woodring, Co-founder, Ocean Recovery Alliance
Asher Jay, Creative Conservationist and NatGeo Emerging Explorer

Plastic pollution and climate change are two of the biggest challenges facing current and future generations to which improper waste management contributes. 

Join the live broadcast HERE.


For more information, visit Global Dialogue on Waste.

Top photo: Phnom Penh landfill by Takemany Showfew via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND