ACOR audit highlights packaging recyclability claim confusion

An independent national audit of recycling information on consumer products and packaging has revealed a situation that is confusing for consumers and does not support better recycling, according to the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR).

The audit – conducted by sustainability consultancy Equilibrium – across supermarkets, takeaway outlets and convenience stores in two capital cities, found 88 per cent of the packaging components sampled were recyclable through either kerbside recycling or a supermarket based return program, but that only 40 per cent of these products had a recycling claim present on them.

“The audit shows a dog’s breakfast of consumer information about what products and packaging components are or aren’t recyclable,” ACOR CEO Peter Shmigel said.

“It’s little wonder that the community regularly says that, while it strongly supports recycling, there’s confusion because of inconsistent, unclear and even misleading logos and claims on the products they buy.”

Shmigel added that the “dog’s breakfast” undoubtedly leads to some material going to the wrong place, such as recyclables to waste bins and non-recyclables to recycling bins.

“That means recycling rates that aren’t as high as they could be, contamination that is too high, and it’s harder to achieve national targets such as 70 per cent plastics recycling (from our current 12 per cent).”

Additionally, the audit found that 55 per cent of imported products and 64 per cent of Australia sampled products displayed a recyclability claim, including 23 per cent with the Australian Recycling Label (ARL), 29 per cent with a Mobius Loop recycling symbol and 29 per cent with a resin code system that is often mistaken for a recyclability symbol.

“Although the majority of products had a recycling claim, the logos were commonly only on outer packaging rather than on each packaging component,” the report reads.

“As 52 per cent of products sampled consisted of more than one packaging component, this was a significant finding with respect to inconsistent recycling labels relating to one or more packaging types.”

Furthermore, the audit identified that some labelling is incorrect or non-existent, and that terminology used to explain the recyclability of the packaging is not consumer friendly, for example, “this packaging is recyclable” when only one component is actually recyclable.

“Other incorrect statements included liquid paper board packaging that claimed to be recyclable and soft plastic packaging that contained a recycling logo with no explanation or guidance on separating from other recyclables and where to recycle it,” the report reads.

The assessment concluded that ambiguity is influencing consumer’s ability to effectively recycle packaging through recycling programs, and that recyclability labels need to be specific about the disposal methods of all components, with instructions included to avoid contamination.

The report makes a series of recommendations, which ACOR supports, such as ensuring clear, concise and evidenced-based labels are placed on every product and packing type sold into the Australian market, and that the preferred label should be mandatory and flexible enough to incorporate new technologies and systems as they come online to recycle more products.

“To make sure that every product that can be recycled is recycled, ACOR believes there needs to be a uniform labelling approach and that there should be a label placed on every product and packaging type sold into the Australian market,” Shmigel said.

“If we have such arrangements for nutrition, we can have them for consumer recycling. ACOR will make that case to the Commonwealth Minister for Environment.”

The report also suggests removing the Mobius Loop and plastic resin codes from all packaging.

It also notes a role for authorities such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in driving and ensuring clarity and consistency in environmental claims and labels pertaining to recycling.

“Consumers can also be making the direct case to the manufacturers of the products they buy and actively ask company consumer hotlines: what is your approach to recycling labelling?,” Shmigel said.

“And, those companies who specify products and packaging must also step up to correctly label their products while the ACCC should ensure accuracy in environmental claims and labels.

“To that end, ACOR will formally refer the audit report to the ACCC for its consideration and follow up.”

Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) CEO Brooke Donnelly said that as a leading proponent for better environmental labelling in Australia, APCO welcomes robust discussion and feedback on the progress of labelling in Australia.

“The report has identified something that APCO and our partners at Planet Ark and PREP Design have long recognised: that Australia needs a clear, concise and evidenced based label placed on every product and packaging type sold into the Australian market,” she said.

“It’s fantastic to see key sectors within the packaging supply chain recognising the importance of the labelling issue, and we welcome their engagement and participation in the ARL Program moving forward.”

Donnelly added that the ARL program is the only evidence-based labelling system on the market.

“After less than two years in market, we are excited to see the leadership and hard work of Australian industry being recognised, with the ARL featuring on approximately a quarter of all products on shelves. This is an incredible achievement within a short time frame,” she said.

Similarly, Planet Ark CEO Paul Klymenko said Planet Ark is impressed with the level of ARL uptake, after launching the program with APCO and PREP Design just two years ago.

“The uptake has been significantly faster than comparable international labels, and the ARL has been recognised by international bodies like the United Nations Environment Program as best practice when it comes to informing consumers how to best dispose of their packaging,” he said.

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