Why products marked 'recyclable' sometimes aren't

Just because an item is labelled "recyclable" doesn’t mean you should put it in your recycling bin. Here’s why, and what what to do about it.

Confusion abounds over symbols, marketing rules and variations from city to city

Joanna Mestre, holds up air-filled plastic packing pillows with the recycling symbol on them. They're recyclable where she lives, in Belleville, Ont., but many jurisdictions in Canada don't accept them in curbside recycling programs. (Submitted by Joanna Mestre)

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The recycling symbol is something many of us look for when deciding whether or not to toss something in the blue bin, be it a takeout container, a coffee cup lid or the packing material from your latest online shopping delivery.

But that iconic symbol of arrows chasing each other around a triangle — or even the word "recyclable" — doesn't necessarily mean the item will be accepted by your local recycling program.

That's because while most materials can technically be recycled with the right technology and enough investment, individual recycling programs may choose not to recycle them or be unable to recycle them for various reasons.

The City of Toronto doesn't recycle paper coffee cups because it can't find anyone willing to buy them. (CBC)

The end result? Those so-called recyclables end up as "contamination" in the recycling stream, damaging useable materials and increasing costs.

That makes it tough for eco-minded consumers like Joanna Mestre, of Belleville, Ont. "For those who are trying to make a difference and do the right thing, it's just really frustrating to find out, 'What? I'm not doing the right thing?'" she says.

Some of the items she orders online are shipped with those air-filled plastic pillows to protect them, and she always assumed she could put them in her blue bin. She's right — her municipality does accept them.

But many other curbside recycling programs in Canada do not — something the makers of the packaging are aware of. A website printed on the packaging lists stores where they can be dropped off for recycling.

'A great disconnect'

Those in the waste management industry, like the City of Toronto's Jim McKay, are well aware consumers are confused.

"There's a great disconnect between what a municipality will accept and what manufacturers and retailers are putting onto the market and saying [is] recyclable," said McKay, the city's general manager of solid waste management. "And I think it's causing frustration."

Toronto accepts a large variety of recyclable materials compared to many municipalities, with some notable exceptions:

  • Black plastic takeout containers, even though many have a symbol on the bottom suggesting they're recyclable. The technology at the city's sorting plant can't identify black plastics because they're the same colour as the belt. (They're sometimes accepted in programs that do more manual sorting).

  • Paper coffee cups, because the city can't find a buyer for them — the whole point of recycling.

"We collect recycling to sell it back," McKay said in an email. "The market determines what we can sell and how much we can sell."

Recycling symbol guidelines

There are rules about false or misleading claims under Canada's Competition Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, and the Textile Labelling Act that should theoretically apply to statements about recyclability and recycling symbols. In partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, the Competition Bureau has developed a set of guidelines for the use of the recycling symbol.

They state that packaging should only be labelled with an "unqualified" claim of recyclability such as the recycling symbol, known as the Mobius loop, with no accompanying words, if more than 50 per cent of Canadians have convenient access to recycling for that material.

'There's a great disconnect between what a municipality will accept and what manufacturers and retailers are putting onto the market and saying [is] recyclable,' says the City of Toronto's Jim McKay. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

In other cases, claims of recyclability need to "indicate the limitation of facilities." For example, a label might say "This container is recyclable through the blue box program in Southern Ontario and at recycling depots in Winnipeg and Edmonton." Or, if something is recyclable through a private recycling program, it might say "Recyclable — contact your local dealer for details."

But there is some ambiguity about what's allowed and what's not.

For example, stand-up pouches used to package everything from dog food to shredded cheese to frozen peas are generally not recyclable in blue box programs, although some can be recycled through a U.S.-based company called Terracycle.

One recently purchased package of shredded cheese in a stand-up pouch had the Mobius loop and the words "recyclable where facilities exist."

Pizza boxes with the Mobius loop recycling symbol, which features twisted or folded over arrows that distinguish them from resin code symbols. (Ramon Espelt Photography/Shutterstock)

The guidelines say that kind of language is "discouraged" but don't outright say it isn't allowed.

Rachel Morier, director of sustainability for an industry group called the PAC Packaging Consortium, says it's challenging for companies that label products and packaging to make all their information about recycling as accurate as possible in a landscape where recycling programs vary so much across the country and are constantly evolving.

What they come up with, she says, represents their best guess and their best hope for the material.

"There's no deceptive intention behind it," she said.

She added that while accuracy is in everyone's best interest, smaller and medium-sized businesses may not have the resources to know what kind of labelling is appropriate for their packages.

2 kinds of symbols

But there's another catch — there are actually two kinds of recycling symbols. The Mobius loop, in which the three arrows are twisted or folded over, is the one covered by the guidelines.

The other kind, which consists of three flat arrows forming a triangle with a number in the middle, is called a resin identification code.

Its intended purpose is only to differentiate between types of plastics; it's not meant as an environmental claim, so it can legally appear on packaging and products that are almost never recyclable.

Resin identification codes, which resemble the recycling symbol, are used only to differentiate between types of plastics; they are not meant to communicate an environmental claim. (Alberta Plastics Recycling Association)

The guidelines suggest that "in order to avoid confusion," they should not be placed near the product name or logo but somewhere less visible.

Mestre admits that she, like many others, associated the plastic resin codes with recycling.

"My initial instinct is yeah, that's recyclable," she said. "Now that I think about it, I do remember reading that, yes, it's not necessarily recyclable. You have to know what numbers are and aren't. There's a lot to it."

Anyone who feels they've been misled by confusing or inappropriately used recycling symbols can file a complaint with the Competition Bureau, which will investigate. If there is evidence that any laws have been violated, companies may face penalties such as fines.

Finally, if you're wondering what to do with air-filled plastic packing pillows if they're not recyclable where you live, Mestre suggests reusing them, as she does, to ship gifts and other items to family members.

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.

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