The “chasing arrows” logo is universally recognized as a sign to recycle, but the Environmental Protection Agency is now saying it’s also universally confusing. It’s recommending tossing the symbol for plastics and replacing it with a new one.  

The proposed change comes amid a growing body of research that suggests that plastic recycling isn’t working and that most plastic is still ending up in landfills. As little as 5% of plastic is actually recycled, according to one recent study.  

“I’ve been suggesting this for years now, thinking that’s confusing,” Kate O’Neill, a professor at University of California Berkeley, said of the logo change.

O’Neill studies the global and local politics of waste and recycling.  

“So, I try and unconfuse people,” she said. “But again, it ought to be easier.” 

The EPA agrees. In April, the agency recommended the Federal Trade Commission get rid of the chasing arrows recycling symbol for plastics, calling it “deceptive or misleading.”

“I think the deceptive part is the symbol because that looks like recycling,” said O’Neill. “And sometimes we’re told it’s recyclable just because it shows that.”  

Related: The sticky reasons the U.S. hasn’t figured out plastics recycling 

What went wrong 

But not every plastic with the symbol on it can be easily recycled. Inside the chasing arrows symbol sits a small number, called a resin identification code, or RIC.  

“The numbers were to communicate to people sorting the plastics, how recyclable they are on a scale from 1 to 7,” said O’Neill. “It wasn’t ever a signal to consumers to say, hey, all of this is recyclable.” 

O’Neill said the numbers 1 and 2 are for the hard plastics found in things like containers and bottles. But items with the other numbers, 3 through 7, are more difficult to recycle.  

“So, these numbers were a really basic indicator from one set of experts, the manufacturers, to another set of experts, the recyclers and the garbage sorters, to say, hey, you know, this is what can be recycled and what can’t,” said O’Neill. “Chasing arrows went wrong when people really started seeing it as a message to consumers.” 

How to eliminate confusion  

In the EPA’s letter urging getting rid of the chasing arrows symbol on plastics, the agency recommended a new symbol: a solid triangle with the resin code inside that consumers will not visually associate it with recycling programs. The code would eliminate confusion by taking the focus away from a symbol that represents recycling, and instead, bringing back the focus to the resin code for the professionals who sort plastic.  

“To be very much more specific about what can be recycled, it’s a good move,” said O’Neill. “We don’t have a lot of federal legislation, so it’s good to see a federal agency action on plastic recycling.”  

As for local legislation, California already passed a bill banning the chasing arrows on products that are not easily recyclable.  

O’Neill said California has the right idea, but an even better idea would be cutting down on plastics all together.    

“I’ve never had a conversation with people like, oh, no, plastics are wonderful, and we just need to use more of them,” said O’Neill. “Everybody is like, nah, it’s getting into the ocean. This is no good.”  

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