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Is it misleading to label a plastic product recyclable, even if there are no recycling facilities nearby that will accept that specific type of plastic? The California Supreme Court will decide.

Clare Goldsberry

December 29, 2020

4 Min Read
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Image: Pakhnyushchyy/Adobe Stock

If a company says its packaging is recyclable but there are no facilities that can recycle that particular type of plastic packaging, is the company being “deceptive”? That’s the question the California Superior Court must decide after Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against Walmart’s labeling of its private-label products and packaging. Greenpeace’s suit demands that “Walmart remove false and misleading labels stating that its disposable plastic products and packaging are recyclable, when they are not.” Greenpeace alleges that Walmart has violated California’s consumer protection laws, including the Environmental Marketing Claims Act (EMCA), which regulates deceptive environmental marketing claims.

That is the big question: Is it misleading to say that a plastic material known to be recyclable is, in fact, recyclable even if there are no recycling facilities in the consumers’ area that will take that specific type of plastic? We could ask the same of product labels that claim to be biodegradable or compostable. Is it deceptive to put those words on a packaging label even if there are no industrial composting facilities that will accept biodegradable or compostable plastics?

Biodegradable polymers are being developed just in case a plastic item such as a plastic water bottle or a food container “escapes” — I love that word — into the environment. It will degrade in a matter of months, or perhaps a year or so, which is much faster than conventional polymer products that might take a decade to fragment. But don’t misunderstand what biodegrade actually means. Any type of plastic, including biodegradable or compostable materials, will not simply disappear but will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, or microplastics. It is very difficult to find an industrial composting facility that will take these plastics, but is it misleading or deceptive to say that a plastic is biodegradable or compostable even if no composting facility will accept it?

Many companies are putting a caveat on their labels, such as “compostable if there is a composting facility that takes this material.” The same type of wording is appearing on recyclable packaging/products: “Recyclable at a recycling facility that accepts this material.”

Greenpeace addresses this dilemma: “Greenpeace’s complaint states that Walmart’s recyclability claims are false, misleading, and deceptive because most consumers in the state of California do not have access to facilities that are capable of segregating the products from the general waste stream to be recycled. Moreover, there are no end markets to use the plastics to manufacture new items, so they are destined to end up in landfills or the natural environment.”

Is Walmart — or any other retailer — actually responsible for what its customers do with its packaging or products? If someone sees “recyclable” on the label, yet chooses to throw that bottle or package out of the vehicle window into the environment rather than find a blue bin or recycling container, is Walmart truly at fault?

How2Recycle, a program of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, created labeling to “provide consistent and transparent information for consumers in North America.” For example, its website shows a label for plastic bottles that reads “Plastic Bottle — Empty and Replace Cap.”

Educating people is about all any retailer and brand owner can do. You can’t follow these consumers home to make sure they actually put recyclable packaging and products into the recycling bin. At some point, consumers must take responsibility for their actions. Many studies keep telling us that consumers “want” recyclable packaging.

Greenpeace is asking Walmart to “end its reliance on single-use plastic and shift toward systems of reuse that truly address the pollution crisis.” Yet, Greenpeace offers no ideas on what materials Walmart should use instead of recyclable plastics, especially the most widely used #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE). Should it use glass packaging, bottles, and containers? Would the reuse of glass involve washing out these bottles and containers for reuse? Studies have been done on reusable packaging and it’s neither cheap nor eco-friendly, since it is very resource-intensive.

This is just another unscientific non-solution that would create greater consequences than finding better ways to deal with the plastic waste problem, particularly for hard-to-recycle materials (#3 to #7). One solution is waste-to-energy technology (incineration for electricity or in cement kilns), which provides usable energy and saves on the use of ancient biomass (oil, natural gas, coal) for electricity.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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