February 6, 2018
What does it mean if something is called ‘recyclable’?
The answer is often more complex than what meets the eye. Recyclability is not always black and white — important nuance and context makes this question surprisingly relative, depending on all the circumstances.
Some companies are under the misconception that it’s OK to put a generic mobius loop onto any packaging, and assume it’s recyclable, because why wouldn’t it be, this is 2018! Or many people at home will throw anything into their recycling bin and in the hopes that someone will take care of it and make sure it gets recycled somehow. The truth is a lot different than that.
Packaging is recyclable if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item.
What that means is that just because one local recycling program accepts a material, doesn’t automatically make it recyclable. Just because a package could be sorted or separated from other packages to potentially be recycled, that doesn’t make it recyclable. Just because a material could technically be reprocessed in order to make something new, it isn’t necessarily recyclable. Just because you could sell the material to become something new, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable.
A package is recyclable if there is a substantial likelihood that it can do all of those things in the majority of communities of where an item is sold.
If companies say a package is recyclable without undergoing this analysis and being able to substantiate that with scientifically credible data, and if the company isn’t qualifying or explaining if the package falls short of meeting that definition in some way (and thus is ‘kind of’ recyclable or not recycled in the majority of communities), then the Federal Trade Commission says it’s a deceptive claim. We agree.
There are many packages in the marketplace that could be recyclable, but the packaging producer changed the design in a way that made it non-recyclable. For example, if a company took a bottle made out of a traditionally recyclable plastic but added an ingredient or a packaging component that makes it impossible to sort or be reprocessed successfully by the majority of recyclers, it shouldn’t be called recyclable. Sometimes companies will make this design choice and still call it recyclable, either knowingly or unknowingly. Other times companies will use a mobius loop or some other sort of recycling icon or logo when they want to signify to you that a package is made out of recycled material but they didn’t explain that’s what they meant, and it actually can’t be recycled again because of its design—that’s also misleading for them to confuse you.
Made out of recycled material ≠ recyclable
Another example is if a company is making a plastic wrap made out of polyethylene ( like for a bag of tortillas) and they tell you to put it in your curbside bin. There are only a handful of communities in the U.S. that allow curbside recycling of plastic wrap, bags, and films, a majority of communities have to take them to a store drop off for recycling. Putting the bag in your curbside bin will cause problems at recycling facilities and will ultimately get landfilled. In this case, the company is misleading you.
Other times a community might have outdated recycling instructions for its residents because the recycling system is subject to change. Every time something is put in a recycling bin that isn’t recyclable, it contaminates the recycling stream, causing the recycling system precious time and money.
These scenarios are surprisingly common and unfortunate.
A constant flux of new packaging innovations and an evolving landscape in U.S. recycling infrastructure means that it is nearly impossible for the average person know what is recyclable and what is not. Sometimes it’s clear — traditional steel soup cans are recyclable — but often, the things that make something recyclable are either literally invisible to our eyes or not widely understood.
Recyclability is a notion that evolves over time as packaging and the recycling infrastructure, and our understanding of it, also evolve over time.
That’s why the Sustainable Packaging Coalition created the How2Recycle® label. Companies can depend on an impartial third party to assess these important considerations, using scientifically credible data, to determine whether a package can really be called recyclable. When you see the How2Recycle label on packaging, it will help you know if something is recyclable, and if so, how exactly to recycle it. The How2Recycle label can be applied to any product, made of any material, and in any format — the label even tells you when to not recycle something. There is no other comprehensive recycling labeling system of its kind in the U.S.
*Or at all. Some communities say something is accepted for recycling when other communities that send materials to the exact same facility say something different based on how each community negotiated its contracts, and/or decided to phrase things to residents.