Learn how a simple update to the definition of the term 'recyclable' in the FTC Green Guides can be transformative in our real world, and how you can use your voice to drive change now! For consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and consumers that desire a recycling system that works for our communities and our planet - it is time to take action.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Two years ago, I published an open letter to our industry: Fixing the Recycling System by Redefining “Recyclable” in the FTC Green Guides. While I still hold the core arguments as true, I have since discovered that that the most effective mechanism for positive action is to update the metrics being used to substantiate the term ‘recyclable’ within the FTC Green Guides.
My hope for this letter is to serve as a roadmap, and platform for discussion, as to how we can leverage the FTC's duty to protect consumers from misleading business practices by making sure we are using the right tests to prove (i.e. substantiate) the claim that something is ‘recyclable’ matches how everyday people, like you and me, interpret this word.
The time is now to take action. The FTC has officially opened a forum and is accepting feedback and recommendations for the FTC Green Guides, and we have a precious window of opportunity to make these positive changes. So make sure your voice is heard.
With plastic waste on the rise, MRFs struggle to make ends meet, and citizens/municipalities are left holding the bag, we all have a shared desire to have a cohesive recycling system that works for everyone: citizens, brands, material recovery facilities (MRFs), and municipalities. To have a healthy and resilient recycling system, we need to ensure that the materials in our system are the right fit for use and truly have high rates of recyclability. We also need the ability to quickly identify what materials are not working so that we can focus our collective innovation efforts.
Mechanisms for Action: The fix is quite simple; first we 1) update the metrics required to substantiate the term ‘recyclable’ as defined by the FTC Green Guides and then 2) create a fair and transparent accounting system to track our recycled material flows.
The Role of the FTC: Within the Section 5 of the FTC Act, there are laws to protect consumers from harmful, deceitful market claims and misleading business practices. As part of this duty, the FTC puts protocols and rules in place to ensure that marketers must prove marketing claims such that they match how reasonable consumers would interpret the claim. This is also true for sustainable/environmentally beneficial claims – and the FTC uses the Green Guides to help marketers better understand the rules around how and when environmental beneficial claims can be used.
Right now, there is a disconnect in what people expect to happen when they put a product/material that is marketed as 'recyclable' in the bin, and what is actually happening. This is where the power of the FTC and the FTC Green Guides come into play.
Updating ‘Recyclable’ in FTC Green Guides: The term ‘recyclable’ is among many common environmental claims defined within these Green Guides, and its due for an update. The current metric being used to substantiate the term recyclable is insufficient to capture the intent of the word.
It is a regional access metric, depicted in the appendix below, that can be summarized as: for a product/material to be marketed as ‘recyclable’, then 60% of households must have access to collection of this material by a MRF (material recovery facility). This only accounts for access, but does not prove that a material marketed as ‘recyclable’ actually makes it all the way through the recycling system. The ’recycling system’, in this context, can be defined by the diagram below:
Figure 1: Our Recycling System - The green material flow line (marked by ‘A’ square) is that path that a reasonable consumer expects a 'recyclable' material to take when they put it in a recycling bin.
Failures of Current ‘Regional Access’ Metric: With this limited metric, MRFs can simply add certain material/products to their list of ‘collected materials’ regardless of if there is an end-market (i.e. recycled material buyer) for the MRF to sell to. This leads to real scenarios where ‘recyclable’ materials are being sorted and baled, just to have the bales sit on the floor of the MRF collecting dust. These unsellable bales of material are then sent to landfills or sometimes sent to incinerators for energy. This is not what a reasonable consumer expects when they put material/product labeled as ‘recyclable’ in the recycling bin. There are already states taking the lead to tackle this issue, such as the recently passed California Law SB 343.
The New Mass Flow Metric: Most consumers expect that materials marketed as ‘recyclable’ have a high probability of making it all the way through the recycling system to become inputs for new products. As reasonable consumers – we want proof that materials that are marketed as recyclable are actually being recycled into new products. To remedy this, we need to add a ‘mass flow metric’ to the Green Guides to substantiate the marketing claim ‘recyclable’. This ‘mass flow metric’ would help account for each material type as it flows through the recycling system and provide clarity on the portion that actually makes it through.
One recommendation for this new mass flow metric: ‘for a material to be marketed as ‘recyclable’, then a substantial majority (60% or more) of this material type must make it all the way through the recycling system to become an input to a new product (not including waste-to-energy products).’
Figure 2: Mass Flow Metric - Adding this metric to substantiate the term 'recyclable' will eliminate misleading practices and provide the free market with the information it needs to identify opportunities and invest in innovative solutions/companies that solve our current material management crisis.
Accounting for Material Flows: One way to track and substantiate this metric would be to build a nation-wide, fair and transparent accounting system where MRFs can upload the total weight of each material collected, sorted, and sold at each location. While some may say this is too costly or difficult, it is necessary to help the free-market self-correct and transfer costs (that are currently on the shoulders of MRFs, municipalities and consumers) to the appropriate part of the economy. This system would actually be easy to build with existing software systems – and blockchain data management technology.
Benefits of Adding this Metric: By taking the above actions, we will get clear about what is working and identify opportunities for innovation. This will support our free market's ability to self-correct and create market drivers that will transform our recycling system so that it actually works for all of us.
Recommendations to the FTC
Here is a summary of what RCD will be submitting to the FTC as recommendations for updating the Green Guides.
Update the definition of ‘recyclable’ by adding a measurable metric to substantiate the term ‘recyclable’ to include an accounting of the % of materials entering back into the market (not including selling into waste-to-energy products).
Set fair and reasonable targets for the % of materials entering back into the market, for example: increasing the % targets every 2 years to eventually be a substantial majority (60%+) within the next 6 years.
Establish a fair and auditable material flow accounting system that tracks 1) the % of materials collected and sorted by type, and 2) the % of collected materials that were sold back into the market to make a new product (not including waste-to-energy products).
Create a public, real-time, monitoring platform where citizens (consumers) can track the material flow within their local region and nationally.
Codifying the Green Guides: Moving from a ‘guide document’ to policy.
You can submit your comments too!
If you are passionate about building a more sustainable world and want to ensure that marketing claims that are being used to promote environmentally beneficial product attributes are not 'greenwash', then submit a comment in response to the FTC's request for public comment on the Green Guides at: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FTC-2022-0077-0001
Get your voice heard! Submit your comments by Monday April 24th, 2023
Figure 3: Regional Access Metric - Material and packaging suppliers just need to make sure the top major cities in the US list their product as a 'collected material' to qualify as ‘recyclable’ under current FTC Green Guides. This is insufficient to substantiate the term as it is understood by consumers.