100% Recycled: a claim that is nothing but greenwash

100% Recycled is a greenwash claim that persists and nothing but a myth that is being perpetuated

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

recyc1The claim of “100% Recycled” is one of a very misleading nature. When consumers see this term, they tend to think the item they are buying is made of material that was actually used by someone, discarded, and then recycled. Or at the very least, that they are somehow preventing material from entering the waste stream.

In reality, “100% recycled” means next to nothing – legally speaking, scrap material that winds up on the floor and is thrown back into the raw materials bin, is considered recycled. Material that was actually used in a product by a consumer, then returned to some sort of recycling facility to be reprocessed has a second term attached to it – “post-consumer recycled”. That’s why you’ll often see both terms used on say, your roll of expensive recycled toilet paper. Only the “post-consumer” percentage, which is very rarely 100% actually meets people’s expectations for what recycled really means. Confused now? So will be most people and that's why this “100% Recycled” claim is so misleading in the way it is used currently.

I spoke with a clothing company rep a few months back and he told me about the scam of one company where they were making the cloth, then officially recycled it and could claim it to be made from 100% recycled material.

This makes a mockery out of the entire recycled claim, in the same way as their is no such thing as 100% recycled plastic for grocery bags, for instance, and also other products. The maximum of recycled content possible is 30%.

In “Sustainable Marketing Communications,” the author, Donald Fuller, refers explicitly to this kind of recycling as not qualifying as truly “recycled” and he is right.

When a manufacturer routinely collects spilled raw material and scraps from trimming finished products. After a minimal amount of reprocessing, the manufacturer combines the spills and scraps for further production of the same product. A claim that the product contains recycled material is deceptive because these materials would not normally have entered the waste stream and this is an inappropriate use of the very term “recycled”, let alone “100% recycled.”

Now, the catch, of course is, can the manufacturer claim that the scrap material would have wound up in the landfill had they not made some sort of significant effort? Frankly, heading down that path leads to marketing claims that hang on tenuous threads. The fact is “post-consumer” is what people think of when they think of recycling, and that’s the only definition that really carries any weight once people are educated about the facts.

There is only one – as said – way that consumers will ever understand “recycled” or and especially “100% recycled” and that is as “post-consumer” and that is the only way that that term should ever be used.

Abusing people’s ignorance by having two definitions of “recycled” is bound to blow up in the face of marketers sooner or later, and do a great deal of damage to the reputations of anyone working with recycled products, including the honest ones.

While one may not wish to interfere with the free market – also one of those terms that is ambiguous as the market often is not free – but this is a great example where the law, on an international basis, needs to step and and regulate as to what “recycled” is to mean and it must be made to mean what people understand of the term, namely that it is made with “post-consumer” waste and not stuff (just) from the cutting floor, for instance.

Although I like to let the free market ride as much as possible, this is a great example of where legislative changes are necessary to ensure that “recycled” really means what people expect it to mean.

The only possible drawback here is that suddenly there would be hardly any products available with “100% Recycled” written on them. But since when was honesty a drawback? Honest labelling is something that should be the norm and not the exception and when it then says “30% recycled content” this again should mean that this is what it says in “post-consumer waste” terms and not in the old currency of the ambiguous terms.

We must press for honesty and integrity and the ones who can do that are you and I, as consumers, but for that we have to know that, honestly, the recycled content given is a true value and that the recycled component really has been used before by consumers.

I guess that is why I love stuff that is repurposed and upcycled where you can see where it was actually made from. However, even there cases can be found where more new material is in the contents of product than upcycled material.

We need to bring honesty and integrity into green claims and business practices for otherwise all will lose out, consumer to business.

© 2011