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Greenpeace sues Walmart regarding recyclability claims

The organization says Walmart’s plastic products and packaging make deceptive recyclability claims.

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December 17, 2020

Greenpeace Inc. has filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court alleging that Walmart has employed unlawful, unfair and deceptive business practices by labeling and advertising its various private-label plastic products and packaging as recyclable. The organization demands that Walmart remove what it says are the “false and misleading labels stating that its disposable plastic products and packaging are recyclable when they are not.”

Geenpeace alleges that Walmart has violated California consumer protection laws, including the California Environmental Marketing Claims Act (EMCA), which regulates deceptive environmental marketing claims.

The organization’s suit states that Walmart’s recyclability claims are false, misleading and deceptive because most consumers in California do not have access to facilities that can recover the items made from plastics other than polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Greenpeace also alleges that no end markets exist for these additional plastics.

In early 2020, Greenpeace released the results of a survey of the nation’s 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs). The organization says consumer goods companies and retailers legitimately can label only PET and HDPE bottles and jugs as recyclable according to Federal Trade Commission “Green Guide” requirements. Greenpeace also claims that full-body shrink sleeve labels that are added to PET and HDPE bottles and jugs make those products nonrecyclable.

However, that is not strictly the case, according to guidance from the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington. Steve Alexander, APR president, says bottles featuring such labels “can be—and are—recycled each and every day.”

Walmart announced in early 2019 its intentions to work with its U.S. private-brand suppliers on a number of commitments, which included reducing private-brand plastic packaging when possible, optimizing the use to meet the need; seeking to achieve 100 percent recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable packaging for its private brand packaging by 2025; and labeling 100 percent of food and consumable private-brand packaging with the How2Recycle label by 2022.

GreenBlue, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based nonprofit that manages the How2Recycle labeling system that Walmart and other retailers and brands use, provided Recycling Today with this statement concerning the lawsuit:

“How2Recycle is designed to comply with the FTC Green Guides. The How2Recycle program engaged in extensive vetting of the label design and recyclability requirements with the FTC prior to the launch of the label in 2012 and consults with FTC on an ongoing basis. Specific programmatic decisions and labels have been adjusted to reflect FTC feedback and suggestions, including those mentioned in this case, such as the design of the Check Locally label.

“The Check Locally label is an opportunity for regional education for items that are recyclable for between 60 percent and 20 percent of Americans. The qualifier directly states, ‘Not recycled in all communities.’ Without a Check Locally label, contamination could increase and could discourage recycling of materials that are recyclable in certain communities. How2Recycle encourages people to get to know their local recycling program.

“The How2Recycle label promotes the transparency, reliability and completeness of recyclability claims and is backed by an impartial 501(c)(3) environmental nonprofit. Recycling still has major problems that need solving, like increasing the quantity of valuable materials in the recycling cart and reducing contamination from nonrecyclable packaging that does not belong there. How2Recycle continues to advance progress against these challenges by bringing more clarity to end-of-life packaging instructions than any other system in North America.

“While labeling packaging for recyclability certainly won’t solve all our problems in how we use, value and manage materials in society, labeling for recyclability is essential. We are proud that How2Recycle’s members believe in empowering people to recycle more accurately and are also leveraging insights from the How2Recycle label to make packaging more recyclable. To date, over 2,000 packaging designs have changed to become more recyclable as a direct result of How2Recycle.”

Westlaw Today reports that Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove says the company denies the allegations Greenpeace makes in the lawsuit.

"We previously reviewed these allegations and explained to Greenpeace that the product labeling complies with federal and state laws,” Westlaw Today reports Hargrove as saying. “Like many other retailers, we rely on labeling developed and validated by our suppliers and sustainability partners.”