Consumers don’t understand the ‘dizzying array’ of recycling symbols on their products

Plastic Garbage

Consumers are increasingly keen to recycle plastics and other materials wherever possible, but are often confused by the array of symbols that appear on the packaging of everyday items. A recent survey carried out by Which?, the UK consumer group, found that almost half of the people surveyed believed that items that had the green dot symbol on them were suitable for plastic recycling. This symbol is two arrows intertwined in a circle and actually means that the producer of the goods belongs to a scheme supporting recycling systems and packaging that is recyclable.

The Möbius Loop symbol is the most likely to be recognised by consumers. This consists of three arrows looped in a triangle and does mean that the item is suitable for plastic recycling. The Which? Survey questioned 2,155 members of the public and 73 percent of these knew that the Mobius Loop indicated that an item could be recycled. However, even packaging materials with this symbol cannot, necessarily, be recycled in all local authority areas or be accepted by all recycling collectors.

Although there is generally greater awareness of the problems caused by single use plastics, a mere 32 percent of the people surveyed understood what was meant by the Mobius Loop. The number found inside the arrows indicates the resin code of the specific type of plastic in use in the item.

The symbol frequently called the green arrow symbol often consists of a white curved arrow on a green background. The tip of the arrow is shaped like a heart. This symbol indicates that the packaging can be recycled by 75 percent or more of local authorities. 59 percent of the consumers questioned understood this symbol, which sometimes appears with specific instructions such as “rinse” or “flatten, cap on”. However, the black version of the symbol which shows that the item is not recycled by all local authorities and that the consumer should check local rules, was only understood by 38 percent of the people asked. The black version of the arrow with a line crossing through it means that fewer than 20 percent of local authorities recycle the packaging material, and only 6 percent of consumers understood this.

However willing people are to recycle, it can only be done effectively if they know what and how to send for recycling. According to Which?, there are considerable variations in the amount of waste recycled in different areas of the UK and the overall rate dipped in 2015 in Northern Ireland and England. Because an average of 407kg of waste, equating to almost five times the average weight of a man, is thrown away for every person each year, it is really important that recycling symbols are better understood by consumers.

This is why Which? is encouraging the UK government to implement compulsory “clear and simple” recycling labelling on all plastic packaging. Nicki Stopford, the group’s director of research and publishing, said that people want to reduce waste going to landfill, but are frequently baffled by the confusing symbols and labelling.

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