How to advertise and label plastic made from chemical recycling is shaping up to be an early flashpoint in the Federal Trade Commission's yearslong process to rewrite its Green Guides.
As the agency's comment deadline closed April 24, plastics groups were giving the FTC polling that shows that more than 80 percent of the public considers it OK to label a plastics package or product made with chemical recycling as containing "recycled content."
One of the key questions FTC asked for input on when it launched the rewrite in December was how consumers perceive labels like recycled content and recyclable.
The American Chemistry Council said polling it conducted showed public support for advanced recycling technologies, as did the Plastics Industry Association in a similar poll.
"Consumers are increasingly interested in supporting the environment through their purchases," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics. "They are asking for packaging to contain more recycled plastic and that we increase recycling after use, and the data shows people want advanced recycling to be part of the circularity solution."
But a coalition of environmental groups urged FTC to reject labeling plastic from chemical recycling as recycled content.
The group, which includes Greenpeace USA, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Last Beach Cleanup, said companies should not be able to use a technical method known as mass balance to label chemical recycling as having recycled content.
"The chemical lobbyists have created a new hoax to try to convince the FTC to allow chemical recycling to count as recycling," said Judith Enck, president of the group Beyond Plastics, and a former regional administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency. "This is a critical issue, and the FTC should forcefully reject this shameless attempt to fool the public."
The Association of Plastic Recyclers also urged FTC to be skeptical about mass balance recycled content claims.
"APR survey data shows consumers have virtually no understanding of the term 'mass balance,'" the plastics recycling group said. "Emerging chemical recycling technologies, namely pyrolysis and gasification, require mass balance calculations to track recycled content. However, standards on how to use mass balance to track recycled post-consumer plastic are still being developed and debated."
The challenge with mass balance methodologies, it said, is that it's hard to prove that a particular packaging has recycled content because the chemically recycled plastics could be mixed with virgin polymers in a petrochemical plant.
But consumers think a label of recycled content means the individual package they are holding has recycled content, APR contends. That uncertainty means FTC should move cautiously.
"Based on the outstanding technical concerns around mass balance applications, combined with the lack of consumer understanding of its terms, and the current confusion around recyclability and recycled content claims, APR recommends that the FTC not allow mass balance calculations to support consumer-facing claims," the group said.
But ACC said mass balance and chemical recycling will be crucial to processing hard-to-recycle plastics that traditional mechanical technologies can't handle, like films, tubes and multi-layer pouches.
It said that more than 70 percent of the public sees it a responsible approach, particularly when told that other industries like coffee, cocoa and energy use similar methodologies on sustainability claims.
"Since the Guides were last updated in 2012, newer technologies have commercialized that can help significantly increase the recycling of plastic materials," ACC said. "Consumers view these technologies as an important part of improving recycling."