All products, packaging and services have some environmental impact, although some may have less than others. Last week, we discovered that manufacturers are increasing their efforts to implement environmentally friendly packaging. This week, let’s examine what those “green” claims mean.
Surprisingly, there are actual rules in place governing the words that can be used to describe various packaging materials, not unlike the guidelines that exist governing our food labeling. The Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency have worked together to come up with a sort of “environmental truth in advertising” guide. Here are some of the highlights concerning packaging:
A label claiming recycled materials must: contain 100% recycled materials OR identify the percentage of recycled materials.
“Recycled” materials are made from items recovered or separated from the “waste stream”, melted down or ground up into raw materials and then used to make new products. Envelopes which fell to the floor during production line boxing may not then be recovered, boxed and labeled “recycled”.
“Post-consumer” material comes from previously used business or consumer products, such as newspapers, shipping cartons, plastic bottles, glass containers, and aluminum cans. “Pre-consumer” material is basically manufacturing waste. For example, an envelope manufacturer might recycle the clippings left over when envelopes are cut from paper. These clippings could be made into other paper products instead of being thrown away.
A “refillable” claim is allowed only when the manufacturer has the ability to refill returned containers, and there is a collection program in place. For example, empty printer cartridges are not recyclable, but they are refillable. There are many collection programs available to the consumer, including eCycle Group. “Refillable” is also allowed on a small container, when a larger “refill” container is conveniently sold or available nearby.
Plastic packaging manufacturers use the chasing arrows symbol, along with a code developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry, to indicate the type of plastic from which a particular product is made. SPI code numbers range from 1 to 7. Bottles or jugs labeled with numbers 1 and 2, such as soda bottles, detergent, shampoo, and milk jugs, are the most likely to be accepted for recycling.
Some products and packages state that they use less material than former or competing products or packaging. To be meaningful, such claims should say exactly what’s been reduced, by how much, and compared to what.
“Recyclable” claims on labels and advertising mean that the manufacturer or seller of the products has proof that the products can be collected and used again, or made into useful products. Some companies simply may say “Please Recycle” on their products. Such claims will be relevant to you only if these products are collected for recycling in your community, either through curbside pickup programs or drop-off programs. Contact your local recycling or solid waste officials for this information.
Some businesses recycle products for you. You may see a product labeled or advertised as “recyclable” and the business allows you to either return the used product to where it was purchased or send the used product to the manufacturer in a prepaid mailer. eCycle Group has been a proponent of recycling products for consumers for years, accepting printer and toner cartridges, cell phones, MP3 players, and other small electronics.
Be wary of vague or general claims which sound warm and fuzzy, but generally offer little information of value. Claims that a product or service is “environmentally friendly,” “environmentally safe,” “environmentally preferable,” or “eco-safe” or labels that contain environmental seals — a picture of the earth, for example— are unhelpful. These phrases alone do not provide the specific information you need to compare products, packaging, or services on their environmental merits. Look for claims that give some substance to the claim — the additional information that explains why the product is environmentally friendly or has earned a special seal.
The FTC issued the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) to prevent the false or misleading use of environmental terms in product advertising and marketing and reduce consumer confusion. For a copy of the Green Guides contact: FTC Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20580; 202-FTC-HELP (382-4357); 1-866-653-4261 (TDD for the hearing impaired).