Illustration by Beatrice Sala

In the United States, the presence of the universal recycling icon on a product might lead an unassuming consumer to believe that when they toss that item in a recycling bin, it will find its way to fulfill another material function somewhere along the supply-chain. We’re taught to believe this process repeats ad infinitum—as the Möbius-arrows of the recycling symbol suggest. 

Yet most of us know it doesn’t really work that way. Few of us know how it works, or if it ever really works at all. As more reports and photos come to light, detailing the trash-polluted expanses of Earth, a growing number of people are learning that the circular dream of the universal recycling icon is typically not circular at all. In fact, it actually has an end point, and that end point is often the stomach of a marine animal, a toxic land-fill, or perhaps even our own drinking water

In its design, the message of the recycling symbol is an ecological one, yet the reality of the system that the symbol has come to represent is so ill-equipped to handle plastic (less than 10% of plastic has been recycled in the last 40 years) and mitigate material waste that the icon’s presence on a package has become virtually meaningless. In recent years organizations like How2Recycle and Recycle Across America have introduced new labeling systems for both products and recycling bins that aim to help consumers (and brands) take more responsibility over their recycling habits. But those efforts come with a serious caveat: Even the best communication design isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to something as complicated as recycling. Well-designed labeling can bridge the information gap between consumer and producer, but it can also act as a way for brands to deflect responsibility while they continue to develop products and packaging that are complicated to recycle.

A 23-year-old design student named Gary Anderson first designed the universal recycling symbol in 1970, during the US’s first major shift towards environmental marketing. While studying for his Masters degree, Anderson designed the symbol for a contest held by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) in celebration of the first ever Earth Day. It won, and CCA promoted the symbol so much that by the time they attempted to trademark it their claim was challenged due to the symbol’s popularity. Remaining in the public domain, the symbol’s free-use allowed it to spread and become “universal.”  In a 2012 profile in Financial Times, Anderson said, “Maybe this design is a bigger part of my life’s contribution than I had thought but still, I’d hate to think that my life’s work is defined by it,” revealing a hesitation to embrace his legacy–a hesitation that in retrospect may have been prudent. 

Today, the recycling symbol is found on millions of products, from glass to plastic to paper, but the regulations around who can deploy the symbol have remained relatively lax. “Most people use [the recycling symbol] totally wrong,” says Victor Bell, President of Environmental Packaging International (EPI).  For the last 20 years, EPI has consulted for a number of international brands and retail corporations such as Walmart on the “recyclability” claims of their products. “It is very poorly enforced and there are so many recycling labels out there that people use that are deceptive according to the FTC,” Bell continues. 

In 1992 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) developed its Green Guides as a way of instructing marketers on how to clearly communicate and qualify all “environmental marketing claims.” In the most recent 2012 revision, this includes claims regarding recyclability, compostability, carbon offsetting, renewable energy, recycled content, degradability, etc. The goal of the guides is to protect consumers from deceptive marketing and greenwashing by companies looking to capitalize on perceived environmentalism.

According to the Green Guides, the presence of the recycling symbol on any product is a direct indication that the product, in its totality, can be recycled by at least 60% of communities where the product is sold. A plastic juice bottle sold at Whole Foods may be recyclable in New York and California, for example, but if it can’t be recycled in at least 60% of the communities where that Whole Foods juice is sold, that bottle cannot be called recyclable, and it shouldn’t display the symbol. 

But it’s not that simple. The clarity of the recyclability icon is muddled by the plastic resin identification coding system (RIC), which was introduced in 1988. Briefly explained, the RIC shows up on plastic packaging as numbers one through seven that sit inside the chasing arrows symbol. Though the numbers can be used by a consumer to interpret whether or not a plastic can be recycled in their area, consumers shouldn’t interpret the presence of RIC as an indication that a product can absolutely be recycled. In truth, the RIC system isn’t designed for consumers at all—it’s  a communication tool meant for waste facilities to help them properly sort the different types of plastics found in consumer products. Confusing, right? While recycling has little legal regulation in most states, RIC numbers (with the chasing arrows) are legally required to be put on plastic containers larger than 8oz. and under five gallons in 39 states, leaving producers with the choice of “violating” FTC regulations or actually breaking the law. There have been efforts to change the RIC arrows into a solid triangle to avoid this confusion, but RIC with the arrows continued to be used widely. 

While the FTC does not publicly discuss enforcement efforts regarding violations of the green guides, Bell suggests that there is little investigation into violations of recyclability claims. Companies can more or less get away with slapping the symbol on their packaging, regardless of how recyclable the material actually is. “There’s really no challenges to it,” says Bell. “There really needs to be a crackdown on poor labelling.” For now, the FTC’s green guides are not legal requirements; choosing to communicate recyclability is voluntary. While there is legislation being discussed in New York, Maine, Oregon and Washington to create more effective enforcement of recyclability claims, California is currently the only state where serious action can be taken, as was seen with the 2019 ruling against Keurig.

All of this confusion has led to some important efforts around designing a better recycling label. In 2008, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an organization made up of different brands and retailers, created the How2Recycle project as an effort to design a more legible and effective visual system for recycling. Formally launching in 2012, How2Recycle is a trademarked label design that builds upon the classic icon in hopes that it might impact consumer recycling behavior. “We boil down the complicated packaging specifications into as few words and actions as possible, while still encouraging best recycling practices,” says Lauren Rowell, project manager at How2Recycle. “Consumers learn beneficial habits over time, while not feeling overwhelmed by the greater, more complicated industry around recycling.” 

“We boil down the complicated packaging specifications into as few words and actions as possible.”

The uniform labels are deliberately utilitarian, as to remove all possibility of error. “Simplicity of design was a key consideration. We chose to use clean, bold text in the iconic Helvetica to blend with brands’ varying aesthetics but also maximize readability,” Rowell explains.  The label has four levels of communication: type of material, how to prepare the material for recycling ( i.e. if it needs rinsing), language around if an item can be recycled universally, or locally, or at all, and the parts of the product that are recyclable. It’s a lot of information to pack into a single label, which is why labels are sometimes protracted into multi-leveled instructions depending on how complicated a product is. “While it’s important we created a standardized labeling system, we didn’t want the design of the label to be too strict to create barriers for brands to use it,” says Rowell. While this flexibility is inviting for brands, it also means that the intent of the How2Recycle labels can be undermined by a product’s complexity. 

To give an example, this past February, Greenpeace released a nationwide survey of the United States recycling infrastructure, which revealed that full-body shrink sleeves were hindering a great number of #1 and #2 plastics from being 100% recyclable, which put them in violation of the FTC’s Green Guides. How2Recycle labels were used on these shrink wrapped sleeves and instructed consumers to remove them. “We actually developed the specific language indicating that the bottle was not recyclable unless the label was removed as a direct result of FTC feedback,” Rowell says.  But the confusion for many consumers remains. According to the FTC’s Green Guides, if a component of a product significantly prevents it from being recycled, it cannot be labelled as recyclable. To be clear, in the case of the shrink wrap, How2Recycle’s labels aren’t incorrect, but they do suggest that a product is in fact recyclable when a significant portion of it isn’t. All of this illustrates just how complicated the rules around recycling labeling can be. 

How2Recycle encourages brands to avoid labels that might hinder recyclability, including those shrink sleeves mentioned in the Greenpeace report. “How2Recycle has given its members over 14,000 specific recommendations for design improvements on labels on plastic packaging alone,” notes Rowell. With the amount of consistent, and up-to-date data that is necessary to accurately reflect recyclability for plastic alone, you have to wonder if How2Recycle’s efforts to design a truly transparent label are fated to be anything more than Sisyphean. Bell, who is a fan of the How2Recycle labels, believes the key to a more effective label is adding more transparency around how the label communicates the limitations of many US recycling facilities. In the UK, for example, the On-Pack Recycling Label which used to be a very similar labelling system to How2Recycle, now conforms to a mandatory, binary labelling system that simply states “recycle” or “don’t recycle.” There’s no longer the option for “widely recycled” or “check locally,” which ultimately puts more pressure on producers to make their product easier to recycle in order to get that much more appealing “recycle” label. 

The On-Pack Recycling Label

For a brand to use the trademarked How2Recycle labels brands have to pay to use it. Fees vary by the size of the interested company ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 annually. For members this includes comprehensive consultation with How2Recycle about how the communication system can accommodate all the consumer products in a brand’s portfolio. Which, in the US, is a jump from the free-to-use universal recycling symbol. Since there is such little regulation around recycling labelling, anyone could circumvent consultation or trademark licensing fees by designing their own labels to use.

Like Bell, John Hocevar, the author of the Greenpeace report, agrees that with greater recycling-data transparency, the How2Recycle label could be a useful tool. But he’s less optimistic about how much labelling communication can actually alleviate the recycling crisis in the US. “The problem isn’t that people are not handling the waste that they use properly, it’s that companies are producing packaging out of material that is essentially fundamentally unrecyclable,” says Hocevar. “Putting the chasing arrows symbols on plastic packaging that is never going to be recycled is not just greenwashing, it’s killing recycling.” 

Among the world’s top recyclers like Taiwan, South Korea, Wales, and much of the EU, recycling efforts go well beyond communication design. EPR programs ensure that producers pay for the recycling of the products they create, which creates an entirely different communication dynamic for recycling. “If you don’t design your packaging correctly, you pay additional fees,” Bell says of the EU’s policy. It’s a reminder that at the end of the day, no design or label, regardless of  how sophisticated, can enable consumers to bear the entire weight of the recycling system. But taking a cue from European countries, visual communication can signal to consumers a shared responsibility, and the government can reward brands for taking that responsibility seriously. In the US we have a long way to go. While organizations like How2Reycle are making headway, brands still have to pay to have accurate recycling communication at all—and that’s where responsibility ends for the producer and onus falls to the US consumer. If we’re lucky, we’re given a nicely designed label that may help us figure out where to put a bottle that has a 500 year lifespan— but there’s still no assurance that anyone else in the cycle is playing along.