100% Recycled – A Greenwashed Claim that Still Persists

recyc1.jpgI’ve written in the past about the misleading nature of the term “100% Recycled”. 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?

In the reputable text by Donald Fuller, Sustainable Marketing Communications, the author refers explicitly to this kind of recycling as not qualifying as truly “recycled”.

Inapropriate Use: 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.

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.

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.

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 is that suddenly there would be hardly any products available with “100% Recycled” written on them. But since when was honesty a drawback?

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.