Published 11 months ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Zachary Keimig
/ This article is sponsored by
This is the third in a three-part series covering key opportunities to turn 'the plastic-recycling problem' into a sustainable, circular plastic economy.
In parts one and two, we discussed how the plastic-recycling system is broken and how to improve it; and how to increase the use of recycled plastic materials in new products.
Today’s dishearteningly low recycling rates (in the US, 86 percent of plastic ends up in landfills) and confusing information about the recycling process have shaken consumer confidence in the products they are buying. For example: what’s a Resin Identification Code (RIC)? Folks who don’t know are in good company.
RICs are the numbers found inside the ubiquitous “chasing arrows” symbol (♻) for recycling. According to a 2019 report from the Consumer Brands Association, more than two-thirds of US consumers mistakenly think any plastic product stamped with an RIC code can be recycled; one in four say they don’t know what the codes mean at all. (The codes — which range from 1 to 7 — indicate resin type, and ultimately, how easily recyclable a material is. Plastics coded 1, 2 and
5 are most commonly
recyclable through curbside programs; while the other categories are more likely
to be problematic.)
Tossing all plastic with an RIC in the recycling bin doesn’t guarantee your
local material-recovery facility can actually process it — in fact, far from it.
Currently, RICs 1 and 2 (PET and HDPE types of plastic) are the leaders in
recycling rates, coming in at around 30
Most other RICs cannot be mass-managed in standard recycling streams, so they
end up in the trash or incinerated.
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That’s why some researchers are calling
whole new system of categorizing recyclable materials meant to make recycling
less confusing for consumers and end users, and for it to be more transparent
when products are made of plastics that can’t safely or easily be recycled.
Nonprofits such as How2Recycle are getting
involved, too — working to introduce more readily understandable material labels
and recycling instructions. These programs are a great step in the right
direction; but because of their voluntary nature, the vast majority of brands
choose to continue using the widely misunderstood RICs.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also taking a hard look at how
manufacturers and brands market the use of recycled plastics and other materials
in their products. The FTC is currently seeking public comment as it prepares to
update its “Green Guides for the Use of Environmental
— a move that aims to crack down on deceptive marketing
that make false claims about sustainability or environmental impact, otherwise
Companies or brands that inaccurately describe their products and practices
pertaining to carbon emissions and
recycled components, and other terms could face steep fines if the FTC moves
with their proposed changes.
The changes could [rightfully] deter brands from putting RICs and the ‘chasing
arrow’ symbol on their products and packaging despite knowing the material
contents can’t be processed by commercial recycling systems. Until now, brands
and manufacturers have enjoyed vague guidelines when marketing "recyclable"
products to customers, despite the likelihood of many of these said products
being recycled being close to zero.
The FTC’s proposal could also mitigate misleading product and packaging labeling
in the area of ocean plastics. For example, many consumers today aren’t aware of
the difference between ocean
(already polluting waterways) and plastic destined to flow into the ocean:
(post-consumer plastic waste discarded within communities without formal
waste-management systems located 50 kilometers or less from the shoreline).
While concerns exist about how stricter regulation may affect the willingness of
a brand to embark on a sustainability initiative, the enforcement of reliable,
would far outweigh the potential drawbacks. Not only would there be a reduction
in consumer frustration; it would also have the effect of greater demand for
products that are having a real, positive environmental
Some brands, such as those that partner with Oceanworks, already
between ocean plastic and ocean-bound plastic and use purposeful language to
prevent any misleading claims. Ensuring industry-wide compliance with the use of
correct terminology is critical to increasing transparency and clearing up
According to a report from First Insight and the Wharton School of
“Today, nearly 90 percent of Gen X consumers said that they would be willing to
spend an extra 10 percent or more for sustainable products — compared to just
over 34 percent two years ago.” Millennials and Gen Z are embracing waste-free
behaviors; and Gen Z, on track to make up 27 percent of global income by 2030,
is expected to be even more
to purchasing sustainable products. Brands would do well to position themselves
to authentically and transparently meet this demand.
Published Mar 27, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.