Store Drop-Off: Another Recycling Fail

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.

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  1. John Emerson

    I remember heavy glass coke bottles that could be washed and reused. That’s technically easy to do, but disposable bottles are cheaper because of labor and transport costs. A high proportion of “recycled” bottles are just crushed into a gravel substitute rather than being reused made into new bottles. This is a good thing in a small way, since there’s a global gravel shortage. But that wasn’t what recycling was supposed to be. And as I understand, the case with plastics is far worse. And a lot of “recycling” is just bundled and shipped the third world countries to be dumped there. (See, we do export something!) A major problem is that different sorts of glass and plastic are not interchangeable.

    All told, recycling seems to be almost entirely a political PR hoax, to let people think they’re doing something. Meanwhile, more toxic and more harmful pollutants are weakly or not at all controlled. And one part of recycling is a sin / luxury tax — beer and pop bottles are for deposit, but not other bottles including wine bottles.

  2. Dave in Austin

    John Emerson, above, is correct. This is a feel-good, expensive hoax so my Austin friends can think they are doing someting. Austin imposes a big tax to fund collection and recycling. Instead the trash is shipped to San Antonio for non-recycling where it is put on rail cars for a trip to parts unknown. A perfect example of our “there is a problem; write legislation and impose a tax; actually do nothing; declare victory; if someone spots the hoax nobody goes to jail” system.

  3. LawnDart

    Recycling is booming for other materials, such as cardboard, paper and metals, but most consumer plastic (though not commercial scrap) is and always has been a grade above toxic waste: it tends to stack up in MRFs until it must be shipped to a landfill (costs recyclers $$$, so it piles up until the next plant manager can’t kick the can anymore).

    Most Americans have bigger and more immediate concerns to deal with than their own waste (and perhaps capitalism’s as-practiced induced precarity has something to do with this), so yeah, the plastics will keep building up in our environment and bloodstreams until we all look like Cher, Cardi B, or Wayne Newton (no scalpel necessary). But, ultimately, the NPG that results from this WILL be good for nature!

  4. chuck roast

    Back around 1994 I was primary staff person for a grant to study recycling. It was my first professional planning gig, and I was all gung-ho enthusiastic. My report was well received, and it was onward into the heart of the PMC. I never kept a copy, so I went looking for it on the way-back machine. No luck. It must be gathering dust on any number of book-shelves. It was called “Recycling in the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District; A Feasibility Analysis of Materials, Methods, Markets and Costs”.

    I had heard that vehicle tires were being recycled in an unnamed south-central NM city. I called the municipal solid waste department and talked with the director about it. After a bit of boasting followed by some serious evasion he finally admitted that the recycling consisted of burying the old, worn-out tires in an isolated portion of the landfill…just in case they eventually developed any value. This was my nimrod introduction to the practical meaning of recycling in America.

    These many years later it is clear to me that with the exception of metal and various forms of paper recycling, recycling at least in the form it is practiced in the US, is the epitome of virtue signaling bull$hit. There is clearly social and economic value in developing a comprehensive waste exchange, but there seems to be no energy expended in this direction. Reduce & Reuse. Simplify. Unfortunately, these concepts are in direct contradiction to the prevailing zeitgeist of more complexity.

    Lately I have been thinking more about Gramsci’s theory of organic crisis. This is yet another “morbid symptom” of the phenomenon. I used to like ‘doing trash’ because I thought that it had a beautiful simplicity. Everything is CalPERS? Maybe everything is Gramsci.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, there is a huge disparity between claims of recycling and the reality. As you say, often just keeping materials separated on a landfill and calling it ‘storage’ is pretty common. And of course, even when recycled, its often to very low grade secondary uses.

      The key to recycling is not recycling facilities, but strict regulations of the materials to start with. Recycling pure PET or other plastics is relatively easy and profitable – but only if it is uncontaminated with other materials, which is almost impossible to achieve. Post consumer separation is extremely difficult. Only by forcing a standardisation of materials for packaging is there any hope of having ‘real’ recycling.

      The only way out for plastics under current regulations is if someone can make cracking plants work – i.e. plants where you throw in mixed plastics and break them down to the base chemicals for re-use. There was a lot of interest in this in the 1990’s – BP built a large pilot plant in Grangemouth in Scotland. But it never took off – I really don’t know if the issues were techical or economic, or a mixture.

  5. Carolinian

    Despite multiple assertions in the article I doubt that 99 percent of Walmart customers are even aware of any recycling claims much less being concerned about it. I’m sure they do however hate those plastic bubble packages that you have to saw open to get the product. Walmart used to use these extensively to discourage in store tampering, allow the consumer to nevertheless see what they are buying and perhaps have an effect on shoplifting as well as discouraging returns. My impression is that there is now far less use of this style packaging at Walmart and other stores.

    And other stores doubtless are just as culpable. I’ve tried taking compact fluorescent light bulbs to Home Depot and they acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about. Fortunately the mercury containing CFLs are no longer a thing because disposing of them is a real dilemma. Walmart now only sells LED style bulbs.

  6. synoia

    When a child I was, there was no plastic.

    Garbage cans, dustbins to me, were small and mostly half full on collection day.

    Goods were placed in a personal shopping basket. Meat was wrapped in paper, and fresh from the Butcher.

    Shopping was local.

    Wives did not have to work, and mostly focused on rearing their children.

    Two car families, rare.

  7. Maritimer

    I read Giants of Garbage: The Rise of the Global Waste Industry and the Politics of Pollution way back in the 1990s. What a Global Racket. I’m sure it has advanced and tweaked its Con since then.

    Anecdotally, we have giant diesel burning trucks cruising our neighborhood once a week picking up small amounts of refuse from houses spaced at considerable distances. The inefficiency does not matter because it is all tax money and the pols are beholden to the Garbage Giants.

    And we have Garbage Inspectors. The first time one showed up he was driving a Gold Jaguar! A crony of the Mayor! He never showed up in the Jag again. And folks here play garbage tag with the GI so as not to have their garbage rejected. Oh, the shame and humiliation of garbage rejection.

    Of course, the easy solution is to deal with the Garbage at source, that is the Stuporstores, but that will never be adopted. Too much recycling loot to pocket.

    So, study up on your garbage classifications so you will not suffer social opprobrium or even prosecution.

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