Thousands of companies have sought an environmental marketing edge by advertising the recycled content of their products. Those claims come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which first published definitions for common environmental terms in its Green Guides in 1992. The LEED Rating System offers credit for recycled-content materials, referencing definitions from ISO 14021 (see
EBNVol. 14, No. 2). Those definitions can still leave a lot of gray areas, which manufacturers understandably tend to interpret in their own favor. Third-party certification of recycled content is useful in assuring that claims are true.
Recycled content refers to the portion of materials used in a product that have been diverted from the solid waste stream. If those materials are diverted during the manufacturing process, they are be referred to as
pre-consumer recycled content (sometimes referred to as post-industrial). If they are diverted after consumer use, they are
Post-consumer content is generally viewed as offering greater environmental benefit than pre-consumer content. Although pre-consumer waste is much more vast, it is also more likely to be diverted from the waste stream. Post-consumer waste is more likely to fill limited space in municipal landfills and is typically mixed, making recovery more difficult.
To claim that it is using pre-consumer recycled content, a company must be able to substantiate that the material it is using would have become garbage, had it not purchased it from another company’s waste stream, for example. If a manufacturer routinely collects scraps and feeds them back into its own process, that material does not qualify as recycled.
In some industries, recycling pathways have become very reliable. Products like engineered lumber and fuel pellets have created a reliable demand for waste from the forest products industry, including sawdust and woodchips. Although these materials may at one time have been part of the waste stream, the active market for them means that they are nearly always diverted. That does not change their status as pre-consumer recycled content, however.
Post-consumer recycled content doesn’t always refer to the average
individual consumer; the consumer may be a large business or manufacturer. For example, Timbron is an interior molding product that includes 75% post-consumer recycled content in the form of expanded polystyrene (see
EBN Vol. 16, No. 2). Most of that comes from large industrial facilities that receive shipments packed in polystyrene. Since those facilities are the end-users of that packaging, it can qualify as post-consumer recycled content.
Recyclability—the ability of a product to be recycled—can only describe products that can be collected and recycled through an established process. This definition is often stretched beyond credibility by manufacturers who make that claim based on a laboratory process. They sometimes attempt to justify this lax approach with new products by noting that they aren’t expected to enter the waste stream in large quantities for years.