Recyclable vs. Recycled

I bought organic cotton sheets last week, and was glad to see they were packaged in recycled cardboard — or so I thought. Take a closer look (in the bottom left):


Yep – that’s recyclable, not recycled. (Actually, close reader, it says “recyclabe,” which doesn’t exactly give me faith…) Most good greenies – myself included – have probably been duped by a product featuring the recycled logo.

The well-known three-arrow-triangle is used for two different things. And it’s important to know the difference.

Recycled Content. First, this logo is used to identify products that are made with recycled content. When you’re shopping, this logo tells you if something is made with recycled content, and how much. It indicates, literally, if your newspaper had a former life as printer paper, was recycled, ground up, and made into the product before you. In the US, the word “recycled” is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), so it’s as trustworthy as any marketing claim.

Newspapers, cereal boxes, and egg cartons are almost always made using recycled paper content. When you’re buying paper, cardboard, or just about anything packaged in a carton or plastic, it’s good to find something made using recycled material. (It’s just a better way to make stuff!)

recycle logo

You’ve got to love the name: Mutually Chasing Arrows

Recyclable Content. Second, the logo is used to help classify stuff that can be recycled when you’re done with it. Most prominently, it’s placed on the bottom of many plastic bottles, to help you figure out if you can recycle it where you live. That’s good to know, and we’re glad the label is used. (Read more about the plastic recycling symbols and their meaning here.)

However, there’s one insidious angle to this. Watch out when you are looking for a product made from recycled content, like printer paper or cardboard boxes. Some marketers are hoping to fool you with “recyclable” where you expect “recycled.” And unfortunately  your “recyclable” paper might have been a mahogany tree in a rainforest last month.

“Recyclable” puts the burden on us, the consumers: this product might get recycled, but only if the proper recycling systems are available, and if you make use of them. The term does have an FTC-defined legal meaning, and if a product is only recyclable in certain towns and cities, the product now has to indicate “This product is recyclable only in the few communities that have appropriate recycling programs.” We’re thankful for those labeling requirements.

But here’s the lesson for would-be green buyers like you and me: if you’re hoping to buy something made from recycled content, look closely. And don’t let “recyclable” fool you.

Photo credit: Author; Flickr user Dominicotine

3 thoughts on “Recyclable vs. Recycled

  1. Nancy Wahl-Scheurich

    As a manufacturer of a desk lamp made from recycled e-waste and recycled steel packaged in a box made of recycled cardboard, all of which is ALSO recyclABLE, my company is potentially damaged by other manufacturers of cheaper competitive products claiming to be green because they’re made of “recyclable” aluminum or that they use recyclable packaging, which as you point out, takes no effort on their part, removes nothing from the waste stream, and only matters if consumers know how to recycle the item and care enough to do it. Thanks very much for this excellent article pointing out a popular method of greenwashing.

  2. Ken

    I’m all for educating people to look for the correct wording and know how to tell if something is recycled or not. However, you should be careful about making overblown statements about duping, its simply not true and reduces your own credibility. Please keep your articles about education, without exaggeration, it’s in your mission’s best interest to maintain the highest credibility.

    By your own definition “Second, the logo is used to help classify stuff that can be recycled,” the example you gave was a perfectly valid and appropriate use of the symbol and accompanying text (minus the typo). There is no duping going on when a manufacturer indicates something is “Recyclable”, it’s in plain easily understandable English.

    1. Jeff Gang

      Hi Ken – thanks for your comments. You’re right that we’re trying to maintain credibility. However, I was truly fooled by the use of the recycling logo, which I took to usually mean “recycled content” when on paper products. (After all, almost all paper products are recyclable – it doesn’t seem worth indicating, or so I thought.) And, as far as I understand the science of consumer behavior, it’s far from slow and reasoned – we usually make gut-level emotional purchasing decisions, which is why a logo with two drastically different meanings is so unfortunate.

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