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Calling it "recyclable packaging" doesn't mean that it will be recycled

Recently Colgate-Palmolive announced that it will commit to 100% recyclable packaging by 2020 for three of four product categories. This commitment came after one of the company's shareholders became engaged with As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that "promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies."

This announcement sounds like a big deal, but on closer examination, who really benefits? So Colgate-Palmolive has committed to making 100% of its packaging for three of four product categories completely recyclable by 2020, "working toward developing a recyclable toothpaste tube or package, which would bring its fourth product category close to the same sustainability standard. Most toothpaste tubes are made from unrecyclable plastic laminates," noted the press release.

Additionally, Colgate-Palmolive agreed to increase the average recycled content of its packaging by 50%. That all sounds good in the press release, but look at the reality: just because something is recyclable doesn't necessarily mean that it actually will be recycled, because that takes human participation. And people don't always recycle even those items that can be recycled for a number of reasons.

First, many rural areas, small towns, and communities do not have pickup or community recycling centers or local recycling facilities. So there's nowhere to take these items to be recycled. Or, if there happens to be a community recycling bin, it requires large trucks, which use fossil fuels, to come around periodically and dump the contents of these bins, then haul the materials to a recycling facility that can be 50 miles or more away.

Secondly, from a scientific standpoint, recycling many of these products uses far more energy to take them from the postconsumer waste to the recycled material state than is warranted by the value of the material. Recycling plastics, for example, takes a lot of energy to get the material back to the pellet state to be molded into new products. There's the sorting, because many types of resins can't be comingled; washing to remove labels, dirt, and debris, which requires a lot of water; electricity to grind the plastics or, if the recycled items are left whole, baling them for shipping to a facility (or to China) that does the grinding and repelletizing.

Ultimately, you can regrind and reuse various plastics only so many times before the properties that made the products desirable in the first place are diminished to the point of uselessness.

So, we don't really know how much recycled content is actually in many of these products, which brings the quality of the recyclate—and of the new products themselves—into question.

The spokesman for As You Sow got one thing right: "Huge amounts of embedded value and energy are being buried in landfills," commented Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President. Yes, plastics has a huge amount of value as energy, which is why one of the most cost-effective—and green—methods of dealing with plastic waste is incineration. Capture those BTU values from the plastic to create energy and take the pressure off coal, the new resource that environmentalists love to hate.

Instead of using energy to recycle all this plastic, which requires the use of fossil fuels, capture and create energy that people can use. Many European countries incinerate and capture the energy, which is extremely cost effective in terms of both environmental and energy costs.

Here's an idea for Colgate: Get rid of the paperboard boxes that toothpaste tubes come in. Put a tamper-evident strip sealer around the cap, like you find on many vitamin or pharmaceutical bottles, and quit using so much paperboard, which takes a lot of energy and water to make. That would go a long way toward helping out the environment. And they wouldn't have to depend on humans to recycle the paperboard, or the recycling system in a community, to get it where it needs to go.

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