Recycling Triangle Trap

Many of our daily rituals and practices are so routine we never stop to think about their origin, and the same can be said about some of the symbols we look to day-to-day for guidance. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous recycling triangle printed on millions of consumer products and packages. We see it everywhere, but what’s its origin story?

recycling, symbol, logo

Recycling has Been Running in Circles Since 1970

Allow us to introduce you to the Mobius Loop. It sounds like a name from a Matrix movie but it’s really the brainchild of Gary Anderson, a University of Southern California design student who submitted the concept to an international competition sponsored by the Container Corporation of America in 1970 for the first Earth Day. Gary says he came up with the concept quickly, and the whole thing is pretty straightforward. There are three curved arrows that represent Anderson’s notion of the three stages of recycling; collecting and cleaning the materials, manufacturing them into new products and then purchases by consumers. If only!

Best Way to Identify Recyclable Plastic

At the time, this symbol mostly applied to rudimentary products like paper and metal. So why do we now have the Mobius Loop stamped or printed on plastic products with a number in the middle?

In 1988, the American Society of the Plastic Industry unveiled its expanded suite of Mobius Loops with numbers coordinating with the type of resin used to create a specific plastic. Known as the Resin Identification Code (RIC), it had a few intended purposes. According to the trade association whose members were manufacturing vast amounts of plastic, the codes were meant to help waste processors quickly identify which plastic they were handling. However, for anyone who’s ever tried to look for – or at – the triangle on a product in their hand, it’s hard to imagine this happening on a high-speed conveyor belt.

Another purpose was to convey to the public that the product in their hand was recyclable – even if there wasn’t any reason to believe their local waste handler had the physical ability to do so, or that there was any sort of secondary market for those materials. 

A Mobius Loop on a product simply gave a name to the dominant resin it was made from. It was not a guarantee that it would or even could be recycled. 

But the two ideas are so intermingled now that average consumers will simply glance at a product, find the familiar triangle, and assume that their discards will enjoy a roundtrip to some useful new purpose. In fact, quite the opposite is likely.

recycle number symbols

A Loop to Nowhere: Best Ways to Tell Your Product Will Never be Recycled

Plastic, like evil villains in superhero comics, need to be kept apart if anything is to be done with them. That’s why the plastics industry realized they had to start revealing what was in their products. But it doesn’t mean that every waste handler has the equipment capable of doing the physical recycling, nor does it guarantee they’ll find a customer willing to buy it from them at a profit if they do. 

At the moment, it’s that final step that is truly torpedoing our national recycling efforts. There is dwindling demand for the end-product that recyclers create, so almost everyone has abandoned their effort to recycle any plastic products except those labeled #1 or #2 – and even then, only clear or white plastic has any value. 

Other colors of #1 and #2, plus all other plastics from #3-#7 are going straight to the landfill. Plant plastic, sometimes called bioplastic and labeled PLA, is never recyclable and in most parts of the country goes straight to the landfill because it can’t be ‘backyard’ composted, either. 

With hundreds of millions of tons of plastic being discarded annually, you may wonder why there isn’t more demand for the recycled variety. The short answer is it costs more to collect, sort and process plastic waste than to simply make it fresh from cheap fossil fuels. The low cost of oil and natural gas means virgin plastic can be made-to-order for pennies, whereas recycled versions – typically with some impurities – cost more and require extra steps to make them work.

Main takeaway: A Mobius Loop – a.k.a. recycling triangle – on plastic does not mean it will be recycled. It simply identifies the type of plastic it is. If you want to ensure your purchases do not contribute to the single-use plastic calamity currently underway, shift your spending to products that are reusable, made from other recyclable materials like paper, glass or aluminum, or renewable like birch or bamboo.

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