What Are the Regulations on Using Recycling Logos?

What's to keep a company from putting the recycling symbol on its packages merely to attract environmentally conscious customers? Are there any regulations for using the symbol on plastic containers?

Recycling logo.

Recycling logo.     Photo: Creative Commons

The triangle of three chasing arrows rarely ends up on non-recyclable plastic. When it does, it's usually a manufacturer's error, not marketing chicanery, according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.

Unfortunately, the symbol itself can be misleading, since it gets slapped on plastics that theoretically can be recycled but often aren't. A polypropylene yogurt container stamped with the triangle embracing the number 5 looks righteous enough, but if a local handler can't recycle this type of plastic, it gets dumped—unlike the more readily processed beverage containers numbered 1 or 2. It's an imperfect system, which is why the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is working to develop more-informative labeling.

Adding to the confusion are some 400 eco-labels and green certifications of varying credibility. But who's certifying the certifiers? In North America, only EcoLogo and Green Seal have earned the highest ranking from the International Organization for Standardization, a global watchdog that upholds standards for products and services.

Federal Trade Commission guidelines aren't binding, but culprits who make bogus environmental claims can get smacked for deceptive advertising practices. There's also some self-policing: Companies have sued their competitors on the grounds that phony green claims are an unfair business practice. If you suspect greenwashing, call (877) FTC-HELP or your local attorney general's office.

Have a question of your own? Ask Mr. Green.

This column originally appeared in Sierra magazine.

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