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Adam Minter

Walmart-Greenpeace Battle Mostly Misses the Point

A dispute over recycling labels ignores far bigger environmental problems.

It’s not enough.

It’s not enough.

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

If a plastic Greek yogurt cup has a label that says it’s recyclable, is it actually recyclable?

The question isn’t just philosophical. Last month, the environmental group Greenpeace Inc. sued Walmart Inc., claiming that the recycling logos that the retailer stamps on certain packages are misleading. Specifically, it argued that single-use plastic yogurt cups are rarely if ever recyclable in California, and demanded that they stop being labeled as such. 

The lawsuit is probably going nowhere. But Walmart and its partners shouldn’t celebrate just yet. For too long, retailers have relied almost exclusively on “recyclability” as the measure of whether or not a product is environmentally sound. But a growing body of research (not to mention common sense) has shown that increased recyclability doesn’t necessarily lead to less waste, fewer emissions or improved human health. If Walmart — and Greenpeace — want to present the most sustainable options to consumers, they need to look at the bigger picture.

The logo at issue, the now-iconic emblem consisting of three spinning green arrows, was designed in 1970, just as municipal recycling programs were taking off. By the early 1990s, policy makers and activists had grown concerned that the label was being used to “greenwash” environmentally suspect products. In response, the Federal Trade Commission undertook a byzantine study of consumer and industry perceptions and created benchmarks to help decide what constituted a legitimate claim of “recyclability.” If fewer than 60% of a community’s residents had access to a recycling facility, for instance, then qualifications such as “may not be recyclable in your area” would have to be added to the label.

Enter Walmart. Its yogurt cups are made from a plastic that fewer and fewer recycling programs accept, since their primary market for selling it — China — barred the import of most such recyclables in 2019. So Walmart began stamping “Check Locally” in the space between the three arrows on these plastics. Just below the logo, in two-point font, it added: “Not Recycled in All Communities.” Walmart argues that the label is accurate and conforms to both federal and state specifications.

Greenpeace sued anyway, claiming the print is too fine, the message is confusing and the plastics in question simply aren’t recycled enough to qualify for the label. The group’s goal seems to be forcing Walmart, always image-conscious, to avoid bad press by using packaging that’s more recyclable.

Although well intentioned, it’s a misguided approach. Americans like to recycle, and their household refuse is essential to meeting the needs of manufacturers, especially during Covid. Plastics are part of that supply chain, and investment and innovation should expand the market for them over the next few years. Meanwhile, specialized facilities will still buy even the most difficult-to-recycle plastics. If Greenpeace succeeds in eliminating the logos, those cups won’t be available to the recyclers that still take them — they’ll simply be diverted to trash. Companies investing in new forms of recycling may think twice about whether they can count on yogurt cups as raw material. And government mandates that manufacturers use a specific percentage of recycled material in their products — California will require 15% recycled content in plastic bottles in 2022 — could become harder to achieve.

More important, simply demanding more recyclable packaging misses the point. A better approach would consider the impact of producing and transporting that packaging — not just disposing of it. In a now-classic study comparing the impacts of different coffee packages, researchers found that a recyclable steel can generated more than four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of an unrecyclable plastic brick pack over the course of its lifetime, and 4.5 times more solid waste by weight. Such results have been repeatedly validated in lifecycle studies of other products, including plastic bags, water bottles and smartphones.

That doesn’t mean recyclability is irrelevant, of course. But any honest assessment of sustainability should take these broader environmental effects into account. Retailers with in-house brands could start by assessing the climate impacts of their own packaging and revealing them to customers. As an example, Apple Inc. releases environmental reports for its devices and discloses the carbon emissions associated with each step of their lifespans. In a similar way, a “Total Carbon Used” label — perhaps with a QR code directing customers to a more detailed website — could spur Walmart and others to create packaging that’s truly sustainable, not just recyclable.

To be sure, that’s a much harder goal to achieve. But finding a greener way to package products will require activists and corporations alike to look beyond the recycling bin.