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 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.

10 responses

  1. I hate greenwashing. I can’t wait until a department in the government creates a unanimous standard for domestic upcycling pratices. Too many mixed standards; this isn’t the technology market fighting for market share.

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  3. I am doing a project.
    when did we start seeing markings on commercial goods that say “made of 100% recycled materials”
    if you could shoot me an email if you have the answer that would be great

  4. What about this scenario: I have a product that I am making from scrap provided by another manufacturer who WOULD, in fact, be throwing all of the material out or at least returning it to some other sort of recycling center that would use it as a percentage of their product. Wouldn’t my product be considered 100% recycled? I have caused NO new material to be used due to demand for my product, and I am a separate entity from the company where my material comes from.
    What about product made from partial use of such “trim” scrap? If we only consider POST-CONSUMER recycled product – i.e. part of the material has been sold to consumers, used, returned, and refashioned – then recycling of scrap material from manufacturing processes couldn’t even be used as a percentage measure for many products, recycling centers, and re-manufacturers.
    I believe the proper concept of “recycled” is: “No new raw material (by %) was required to create the product.” That would, of course, carry the stipulation that normal production scrap is being minimized as much as possible – but that is every manufacturer’s goal. Manufacturers make better profits by keeping scrap to a minimum than they would if they tried to inflate their recycled products by increasing scrap – that would just be stupid.
    Of course, there is a bit of a gray area: Once a manufacturer has developed a product and processes to make that product entirely from their own scrap [from other processes], does that mean that this is now just a standard manufacturing process and not so much a recycling process?
    Maybe we should have a label for “Remanufactured” as opposed to “Recycled”??? Maybe that could be part of the differentiation if a standard is developed…

  5. There are industries with certification organizations, like print and building, that have a fairly rigorous certification process. FSC and SFI are sustainable forestry certification organizations, which you’ll sometimes see on the back of catalogs or other publications, which certify the amount of recycled or sustainable material in paper stock, or in lumber. Fortunately, it’s not all greenwashing.

  6. People who want to buy recycled toilet paper should check out the “Seventh Generation” brand. It’s 80% post-consumer, comes in two-ply double-rolls, and it’s a decent combination of soft, strong, and absorbant qualities. Apologies for getting way to TMI here, but I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, so that means I’m in something of a position to appreciate quality TP!
    Green Forest is the most well-known “recyled” TP brand, but it contains only 10% post-consumer.

  7. Whatever happened to the wise practice of charging a deposit on the container (like bottles used to be), and then refunding a portion of the deposit when it is turned in to be recycled? And make the % of deposit returned proportional to the ability for the material to be recycled. (Which would encourage bottles and aluminum usage, rather than the crazy pileup of plastic going on.)

  8. Hey everyone, realize this posting is very old. Green Forest was bought by Planet a few years ago and now tops Greenpeace's list of recommended recycled household paper. Green Forest is still 100% recycled, but Planet raised the post consumer content to a minimum of 90%. It is whitened without chlorine, has no added scents or dyes, and is soft. Check it out.

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