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 – sampled 150 products across supermarkets, take-away outlets and convenience stores in two capital cities – they found 88% of the packaging components sampled were recyclable through either kerbside recycling or a supermarket-based return program, but that only 40% of these products had a recycling claim present on them. The audit highlights the numerous incorrect statements made on the products and the additional findings are:

• 55% of imported products and 64% of Australian products sampled displayed a recyclability claim of any kind
• 23% of products had the Australian Recycling Label (ARL) promoted by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation
• 29% of products had the “Mobius Loop” recycling symbol
• 29% of plastic products had a resin code symbol which is often mistaken for a recyclability symbol
• The Tidyman logo appeared on 15% of products sampled, including both recyclable and non-recyclable products, and
• There was no consistent style, placement, or sizing of recyclable labels.

The audit reveals, “a dog’s breakfast of consumer information about what products and packaging components are or aren’t recyclable. 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,” Pete Shmigel, ACOR CEO, said. The dog’s breakfast undoubtedly leads to some material going to the wrong place such as recyclables to garbage 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% plastics recycling (from our current 12%) when this occurs across the nation.

As the peak body for recycling, ACOR fully supports the report’s recommendations, including:

• Labels need to be specific about the management methods of all components, and also include instructions to avoid contamination
• There needs to be a clear, concise and evidenced-based label placed on every product and packaging type sold into the Australian market
• The preferred label should be made mandatory and be flexible enough to incorporate new technologies and systems as they come online to recycle more products
• The “Mobius Loop” could cause consumer confusion, and a short cut to achieving greater clarity and consistency is to remove these and plastic resin codes from packaging, and
• There is a role for authorities such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in driving and ensuring clarity and consistency in environmental claims and labels pertaining to recycling.

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. If we have such arrangements for nutrition, we can have them for consumer recycling” Shmigel said. ACOR hopes to make that case directly to the Commonwealth Minister for Environment. Consumers however can also make the direct case to the manufacturers of the products that they buy and actively ask company consumer hotlines the simple question: what is your approach to recycling labelling?

“Those companies who specify products and packaging must also step up to correctly label their products while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission should ensure accuracy in environmental claims and labels. To that end, ACOR will formally refer the audit report findings to the ACCC for its consideration and follow up,” Shmigel said.

There are currently 391 organisations participating in the Australasian Recycling Label program with an industry education campaign delivered by Planet Ark. Australian kerbside recycling bins can contain anywhere between 4 – 16% of contaminated materials resulting in recyclable items that are also ending up in landfill. Planet Ark found that 80% of Australians want to reduce what they send to landfill.

Unfortunately, different logos mean different things, inconsistent instructions may lead to poor outcomes for example when the outer packaging my be recyclable but not the inner components. The end result is a confused uniformed consumer who allows material to proceed into landfill in good faith. Enhanced disposal labelling combined with a national education campaign are now required urgently and this will only cost the federal government about $7-10 million.

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) commissioned Equilibrium to undertake a review (consisting of a packaging audit as well as literature research) to identify logos and claims pertaining to packaging materials and, in particular, recycling claims.