The Problem with Chasing Arrows

by Alissa Oliverson (SWAC Chair), September 2020

Trash Talk Series from Sustainable Klamath, Solid Waste Action Committee (SWAC)

For decades, the general public has been duped into believing that any plastic item bearing the international recycling symbol, known as the Chasing Arrows, is recyclable. The confusion this symbol has created was intentional, and it continues to complicate recycling efforts locally and internationally.

In 1973, top oil and plastic executives received a report stating that recycling plastic is nearly impossible: sorting is infeasible, the recycling process is costly, and plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it. Courtroom discovery documents from 1974 contain a speech from a plastic industry insider, which states that there is “serious doubt that [recycling large quantities of plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

But despite these and other all-too-true warnings, big oil and big plastic went ahead with the production of more and more virgin plastic, without a viable plan for its end-of-life. The plan they did have, was a plan to confuse the public and advertise their way out of any negative associations we had started to make with plastic.

We have all seen the international recycling symbol known as the Chasing Arrows, three arrows forming a triangle with a number inside, stamped on the bottom of just about every piece of plastic we consume. But this symbol does not indicate that a product is actually recyclable. It only indicates the type of chemicals used to make the plastic.

Nevertheless, the plastic industry lobbied to have the symbol stamped on every plastic item, even if there was no way to recycle it. Industry insiders have spoken out about why the Chasing Arrows and other campaigns, like the Possibilities of Plastics ads were used. They knew that if the public thought recycling was working and applied to the vast majority of plastic, we would be less concerned about the environment and therefore, we would continue to buy the plastic they were producing from virgin materials at huge profit gains. Today, we call this method of deception: greenwashing. The plastic industry has known about the confusing effect of greenwashing all along, and they continue to take advantage of it to this day.

So, what are we consumers to do? How can we know which plastic items are truly recyclable and which are not? Loads of recyclables that are contaminated with improper plastics make the already cumbersome recycling process even worse. Is there a nationally or internationally standardized list of recyclable plastics? No, not really. It turns out, the best way to know what is currently recyclable is to know what your local recycler will and will not take.

Here in the Klamath Basin, we rely on Waste Management to collect our recyclables, and lucky for us, they provide a handy infographic that shows us what to put in our recycle bin and what to keep out. If you have lost your copy of this valuable flyer, or if you never received one, you can find it on the SWAC page of Sustainable Klamath’s website at: SustainableKlamath.org. You can also request a copy from Waste Management directly.

Be skeptical when you are shopping and considering items that feature the Chasing Arrows -remember that this symbol does not mean the item is actually recyclable. Find alternatives to plastic, like buying in bulk with reusable containers. Write to your favorite companies/brands and ask them to change their packaging so that it is universally recyclable. And consider telling companies like Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Exxon, Chevron, The American Chemistry Council, and others that using the Chasing Arrows indiscriminately is an unacceptable and environmentally irresponsible greenwashing tactic that you will not stand for.

Now that we are aware of the deceptive marketing techniques of big oil and big plastic, it is up to us to see through their chicanery, demand change, and do our best to stay up to date on what our community collects for recycling. It’s not our fault that we were fooled. The oil and plastic industries spent millions to pull the wool over our eyes. But now that we know better, we must act on that knowledge and do our part.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Sustainable Klamath is a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens based in Klamath Falls, working to provide education and actionable opportunities that help make our community and our world a healthier, more sustainable place. You can stay informed on our work, donate, and find out how to join us by visiting our website at: SustainableKlamath.org.

Extended Producer Responsibility: One Avenue Toward a Plastic Pollution Solution

by Alissa Oliverson, August 2020

Trash Talk Series from Sustainable Klamath, Solid Waste Action Committee (SWAC)

As plastic pollution continues to cause problems around the world, communities and nations are looking for a holistic solution, part of which could be holding producers responsible for the environmental impacts of their products. 

A new report by PEW suggests that if we continue business as usual and stay in a holding pattern with the current government and industry commitments to reducing plastic waste, by 2040 we will have reduced the amount of plastic in the oceans by only 7%. Worse yet, if we backslide on these commitments, the amount of plastic waste in the oceans could triple by 2040. But, if we take ambitious action now, invest in a new worldview and system, we can reduce plastic waste in the oceans by 80% by 2040. 

We have all heard the truth by now: it is impossible to recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problem. Massive shifts in overseas markets have put financial pressure on recycling systems, and new challenges arise every day with the ever-increasing volume of waste society produces. 

This reality has stimulated the awakening of people’s environmental consciousness, and it has created a space for a new conversation that demands real solutions to our plastic pollution problem. This does not mean we should give up on recycling, rather that we need to find viable ways to supplement recycling as we move toward the zero-waste pinnacle of sustainability. Enter: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). 

Originally proposed by Thomas Lindhqvist in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, Extended Producer Responsibility is a waste reduction strategy. It suggests that manufacturers and all entities in the product chain should bear a significant amount of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products, from cradle to grave. 

With this new level of responsibility, EPR would naturally encourage innovation in product design to minimize negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage. It would encourage the simplification and streamlining of products to make them more reusable and/or recyclable, and less costly. Ideally, EPR policies would make our linear “produce-use- dispose” system less wasteful and more efficient, more like a closed-loop, with the potential for new profits and new markets to emerge – markets that reflect the true environmental impacts of a product. Think of it this way: in providing better products and processes, producers can help fix the problems they created, prevent them in the future, and make better money. Everybody wins. 

We have already seen examples of Extended Producer Responsibility in action. Bottle Bills, like Oregon’s Bottle Drop, are one of the earliest forms of EPR. Electronic equipment take-back programs are another example. Dell has been taking back its obsolete electronics for free and recycling them since 2006. In the 1990’s, Nike launched their Reuse-A-Shoe program, which continues to this day, collecting used sneakers of any brand and turning them into material that can be, and has been used in a variety of ways. These and other examples of EPR may not be perfect, but they are valuable in promoting the necessary transition to a circular economy, which could be a huge part of the solution to our plastic pollution problem. 

As we begin to explore the potential of Extended Producer Responsibility, it is important to remember that this is about a shift in the way we think about people, planet, and profits. Current corporate objectives to maximize profits might not work with the environmental values necessary to clean up and prevent future messes. So, new, transparent policies will need to be created, and public oversight must be maintained. We will need to ensure that EPR policies don’t just allow a “pay to pollute” economic arena, wherein producers pay offset fees to continue their business-as-usual, manufacturing single-use and unnecessary plastic products. Consumers and producers alike will need to allow a new worldview to direct our best actions toward a zero- waste reality. 

We have all heard the truth by now: our plastic pollution problem is dire, and we must act now to mitigate the negative consequences. Downstream solutions like recycling are not the only answer. We must also look upstream, to the producers. We must demand that producers participate in our new paradigm where we put the environment first. They must innovate their products. Producers must work in harmony with nature to create environmentally responsible products, packaging, and practices that do not further harm our environment, but work with it long into the future – and help to heal the damage that has already been done. 

New EPR policies will no doubt be coming soon to our community, and as one avenue toward a plastic pollution solution, Extended Producer Responsibility is something we cannot afford to trivialize or ignore. 

If you would like to take action, you can visit our SWAC page and use our EPR form letter in an email to your representative or even to your favorite company/producer. To get involved locally, please contact us for more information.