Trash or Recycling? Why Plastic Keeps Us Guessing.

By Winston Choi-Schagrin and Hiroko Tabuchi
Illustrations by Rinee Shah
April 21, 2022

The universal symbol for recycling, known as the “chasing arrows” logo, is stamped on so many things. But that doesn’t mean they’re recyclable. Manufacturers can print the logo on just about any product. That’s because its main purpose isn’t to say whether it’s recyclable, but to identify the type of plastic it’s made from. (For example, if there’s a “3” in the center, it’s PVC, which most curbside recycling programs don’t accept.) The logo is so widely misunderstood that last year California banned its use on things that aren’t recyclable. There are efforts to improve the system. But first, the central question:

Why is this so hard? The rules are confusing.

The unhelpful symbol is just one aspect of a recycling system that is far too confusing to be broadly effective. It puts the burden on individuals to decode a secret language — to figure out not only whether a thing is recyclable, but also if their local recycling program actually accepts it.

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