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The Truth Behind the Chasing Arrows

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

There is a lot of misunderstanding around the meaning of that little triangle with a number in it. Some call it the “chasing arrows” symbol. Let’s set some things straight.

Three Myths Behind the Chasing Arrows:

  • It does not mean that is made from recycled plastic.

  • It does not mean it will get recycled if it is dropped in your recycle bin.

  • It is an unregulated symbol anyone can use.

The chasing arrows symbol with the number in it identifies the type of plastic resin used in the product. That is it. This helps determine the appropriate management route for plastics. With our increasing use of plastics in our lives, much of it is not recyclable at all. With all the different types of plastic we use in our lives, recycling has become more confusing. How often do you find yourself standing in front of your recycling bin wondering “to bin or not to bin” a plastic container?

Let’s take Styrofoam for an example. Those to-go cups and containers we often call “Styrofoam” is actually expanded polystyrene, a little different than the actual trademark name StyrofoamTM. Expanded polystyrene is a plastic resin identified with the number 6 in the chasing arrows symbol. That is all it means. Expanded polystyrene is typically 95% air – that is why it is so light. Imagine filling a semi-truck with it. It takes up a lot of space and only a small fraction of it is recoverable. It is costly to handle and transport, with very little return on investment. Thus, it is not a desirable resin to recycle; therefore, not accepted for recycling in the majority of communities in the USA.

So, what can you do?

1. Know what plastics are recyclable and accepted locally in your community. A good place to start is 1’s and 2’s. These plastics (polyethylene terephthalate or PETE/PET and high-density polyethylene or HDPE) are commonly accepted for recycling at most Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs).

(Credit Polychem-USA)

2. Look at the packaging on items you purchase. Like reading labels, look for the recycling information on the packaging. The ‘How2Recycle’ labeling is becoming more common on

packaging and is usually an accurate guide for universally recyclable materials. You can also choose products with packaging that you know is recyclable in your community. Check with your local solid waste and recycling authority to get it right. Our buying habits push markets to shift, putting pressure on companies to change their packaging to something more sustainable or recyclable. Some real duds in the packaging world as far as recyclability is concerned are these items:

Capri Suns and squeezable pouches:

3. Buy more in bulk containers vs individual servings. It won’t take long to create more sustainable habits by transferring a serving size into a reusable, to-go container.

This information should not make you feel bad about the plastic use in your life. Instead, let it motivate you to seek ways to reduce your plastic use. Start with switching to plastics that are recycled in your local community and try to reduce purchasing items in single serving containers. Your efforts matter!

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