By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Much of the woeful U.S. waste management policy for plastics places undue reliance on the fickle recycling fairy.
Treehugger yesterday featured a story on the great store drop-off charade, Don’t Believe the ‘Store Drop-Off’ Label When It Comes to Plastic Packaging:
Several years ago, a new label started to appear on plastic packaging. It said “store drop-off” and it directed shoppers to return their packaging to special in-store collection bins that would ensure it got recycled. Soon more than 10,000 items carried the label and an associated website said there were over 18,000 drop-off bins across the United States. All that waste would be turned into wonderful things like park benches.
Too bad it wasn’t true. Worse yet, “the great store drop-off charade,” as it’s called, continues to expand while misleading customers into thinking that their waste is somehow serving a useful purpose, rather than contributing to a horrific buildup of garbage around the world.
Walmart’s behavior is particularly insidious. Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, found that WalMart actually didn’t have store drop-off options available when she looked for them locally, despite the company slapping a store drop-off label on thousands of products. According to TreeHugger:
Dell, who lives in Laguna Beach, California, downloaded a list of supposed drop-off locations throughout southern Orange County in 2019. There were 52 listed, but she only found 18 when she went looking for each one in pre-COVID times. There wasn’t a single one in any Walmart store, despite the company using the label on thousands of products. The ones she did find were full of contamination, as well.
An even bigger problem is that even when plastic film packaging is collected at a store drop-off collection point, what happens next is not clear. In fact, there’s no proof that the plastic film that’s collected is sent off for recycling. According to Treehugger:
The U.S. has less than 5% processing capacity for plastic films, and most of that comes from back-of-store sources like pallet wraps that tend to be cleaner. Unfortunately, it’s far cheaper to make new plastic film than to collect and reuse old films. “Maybe if oil was $500 a barrel, then it would make sense … But the cost of collecting, sorting, cleaning, reprocessing is, what, 100 times higher than new plastic?” Dell points out. “New plastic is just so cheap.”
Even when companies claim to be doing good things with old plastic, they’re barely making a difference. The Trex group that makes decking from plastic waste, Dell says, “has capacity for less than 3% of our plastic film … so this whole store drop-off program, in my opinion, is just hollow.”
As a member of the California Recycling Commission, Dell says she’s spoken with representations from Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) across California: “They all say nobody wants to buy plastic bags or films. If anyone’s collecting them, they’re trashed or sent to Asia.”
Greenpeace Sues Walmart
Walmart’s recyclability claims prompted Greenpeace to file suit against the company last December in California state court. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the plastics problem, and many of them engage in “wish cycling” – throwing items into the recycling bin in the hope that they’ll get recycled rather than dumped into a landfill. Just yesterday, a friend asked about light bulbs. Are they recyclable in New York? I thought not but didn’t know the answer. He thought yes and tossed some large bulbs from spotlights he’d just replaced into the recycling bin.
After a bit of research, I concluded that standard light bulbs can’t be recycled. According to Harmful Products:NYC’s Residential Guide to Safe Handling and Disposal, fluorescent bulbs should neither be discarded as ordinary trash, nor placed in a standard recycling bin. Instead, the city directs, “Drop-off CFLs at Home Depot, Ikea, Lowe’s, or bring any fluorescent bulb to any DSNY Household Special Waste Drop-Off Site.”
Walmart exploits this consumer desire to do the right thing by touting products as recyclable when it knows otherwise. According to Greenpeace:
Greenpeace Inc. filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court today, alleging that Walmart has employed unlawful, unfair, and deceptive business practices by incorrectly labeling and advertising its various private label throwaway plastic products and packaging as recyclable. Through the suit, Greenpeace is demanding 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 consumer protection laws, including the California Environmental Marketing Claims Act (EMCA) which regulates deceptive environmental marketing claims.
“Walmart knows that its customers are concerned about single-use plastics, and has been using misleading labels that falsely claim packaging is recyclable when it is bound for an incinerator or landfill,” said Greenpeace Inc. Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. “Until Walmart and other polluting corporations take responsibility for the damage their throwaway plastic is doing to our environment and our communities, the plastic crisis will continue to get worse. It is time for Walmart to end its reliance on single-use plastic and shift toward systems of reuse that truly address the pollution crisis.”
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.
Greenpeace’s lawsuit highlighted nearly a dozen examples of Walmart’s private label products with unqualified and otherwise problematic recyclable labels, and the organization alleges that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines, a product or package cannot be marketed as recyclable unless it can be “collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.” A violation of the FTC guidelines is also a violation of California law.
In early 2020, Greenpeace released the results of a comprehensive survey of the nation’s 367 recycling facilities, finding that consumer goods companies and retailers can only legitimately label PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs as recyclable. Common plastic pollution items, including plastic tubs, cups, lids, plates, and trays, cannot be labeled as recyclable according to FTC requirements. Additionally, many full body shrink sleeve labels that are added to PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make those products non-recyclable as well.
The author of the Treehugger article quizzed Hocevar on the significance of Walmart lawsuit:
This lawsuit matters, he said, because Walmart has made a commitment to switch all of its packaging to recyclable, compostable, or reusable options—but their actions indicate otherwise.
Hocevar explained: “[It seems like] they are considering a lot of packaging that is not recyclable as recyclable. In theory, almost anything can be recycled if you throw enough money, effort, and energy at it, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to recycle it.”
What Is to Be Done?
Overall, Hocevar was upbeat, however. He offered Treehugger some thoughts on possible solutions to the plastics crisis:
Better design plays a role, but really, “the most important solution is to move away from single use in general, to break our throwaway packaging habit and invest in scaling up reuse, refill, and package-free approaches.”
Solutions do exist, he said. There are dozens of “hungry startups ready to help companies scale up these solutions.” He gave the example of Walmart running a pilot project in Chile with a zero waste company called Algramo, which he is “happy to see, [but] a pilot in one country that is a tiny portion of Walmart’s overall business, is not matching the urgency or the scale that’s needed right now.”
Both he and Dell agreed that misleading claims about recycling only set back efforts to deal with the plastics problem effectively:
Both insist on the same thing: We’ll never get to a better place unless we stop pulling the wool over our eyes and falling for the “Great Store Drop-Off Charade.” In Dell’s words, “We’ll never get to that if we get to pretend plastic film is sustainable.”
In the meantime, customers can add their voices to the conversation. Speak to local store managers if you see the store drop-off label on the packaging. Ask where the collection bins are. Reach out to Walmart with demands for clearer labeling. Support the work that both Greenpeace and Last Beach Cleanup are doing to improve transparency.
Most importantly, avoid unnecessary plastic packaging whenever possible. To quote Hocevar, know that, “once you have a plastic thing, you’re stuck with it in one form or another for generations.” It’s really not worth it.
That’s a good thought to bear in mind. Yet thinking that individual action alone will solve this crisis is also a form of delusion. Strict regulation could drastically reduce the mountains of plastic packaging and single-use plastic currently being generated. Yet that’s unlikely to happen as long as plastics pushers think there’s so much money to be made in pushing consumers to use unnecessary plastic in the first place.