In a new Greenpeace report, a comprehensive survey of plastic product waste was performed to determine the legitimacy of “recyclable” claims and labels on consumer plastic products in the U.S.

The survey is based on the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides requirements for product claims and labeling, which are as follows:

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  • It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product or package is recyclable.
  • Marketers should clearly and prominently qualify recyclable claims to the extent necessary to avoid deception about the availability of recycling programs and collection sites to consumers.
  • if any component significantly limits the ability to recycle the item, any recyclable claim would be deceptive.
  • Unqualified recyclable claims for categories of products that municipal recycling programs collect, but do not actually recycle, may be deceptive.
  • Third-party certification does not eliminate a marketer’s obligation to ensure that it has substantiation for all claims reasonably communicated by the certification.

Shockingly, the survey revealed that much of America’s plastic packaging is not recyclable. 

How did this happen? Let’s break it down:

Plastic Products Categorization

Ric code samples

Source: Norberthos/Shutterstock

Plastic is categorized into seven Resin Identification Codes (RIC). RIC is the number you see on the bottom of plastic packaging. Numbers 1 through 6 represent the package is made of six specific types of plastic: Number 7  is a catch-all category which includes other types of plastic not included in the earlier 6 or a mix of plastics. Here is the categorization:

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  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE): used for water, soda bottles, peanut butter jars.
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): used for milk jugs, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent containers.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): used for vinyl, tubing/pipes, auto product bottles.
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): used for a laundry basket, bread bags, squeeze bottles, plastic film.
  5. Polypropylene (PP): used for yogurt containers, coffee cup lids, straws, kitty litter buckets.
  6. Polystyrene (PS): used for styrofoam cups, solo cups, egg cartons, to-go containers.
  7. Other than the six above: toys, sippy cups, CDs, DVDs, lenses.

Plastic Recycling: Background and Current Crisis

Once collected, recyclable products are sent to be sorted at MRF’s (Material Recovery Facilities). From there, most items are shipped off to various mills to be repurposed into raw materials. While some of the recycling was always done right here in the United States, most recyclables were in fact exported to China due to their cost-efficient reprocessing. The U.S. mostly recycled numbers 1, 2, and 5 and the rest ie. numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7, which were more difficult and expensive to sort and process ended up China.

All of the above started to change on January 1, 2018, when China began enforcing “National Sword”, a new policy in order to reduce its own plastic pollution crisis from foreign countries and started banning the import of foreign recyclables gradually. From 2017 to 2018, China’s plastic waste imports dropped 99.1 percent and according to Greenpeace East Asia’s analysis, global plastic waste exports dropped by almost 50%. As you can imagine, this created a major bottleneck and threw global recycling into crisis mode.

After China closed its door on imports, cities around America started struggling to recycle. Recycling costs went up drastically, according to an article in the Atlantic, towns in New Hampshire and Virginia saw costs of recycling increase from $6/ton to $125/ton. As trash began piling up in towns and cities, the United States started to export its plastic problem to new countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. But the environmental and health implications of being used as a dumping ground for the world’s unrecyclable waste is catching up with these countries who are now starting to push back as well.

While improving domestic recycling infrastructure is a necessary step forward, it has become abundantly clear that recycling is not sufficient to absorb the ever-increasing amounts of single-use, low-value plastic on the market. Cities, states, and even entire countries need to step up to enact policies that get to the heart of the problem: the proliferation of plastic.

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Plastic Recycling: Survey Results and Misrepresentations

Now that you know how plastic recycling works, here is what the survey by Greenpeace found:

Number #1 PET and Number #2 HDPE items like plastic bottles and jugs may legitimately be labeled as recyclable by consumer goods companies and retailers. Many MRFs only accept these two types of post-consumer plastic items because these items have sufficient market demand and domestic processing capacity (as mentioned above these products were always recycled domestically). However, when a full-body shrink sleeve is added to PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs, it makes those products non-recyclable.

Numbers #3 through #7 common plastic pollution items, including plastic tubs, cups, lids, plates, and trays, may not be labeled as recyclable according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements for products and labeling. They also have low acceptance by recycling facilities, minimal to negative material value, and negligible processing capacity in the U.S. Consumers cannot “check locally” on recyclability for #3-7 plastics, as many labels instruct, because those plastics are being sent to landfill or incinerator.  It’s important to note here again that only a tiny fraction of plastics from numbers #3 to #7 were ever reprocessed in the U.S., so if they are not being imported they are the leading cause of plastic pollution.

Companies that make “recyclable” claims in marketing materials or on products are liable for misrepresentation and need to ensure that the claims are accurate and not deceptive. Recyclable claims or labels on products other than PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs are not accurate in the U.S. and expose companies to legal, reputational and financial liability risks.

“This survey confirms what many news reports have indicated since China restricted plastic waste imports two years ago — that recycling facilities across the country are not able to sort, sell, and reprocess much of the plastic that companies produce,” said Jan Dell, independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, who led the survey of plastics acceptance policies at the 367 MRFs.

Companies Using Misleading Labels and Examples

Source: Shutterstock

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In response to growing public concern on plastic pollution and excessive plastic waste generation, many corporations are making high-profile, global commitments to make their products recyclable, reusable or compostable. Companies are expanding the use of “recyclable” labels on plastic products at an aggressive pace. Since claims and labels affect a consumer’s purchasing decision, the claims and labels must not be misleading to be legal and provide the environmental benefits claimed

Greenpeace identified numerous examples of U.S. companies using misleading labels. Target, Nestlé, Danone, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Aldi, SC Johnson, and Unilever are among the companies that Greenpeace has asked to correct their labels, and some changes are underway. If companies show no willingness to end this deception, the organization plans to file formal FTC complaints.

“Retailers and consumer goods companies across the country are frequently putting labels on their products that mislead the public and harm America’s recycling systems,” said Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. “Instead of getting serious about moving away from single-use plastic, corporations are hiding behind the pretense that their throwaway packaging is recyclable. We know now that this is untrue. The jig is up.”

Examples of Misleading Recyclable Labels

Hundreds of product photos were collected in 2019 to 2020 by Greenpeace and they shared an internal document with us showing labels on many plastic products currently available in store across the U.S. that are not compliant with the FTC Green Guide requirements, here are some of the products disclosed in the document:

  1. Products that have non-recyclable full-body shrink sleeves but are being labeled as recyclable: Target coffee creamers, Unilever mayonnaise, P&G detergents, Danone water and more.
  2. Incorrect recyclable claims on plastic products that are not recyclable: Walmart Great Value plastic cups, Nestle Purina dog food, Target Archer Farms Coffee, SC Johnson plastic containers, Aldi salsa, Target’s numerous ready-to-eat deli foods, Danone’s baby food, Nestle’s powdered milk Products, Walmart cooking spray and more.

Here’s How Companies Can Act Now to End this Deception

If companies show no willingness to end this deception, Greenpeace plans to file formal FTC complaints. Here’s what Greenpeace recommends companies need to do:

  1. Remove recyclable claims or labels on products other than PET #1 and HDPE #2: No other types of consumer plastic products and packaging except Number 1 and 2  can be claimed as recyclable in the U.S. and only acceptable shrink sleeves PET #1 and HDPE #2 products can be labeled as such.
  2. Develop in-house recycling expertise: Given the significant financial and brand risks associated with labeling products as recyclable, companies must have credible in-house expertise on the local recyclability of their products and must verify the accuracy of labels themselves. Outsourcing the decision and approval of product labels to external organizations does not protect companies from being held liable for misrepresentation if incorrect labels are used.
  3. Companies must be truthful and transparent in progress reports on pledge commitments: In the U.S., public claims of progress on recyclable, compostable or reusable products are subject to the requirements of the FTC Green Guides. Companies who have made global commitments must produce progress reports that include the local recyclability of specific products that they sell in each market. Sufficient detail and transparency must be provided to prove claims of the progress made.
  4. Companies must take extended producer responsibility: Companies that want their plastic products to be recyclable should make direct investments in collection, sortation and proven mechanical reprocessing of the specific type of plastic product. Companies cannot simply label their plastic products as “recyclable” and expect taxpayers to pay for the recycling systems to achieve it. Nor can they stall progress and rely on the future development of unproven and problematic chemical recycling schemes. Just as companies invest in new product factories when they want to meet their profit goals, companies must similarly invest in collection, sortation and reprocessing to meet recyclable pledge goals.

Unfortunately, the report states that most types of plastic packaging are economically impractical to recycle and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Greenpeace is urging U.S. retailers and consumer goods companies to eliminate single-use consumer plastic and to invest in reusable, refillable, and package-free approaches.

How You Can Help: Reconsider, Reuse, and Repurpose

Recycling is not a solution to plastic pollution. Recycling pledges by companies do little to decrease the amount of plastic in the world, or the negative environmental and health effects of plastic pollution, particularly in the face of the data showing that only 9% of the world’s plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled.

Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, 78 percent of which is not reclaimed or recycled. Around 8.8 million tons of plastic get dumped into the oceans every year! 700 marine animals are faced with extinction due to the threat that plastic poses to them in the form of entanglement, pollution, and ingestion. 50 percent of sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. By 2050, 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic waste. According to a study by the World Economic Forum, there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and if things go on business as usual, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

As consumers we can make a difference as well, there may be products you are using or habits you may have that contribute to plastic pollution. Learn more about how the use of Teabags, Cotton Swabs, Laundry, Contact Lenses, Glitter and Sheet Masks pollute our oceans so you can make more informed decisions going forward. There are also numerous simple actions and switches that can help cut plastic out of our lives including, making your own cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, household cleaners, using mason jars, reusable bags/bottles/straws, and avoiding microbeads!

You can also repurpose or recycle old mattresses, leather, chairs, newspapersclothesshoes, wrapping papergadgetsgarden tools, drawers and more to avoid sending them to the landfill. In fact, there are items you didn’t know you can reuse over and over again and those that you can recycle but probably didn’t think you could! Even if you are left with no option, you can repurpose plastic in creative ways.

How You Can Help: Properly Dispose and Recycle Your Waste

According to this new survey, 88% of Americans agree recycling is important but 41% fail to do so properly. So we must learn to properly dispose and recycle waste! All items headed to recycling bins must be empty, clean and dry, to avoid contaminating an entire truckload, which means none of it gets recycled. It’s easy to become a better recycler by following three simple rules:

  • Know What to Throw: Remember the three primary categories of recyclables: paper and cardboard, metal and aluminum cans, and plastic bottles and jugs.
  • Empty. Clean. Dry:  Don’t allow more than one teaspoon of liquid to remain in a recyclable container. When recyclables are compressed in the truck, leftover food or liquid can ruin perfectly good recyclables.
  • Don’t Bag It: Never bag or bundle your recyclables. Items should be placed in the container individually

Here’s a great toolkit that you can use to take action on plastics in your community.

Sign this petition to join the fight against plastic pollution. The petition includes a pledge to properly recycle and eliminate disposable plastic.

Resin Identification Codes

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