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Caught in a Tangle of Triangles

Deciphering and distilling the intricacies of recycling labels, brings me further away from, and nowhere closer to the unsettling realities.

IMPORTANT: At the time of writing this article, 25th June 2020, the recycling directory service www.recyclingnearyou.com by Planet Ark provided information about my local council’s kerbside collection that needed some corrections. Since highlighting this to the council, it has been changed to include the discrepancies I highlight in the article below. Thank you, Linda Kenworthy and all the good people, at the Manningham Council.

Empty Vessels

My late father used to call me E.V. whenever I talked too much. Empty vessels, he said, made the most noise. All these years later, I have proven him right with this blog! When I reflect on the first few posts I made, my knowledge was superficial at best. I remember writing with freedom and lightness. My words tumbled out with ease. Weeks later, I have a clearer understanding of our environmental reality as it stands. I am sitting in my room – stuck, with notes everywhere. Earlier today, I had cried over the fact that I couldn’t put my empty Nuttelex tub in the kerbside collection bin because my local council did not accept plastics coded with numbers 3 to 7! It was that, and the fact that the major sponsor for Planet Ark’s National Recycling Week is Coca-Cola Australia. Here they come again, the tears. Now, I feel so encumbered and sad. The words, they are stuck inside, all jumbled up.

Recycling

‘Jumbled up’ is a good description of Victoria’s recycling efforts. Apparently, we are all gearing up for 2025. That is the golden year where it is all going to come together. Right now, the system is rather fragmented, and I must swallow the fact that my local council can only accept plastic items that have been numbered 1 or 2 under the Plastic or Resin Identification Coding system [PIC/RIC]. All around me, other suburbs can accept plastics coded from 1-7 with a few limitations. Yes, those assuring little triangles on most plastic items can deceive because they resemble the famous Universal Recycling Symbol designed by Gary Anderson in 1970. So many of us assume incorrectly that this symbol alone guarantees the item, we discard into our recycling bins, re-enters the stream of materials to be recycled. Not so. In a recent Netflix documentary, Broken, it was revealed that many recycling companies in America, still only accept 1, 2 and 5.

The Awakening

1970 was the year of the first Earth Day, and also the year a young university student, by the name of Gary Anderson, won a competition “to design a graphic symbol which would be used on recycled paper products and which could recognise a commitment to environmental sensitivity…in recycling”. More importantly, the Wikipedia article goes on to state that “the winning symbol would be given over to the public domain”.

This is probably the reason it was even possible for the Plastics Industry Association of the US to first adopt the symbol to create a numbering system as a tool to assist in sorting plastics. That is how the Resin Indentification Code was invented. Just like Australians, American consumers were getting confused as this coding system did not automatically indicate recyclability. I can understand not wanting to reinvent or create a new symbol for themselves. The original works well to allay our fears of over-consumption and helped shift our focus elsewhere.

Inertia to Change

Thankfully, the process of identifying resins in America became a matter for the American Society for Testing and Materials, in 2008, and by 2013, the recycling symbol had been swapped out for a solid triangle with a number inside as the accepted Resin Identification Code. Seven years on, and Australia still has not caught up with this change. They did, however, create the Australian Recycling Label through the efforts of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) in 2018. According to APCO, “the ARL is the only evidence-based labelling system on the market and is powered by the Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP), an online tool that assesses packaging recyclability in the Australian and New Zealand recovery systems”. APCO members, they say, “have free and exclusive access” to this PREP tool. Compared to the American triangle, I think the Australian Recycling Label is more informative and useful.

This seems like a positive step forward! However, it is impeded only by an inertia to change, on the part of manufacturers, both local and overseas as well as retailers, who need to keep their prices competitive. Legislation is required to provided motivation for them to do so. Logically, the 2019 Victorian Inquiry into Recycling and Waste Management recommended “that the Victorian government support widespread adoption of the Australian Recycling Label in Victoria, including provision of assistance to manufacturers to help them adjust”. Although supporting the recommendation in full, sadly, the Victorian government responded that “labelling schemes are most effectively implemented at a national level to ensure consistency and to not disadvantage Victorian businesses, and to facilitate uptake by international supply chains.” Just like the retailers and manufacturers they are meant to govern; they too will make the changes only when told to do so.

Sink or Swim?

So, where does this all leave us? Caught in a tangle of triangles, we struggle between the fine lines, eventually exhausted and confused. Trapped and without sufficient help, we often give up trying to decipher the codes and conditions of recycling that could alleviate some of the guilt and consequences from our voracious consumption. We give up and give in because we are tired. In the meantime, more empty vessels like my margarine tub risk polluting our lands and our waterways. Their collective noise will be loud, and it will be devastating. Instead of waiting to be told what to do, go on eco-friendly search engines such as oceanhero and ecosia, and take the initiative to learn more about recycling efforts in your area. Write to your local government, manufacturers and retailers. Through the power of one, we can make a collective difference. Finally, remember to support the companies that are doing the right thing.


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