Sustainability Environment

‘Recyclable’ labels on plastic products are often misleading, says review

a photo of a turtle swimming underwater and plastic pollution seen below

Story at a glance

  • Greenpeace USA surveyed 367 recycling facilities across the country and found that only two kinds of plastic bottles and jugs are really getting recycled.
  • Meanwhile, many U.S. consumer companies and retailers sell plastic products that can hardly be recycled in the nation, but still label those products as recyclable, in potential violation of FTC requirements.
  • Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) weighed in on the report, touting the importance of the bill he introduced alongside Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) last week.

Much of plastic packaging sold in the U.S. is not recyclable, an extensive survey of plastics reveals, which the environmental NGO Greenpeace released on Tuesday.

Greenpeace USA surveyed 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs), located in the U.S, which are plants that take in, sort and prepare recyclable materials to be sold and repurposed. They concluded that companies and retailers can only label two types of plastic bottles and jugs (PET #1 and HDPE #2) legitimately as recyclable. In fact, there are many common plastic items that have been polluting oceans that may not be labeled “recyclable” under the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) requirements after all. Among these items are plastic tubs, cups, lids, plates and trays. Even certain PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs wouldn’t be recyclable if certain full body shrink sleeves were added.

The research, in other words, makes clear that many of America’s recycling facilities can only accept two types of plastic items because those are the kinds that have enough market demand and domestic processing capacity. That means that — according to Greenpeace — companies should not be labelling plastics #3-7 as recyclable; those items are being sent to landfills and incinerators most of the time no matter how many consumers throw them in the blue bin. 

Still, there are plenty of examples of U.S. companies that label these plastic items as recyclable regardless. Greenpeace reached out to the companies they found labeled these products as recyclable, asking them to change the labels. These companies included Target, Nestlé, Danone, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Aldi, SC Johnson and Unilever. Some are making efforts to adjust plastic product labeling now, and Greenpeace plans to file formal FTC complaints against companies that fail to make changes.

Jan Dell, an independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, who led the survey of plastics acceptance policies at the 367 MRFs, said in a statement, “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.”

Last week, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, which aims to address plastic pollution at the source. In part, this means demanding companies play a bigger role in addressing the problem and pay a larger share of the significant financial burden plastic pollution poses.

On Tuesday, Udall reacted to Greenpeace’s report by saying, “This shocking report uncovers a sustainability scam: too many companies are pretending their plastic products are recyclable when that is often just not true.” 

Udall continued, “Rather than designing truly sustainable products, many companies put a recycling label on a product knowing full well that taxpayers pick up the tab to deal with the waste.”