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Recycling symbols 'confuse public'

The widely-used ‘green dot’ and ‘Mobius loop’ symbols are not understood by the public, who take them to mean that materials are recyclable.

That result has come from plastics recycling charity Recoup, which carried out an observational study with Marks & Spencer and Plastics Europe to see how the public responded to information on packaging.

confusing symbols

confusing symbols

It said the green dot  – which is often printed in black and white – and Mobius loop were being used as recycling indicators, but confusion about the meaning of symbols was banished when straightforward On-Pack Recycling Label recycling instructions were used and easily visible.

Feedback from the public indicated that recycling messages needed to be highly visible, unambiguous and, ideally, on the front of the pack.

Recoup communications manager Anne Hitch said: “Consumer confusion is complex and subjective but, even when people are keen to recycle, the labelling means that items may end up in landfill that could otherwise be recycled.”

The study also found that consumers placed meat trays in general waste because of fears of cross-contamination from washing them, and were unwilling to remove sleeves from otherwise recyclable items.

Consumers were unclear what was meant by the term ‘food tray’ in recycling advice, and were unwilling to clean items and so placed them soiled in recycling collections.

Adrian Whyle, senior resource efficiency manager at Plastics Europe, said: “We encourage all stakeholders to work towards a harmonised waste collection system throughout the UK, with clear labelling on what can or cannot be recycled, in order to eliminate confusion and maximise the recovery of such valuable resources.”

Recoup’s report Research Study Into Consumer Plastic Recycling Behaviour said all respondents were misled by the green dot symbol, which they assumed meant the item in question was recyclable.

It said: “In logical terms, if the consumer sees a symbol that is rotating or swish-like with an arrow, then they think this must indicate recyclability.

“From the consumer perspective, the green dot symbol is confused with the Mobius loop. There was also no knowledge of polymer numbers and what these indicated,” it said.

An explanation issued by Valpak in 2016 said the green dot existed to show that producers had contributed financially towards recycling their share of packaging waste, but this affected only exported packaged goods to countries that used the system.

The Mobius loop indicates that a product is capable of being recycled but not that it will necessarily be accepted in the area concerned.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Fascinating observational research by RECOUP, which demonstrates that a single, recognised recycling label could increase recycling rates by reducing confusion. OPRL's separate research, surveying 2580 consumers in November 2018, showed just 1 in 6 or 7 consumers had any understanding of the Mobius Loop, Green Dot or Resin Code symbols, even when prompted. In contrast, 3 in 4 recognised, understood and acted on OPRL symbols, recognised by the UN Environment Programme as international good practice.

    We need to cut the confusion by moving to a single, mandatory labelling system for UK packaging. Given public recognition and understanding - and its use by over 350 companies and charities - we think OPRL is the clear answer.

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