There’s a little symbol on packaging that most of us are familiar with.
Two small arrows in a circle, following each other’s tail, a sort of yin-yang symbol.
I always thought I knew what it meant. It’s pretty clear and obvious, it means you can recycle this packaging.
Except it doesn’t mean that at all.
Turns out it means absolutely nothing.
The packaging could be the most unrecyclable thing ever and still carry that symbol.
But how can that be?
I just saw an episode of the BBC’s Watchdog about it.
They showed that symbol to lots of people in the street and, like me, they all thought it meant recyclable.
In fact, all it means is that the company making that packaging has contributed money towards the cost of a Europe-wide recycling scheme.
Paying some money allows them to put that badge on their packaging.
So they can give the impression of being ecologically aware without doing anything.
But it’s actually a lot worse than that.
Lots of people assume that packaging carrying this symbol is recyclable, so they put it in the recycling bin.
So it gets mixed in with all the genuine recycling.
So none of it can now get recycled because it’s all mixed up and can’t be separated.
Which means all of the genuine recyclable packaging now can’t be recycled.
Every year, we put 467,000 tonnes of non-recyclable rubbish in our recyclable bins.
That’s nearly half a million tonnes that people think is recyclable but isn’t.
Half a million tonnes that will contaminate millions of tonnes of genuinely recyclable rubbish.
Apparently, we throw away our own body weight in rubbish every seven weeks.
Eighty per cent of that could be recycled, but a vast amount isn’t being recycled because of confusing or misleading symbols.
Why is that happening?
Why would a company deliberately put a symbol on their packaging to make it look as if it’s recyclable?
If they really care about it, why don’t they change their packaging?
Is it that they’re too lazy or don’t they want to spend the money?
Or do they think consumers will look at the symbol and think: "Oh, this company doesn’t use recyclable packaging but that’s OK because they contribute to a Europe-wide recycling scheme"?
I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
According to Watchdog, it applied to products such as Snickers, Twix, Pringles and Pot Noodle, and companies such as Unilever, Kellogg, Mars, and, of course, many others.
For me, it’s similar to the "brand purpose" fashion.
Senior client: "I hear there’s a lot of talk about companies being ethical and responsible. How can we get in on that without actually doing anything?"
Junior client: "Well, if we contribute to this Europe-wide scheme, we can put their symbol on our packet. That certainly looks like we’re doing something."
Senior client: "That’s the sort of thing, get on it."
In a recent poll on which professions the public trusted, advertising and marketing came bottom, below estate agents, with 16%.
You can see why.
Advertising and marketing people are exactly the same sort of people who brief and design misleading packaging.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three