♻️It may be time to recycle the recycle logo

EPA calls out greenwashing in recycling claims.

This newsletter is Mostly Water, but it’s not All Water All the Time. For a change of pace, here’s something that’s mostly plastics.

In an action memo to the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended a major review of plastics recycling practices.

The EPA writes:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides” or “Guides”) with respect to preventing greenwashing in advertising, supporting reliable sustainability claims, and increasing the effectiveness of U.S. recycling systems. In our view, the timing of this request for comment is particularly important given the growing domestic and international attention to global plastic pollution. EPA has therefore, as a general matter, chosen to focus its response to the FTC’s request on the recommendations relating to plastics, recycling, and building a circular economy. EPA’s comments are based on its deep background and engagement on waste and recycling, including the emergence of plastic pollution as an issue of concern.

Here are the EPA’s Overarching Comments on Building a Circular Economy for All, with an attempt at plain English subtitles.

1. The U.S. MSW system has drastically changed since the China National Sword policy went into effect in 2018, several years after the Green Guides were last updated. It is widely acknowledged that our current recycling system is facing significant challenges around access, consumer education, and a clear understanding of what can and should be recycled; these challenges have only become more pronounced since 2018.

Since China stopped accepting our unwashed and unsorted plastic waste, our landfills and waters have been overflowing with this stuff.

2. There should be a very high bar for all qualified and unqualified environmental claims included in the Green Guides. When products aren’t recycled right or aren’t recycled at all, the cost for consumers and communities is high. The “60% substantial majority” claim that allows for an unqualified recyclable claim should be reconsidered in light of the changing waste stream and known access to recycling issues.

Many products and packaging materials are labeled as recyclable, when in fact they are not currently recyclable.

3. EPA strongly encourages the FTC to clarify that products and packaging may only be marketed as recyclable if they have a strong end market. A strong end market should be defined to mean that materials collected and sorted by the recycling facility can reliably be sold for a price higher than the cost of disposal (e.g., the tipping fee) for the same materials, with some accounting for market fluctuations.

Only some materials have a strong end market. Aluminum and steel cans, glass, and cardboard all have strong markets. Plastics, not so much. See below.

4. Plastics are a significant problem that need to be addressed. Categorizing plastics by resin identification code coupled with chasing arrow symbols does not accurately represent recyclability as many plastics (especially 3-7) do not have end markets and are not financially viable to recycle. EPA recommends that the FTC address this issue by revising the Green Guides to reflect the language and understanding of the original ASTM intention of the resin identification codes for manufacturer, business, and consumer awareness. According to ASTM, the intention of the coding system was never to determine the recyclability of a product, but rather to determine resin composition and quality control measures before recycling.

Many recycling facilities, including mine, will only accept resin codes 1 and 2. What are resin codes anyway? Here’s a list:

1: polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) (beverage bottles, cups, other packaging, etc.)

2: high-density polyethylene (HDPE) (bottles, cups, milk jugs, etc.)

3: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (pipes, siding, flooring, etc.)

4: low-density polyethylene (LDPE) (plastic bags, six-pack rings, tubing, etc.)

5: polypropylene (PP) (auto parts, industrial fibres, food containers, etc.)

6: polystyrene (PS) (plastic utensils, Styrofoam, cafeteria trays, etc.)

7:(OTHER)/(PLA) other plastics, such as acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate and polylactic acid.

There are a thousand of other plastics – nylon, plexiglass, teflon, POM (polyoxymethylene, very common although you may never have heard of it) – in resin code 7. Pretty much by definition, they’re not recyclable, so putting chasing arrows around a 7 is a contradiction in terms.

5. EPA strongly encourages the FTC to revise the Green Guides to increase transparency in environmental benefit claims and to support increasing the use of third-party certification to support those claims. This includes requiring that all evidence supporting such claims be made readily available to the public and other interested parties for review. Transparency of information is critical to addressing the confusion around what is recyclable or compostable and to combating greenwashing.

This is strong, great, and needs no subtitles.

6. EPA recommends that the Green Guides be updated to restrict the use of the terms degradable, biodegradable, oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, or photodegradable on any products which are customarily disposed of in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities. Unlike the claims of “compostable” and “recyclable,” there is very little value associated with the use of the term “degradable” in advertising claims.


The EPA was founded in 1970, in my sophomore year of college, during the Nixon administration, a fact which seems incomprehensible in today’s political climate. Many of the landmark regulations that we’ve come to rely on are up around fifty years old and are in need of updating.

My friends at the EPA tell me that they were working on many of these initiatives during the Obama administration, only to get them shut down during the following one. Learning from that lesson, they are working hard to get things done under Biden in case things change again. So far, it’s brought us new drinking water regulations, environmental justice programs, power plant emissions rules, and now recycling reform.

The EPA deserves some kudos and support.

Leave a Reply