A California government commission tasked with improving recycling is asking the state's attorney general and other agencies, for the first time, to crack down on what it says are illegal environmental labeling claims on plastic bags and film.
The California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling sent a letter in December to the agency CalRecycle and Attorney General Rob Bonta saying that its review of recycling messages on bags and film turned up dozens of violations of state and federal laws.
Specifically, the commission said that claims about recyclability, including using versions of the popular chasing arrows symbol, confuse consumers and make them think, incorrectly, that the flexible plastic materials can be recycled in regular curbside bins. It wants the state to require those labels to be removed.
But the commission's proposal is drawing pushback from the industry, which points to popular labels like the How2Recycle system as helping to educate the public about when materials can be put in curbside bins and when, as in the case for bags and film, they should be taken to store drop-off locations.
They argue that removing the recycling labeling altogether will send more plastic to landfills and harm in-store bag recycling efforts. And they say that their labels comply with federal and state laws.
The commission sent a letter to CalRecycle and Bonta Dec. 3 giving 80 examples of companies selling flexible plastic packaging in the state with recyclability claims it said violate laws — naming specific retailers, brands and plastics firms.
"Based on existing California law, it is our opinion that recyclable labels used on many plastic bags and films in California described below are not legal … and are contributing to consumer confusion and contamination," the commission wrote. "We write to request that California's existing laws on labeling of plastic bags be enforced."
Specifically, it said it wanted "retailers and product manufacturers [to] be required to remove the word 'recycle,' 'recyclable' and/or the recycling symbol from plastic bags and film."
The advisory group's opinion does not carry legal weight by itself, but it comes amid stepped-up scrutiny of such claims.
For example, the California Legislature last year passed a first-in-the-nation law, Senate Bill 343, making it much tougher to put recyclability labels and marketing on plastic packaging.
As well, environmental groups have filed private lawsuits over such claims, and Canada's government Jan. 6 announced its own C$3 million (US$2.36 million) settlement with Keurig Canada Inc. over "misleading" recyclability labels on plastic K-Cup pods.
Heidi Sanborn, the chair of the commission, said the group is following its charter and giving advice to the state government on how it can start to fix challenges in recycling. She called misleading labeling "low-hanging fruit."
"We gave a bunch of examples of how we think those claims are being misused and abused," she said. "We were tasked with reducing contamination in curbside streams and giving advice on how to do that, and what our advice is, is 'enforce the law.'"
Bonta's office did not respond to a request for comment, but CalRecycle said it looked forward to discussing the issue with the commission, which was created by the state Legislature in 2019.
"CalRecycle shares the goal of ending deceptive labeling and is equally committed to truth and enforcement," said spokesman Lance Klug.
While the agency did not comment on the specific examples the commission provided, Klug did point to SB-343 as a "critical first step for California to increase transparency in recycling labeling and end the misleading use of the chasing arrows symbol."
"SB-343 will also clarify what is and isn't recyclable and help Californians make informed decisions when purchasing products," he said. "Under that law, 60 percent of the state will have to collect and recover materials for recycling to earn a recyclable label."
SB-343 does not fully take effect until 2025. The commission said it was relying on older laws in making its recommendations.