It is time to make plastic-recycling labels less confusing

Nearly one in four Americans don't understand what current plastic labels mean at all.
Pile of plastic bottles and waste.
It's time for a plastic-labelling upgrade, according to new research. Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Back in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry—now the Plastics Industry Association—developed a Resin Identification Code (RIC) system to identify a product’s unique plastic resin type. It includes the iconic set of three arrows going clockwise that form an equilateral triangle, enclosing a number from one to seven that corresponds to the variety and recyclability of that material.

This uniform coding system is still in use today, allowing consumers and waste recovery facilities to sort waste before recycling. The problem is, most people don’t understand what the symbols mean. A 2019 report from the Consumer Brands Association found that 68 percent of Americans mistakenly assume that any product with the RIC symbols is recyclable, while 24 percent said that they didn’t know the meaning of the symbols at all.

Because the RIC symbols are widely misinterpreted, is it time to change the labeling system? Some researchers think so.

Consumers are often misled by current recycling labels

In a 2022 paper published in Environmental Science & Policy, researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland suggested a new way of labeling plastics to help consumers make informed decisions with their plastic use.

“In our paper, we’ve made recommendations to labeling which move [the] focus from recyclability to sustainability, are specific to the region of purchase, and inform the public about plastic additive content,” says Stephen Burrows, study author and marine science researcher at the QUEX Institute. 

The proposed labeling system intends to move away from indicating how theoretically recyclable a plastic is. Instead, the researchers want to establish a sustainability scale to inform consumers about the plastic’s overall environmental and human health implications. They also recommend that producers list a breakdown of the plastic composition, which can include chemical additives like flame retardants or bisphenol-A.

“Currently, plastic labels are over-simplistic, often abstract, and sometimes inaccurate,” says Burrows. “An example we use is coffee cups made of polylactic acid (PLA) being labeled as ‘recyclable’ and ‘compostable’ when in actuality, depending on your location, they might be neither.”

[Related: What do the numbers on plastic mean? And 3 other trashy questions, answered.]

The compostability and recyclability of PLA are dependent on regional infrastructure. If a local waste collection area has no industrial composting facilities and no recycling facilities specific to bioplastics, then the coffee cup is neither compostable nor recyclable, he explains. Instead, these cups are destined for the landfill where they might produce methane and ultimately contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. This is why the authors also recommend requiring that packaging carry region-specific directions for disposal.

A 2020 report by Greenpeace USA also found that many companies like Nestlé, Walmart, and Unilever use misleading recyclable labels on consumer plastic products such as plastic cups, lids, and trays, which may not be labeled as recyclable based on Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements.

The main benefits of improving plastic labeling would hopefully be reducing single-use waste, improving waste management, and shifting the responsibility for plastic waste from consumers to manufacturers and regulators, says Burrows.

Manufacturers must help minimize plastic waste

Consumers need to be educated about the harmful impacts of disposing of plastic. But the challenge is that too much information might be confusing, and too little information can be misleading, says Aditya Vedantam, assistant professor of operations management and strategy at the University at Buffalo School of Management, who was not involved in either study. Visually appealing designs that are in line with scientific findings can help consumers recycle correctly, he adds.

A new labeling system informing consumers of the environmental and human health implications of plastic would also make people think twice before grabbing a plastic item. This would force companies to explore safer alternatives, says Kate Melges, the Greenpeace USA global plastics corporate lead.

However, changing the labeling system won’t necessarily increase recycling rates, she adds. “The issue is that most plastic packaging cannot be recycled. Only polyethylene terephthalate (PET) #1 and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) #2 bottles and jugs, with acceptable shrink sleeves and labels, can be claimed as recyclable in the U.S. today,” says Melges. “Most types of plastic packaging are economically impossible to recycle now and will remain so in the foreseeable future.”

[Related: How to actually recycle]

About 35.7 million tons of plastic were generated in the US in 2018, but only 3 million tons were recycled. Moreover, the recycling rates of PET and HDPE bottles, the plastics that are most easily recycled, were 29.1 percent and 29.3 percent respectively. Still, the burden of recycling plastic should not be carried by consumers alone. Manufacturers and policymakers should be responsible as well. 

“Many US states, including New York, are considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws for plastic packaging,” says Vedantam. “EPR laws shift the burden of recycling to the producers and away from the consumers. Clear labeling and source separation of plastics can ensure that hard-to-recycle plastics are sorted out before they reach the Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs).”

The EPR policy approach is a strategy where manufacturers are given the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of the post-consumer phase of their products. Currently, only 20 companies produce more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste. Addressing the problem at its source and regulating manufacturers may help reduce overall plastic waste.

“Companies must move beyond the outdated, failed approach of promoting recycling as the solution to excessive plastic waste and pollution,” says Melges. “Instead of pretending that the trillions of throwaway plastic items produced each year will be recycled or composted, companies must stop making so many of them in the first place. To meet ‘recyclable, reusable, or compostable’ pledge commitments, companies must become serious about employing reusable or refillable business models.”