Are National Standards Around Recyclability Claims on The Way?

Research shows how much, how often, and how well consumers recycle depends on their trust in the recycling system. Most of them – 78 percent –turn to labels to try and determine if a material will actually be recycled. Yet nearly two-thirds of them say they are confused by the label, found a survey of 1,300-plus participants conducted by The Recycling Partnership.

But there’s an optimistic note in what the nonprofit discovered. 

“Consistently in our studies we see the vast majority [of consumers] think recycling is a positive action. Eight or nine out of 10 want to recycle because of positive impacts they believe recycling offers,” says Elizabeth Schussler, senior director of social change, behavior and impact, The Recycling Partnership.

And a good many of them have faith in the system—50 percent  say they believe what they put in the blue bin is made into new products.

Yet if they don’t have clear guidance, they have a sense that there’s a ‘maybe’ in there. Maybe they can believe what’s on the package.

They often make a leap of faith. But they can lose their faith as readily as they embraced it; 82 percent feel misled if recycling is implied in a claim, but the item can’t be recycled.

They expect clear, reliable information in a consistent format. With that, The Partnership is calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to update its Green Guides to set national standards for accuracy, clarity, and accountability for recycling claims. 

Standardizing across the boards is no easy undertaking. Programs vary across the U.S. and sometimes even within a community.

“Imagine you are driving across a state and when you cross a county or city line the road signs giving instructions change. That’s kind of what’s happening within recycling,” says Sarah Dearman, chief innovation officer, The Recycling Partnership.

There are 9,000 programs using what may be similar but different language. And the terms can be confusing. Add to the complexity, the sea of plastic types. What to do with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles is straightforward.  But with high-density polyethylene (HDPE) consumers are confused, and even more so with polypropylene (PP) due to that these resins encompass so many more applications.

Further, what’s accepted changes as end markets fluctuate.

“With consumers looking for helpful information on the package [and so many details to consider], we have to make sure that information is as accurate and clear as possible,” Dearman says.

For now, FTC’s Green Guides only provide explicit instructions around access to programs. To make unqualified claims on packaging, at least 60 percent of the community must be able to recycle it. But The Partnership is pushing for the guidance to go much further and to consider multiple stages of recyclability. And to include guidance not just for consumers, but for the whole supply chain –whoever touches what could make it into consumers’ bins.

The Partnership has proposed a federal standard for determining recyclability based on its “Pathway to Circularity Framework,”  developed by multiple industry stakeholders. Under this approach, to claim that a package is recyclable, it must be: 

  • Designed for recycling following industry guidelines;
  • Accessible to be collected or accepted for recycling by a substantial majority of consumers;
  • Able to be effectively sorted for recycling at a sortation facility; 
  • Accepted by the recycling industry for use in the production of new packaging or products (meaning there are sufficient end markets); and
  • Effectively recognized as recyclable by consumers.

“So, it’s not just about access to recycling. In order to make recyclability claims all these other components around design, sorting, and end markets are essential. They are what we look at, and we think all companies should take those steps before they put information on their packaging,” Dearman says.

Working with industry, The Partnership developed an interactive PDF that maps out each stage of recycling. They worked to set the protocol and standards for each of those stages and craft questions companies can go through to determine if a material and format are sufficient.

Its new tool, Recycle Check, will soon be available where companies can place a QR code on packaging that consumers can scan and enter their zip code for a clear, immediate “yes” or “no” answer to if that product is recyclable in their community.

It’s one more option, especially intended to attract the “forty-something” and under population that gravitates to digital applications.

There’s a shift that’s begun from recyclability to reaching for full circularity, and its success is highly dependent on stakeholders along the whole supply chain.  

“I think this moment with the FTC Green Guides under review is heightening awareness of that dependency. If I’m a manufacturer and put a label on a package that’s not helping it get to the best place, I can’t expect it to come back to me to be reused.

“If I’m a consumer and feel like I can’t entirely believe what’s written on the package, or be certain of what happens [after I put in in the bin], I might not recycle,” Schussler says.

“But the good news is people really do believe in the positive outcomes of recycling. We have to maintain their trust by being trustworthy as stakeholders all the way through.”

This article was originally published on the Waste360 website and is re-published here with permission.

Learn how the Council of the Great Lakes Region is working to end plastic waste by closing the loop and accelerating a circular economy for plastics across the region by visiting:

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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