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Waste Not
The Problem with Recycling, Part 3:
Reducing Confusion and Boosting Consumer Confidence

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 percent. Most other RICs cannot be mass-managed in standard recycling streams, so they end up in the trash or incinerated.

That’s why some researchers are calling for a 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 Claims” — a move that aims to crack down on deceptive marketing tactics that make false claims about sustainability or environmental impact, otherwise known as greenwashing. Companies or brands that inaccurately describe their products and practices pertaining to carbon emissions and offsets, recycled components, and other terms could face steep fines if the FTC moves forward 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 plastic (already polluting waterways) and plastic destined to flow into the ocean: “ocean-bound plastic” (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, clear, transparent marketing 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 impact.

Some brands, such as those that partner with Oceanworks, already differentiate 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 consumer confusion.

According to a report from First Insight and the Wharton School of Business, “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 committed to purchasing sustainable products. Brands would do well to position themselves to authentically and transparently meet this demand.