The “Circular Claims Fall Flat” study says firms violate U.S. labeling rules because plastic products aren’t actually recycled.
When China stopped accepting recyclable plastics from across the globe in 2018, it left many in the developed world wondering what would happen next. Some of the worst fears have come true, and a new report from the United States calls on companies to stop labeling their plastic packaging as recyclable when it effectively isn’t.
The 36-page “Circular Claims Fall Flat” study from Greenpeace offers a comprehensive look at 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. to better understand what happens to different types of plastics that well-intentioned Americans leave at the curb in their recycling bins. After identifying the classes of plastics that come from most households – all the milk jugs, soda bottles, yogurt tubs and shampoo bottles – author John Hocevar explains why the plastic has nowhere to go.
Hocevar found that just two types of plastics, the PET #1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high density polyethylene) #2 bottles and jugs, can truly be considered as recyclable. Plastics in categories 3 through 7, which include everything from PVC vinyls to polypropylene straws and coffee lids, no longer have a market value and in many cases, facilities can no longer handle them.
“We cannot collect an item for recycling, unless we have an end user who is willing to purchase and recycle that item,” explained one mid-sized city in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which will only take the two viable plastic categories now. “China used to accept most of the #3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics, but it turns out that most of these plastics were not actually being recycled. They were mostly being burned for fuel.”
China’s decision was only part of the problem, and the U.S. isn’t the only place experiencing it. Hocevar notes that investment in new plastic often makes it cheaper for manufacturers than the price of recycled materials. “When MRFs lose money on collecting and sorting plastic or other material, it drives their decision to stop accepting it,” he explained.
So plastics are ending up in landfills and incinerators, and it’s not entirely the end user’s fault. When consumers buy an item believing it’s made of recyclable materials, they expect that to be true.
For that reason, Greenpeace says it is pressuring companies to comply with U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides requirements for product claims and labeling. “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,” the report notes. At least one court case is pending in the U.S., alleging false claims over coffee pods marketed as recyclable when in reality they are not because there is no market for them.
Another dimension of the problem is that FTC determines whether a company’s product or packaging is recyclable based on whether at least 60 percent of Americans who might use it have access to recycling services. With so many communities cutting back on recycling services, it’s possible the companies are not meeting that threshold in the first place, much less ensuring the plastic is neither burned or trashed.
The research isn’t directed at consumers but its message is clear for them too: “Anything like a yogurt container, fruit container or cottage cheese container — you name it, those are products you cannot get rid of right now. There’s no marketability, so I think you’re going to continue to see a trend of those being eliminated from recycling programs,” said one recycler in Illinois.
Officials in Laramie, Wyoming, were even more direct: “If we want to counter this, then reduction is
the only option. So quit using plastics 3-7 if you can.”