OP-ED: "Store Drop-Off" Recycling: How to Confuse a Consumer

Date: June 3, 2024

Source: Editorial Staff

You've probably already seen it, a little recycling symbol with a "Store Drop-Off" text next to it. These can be found on a variety of different plastic products, from Amazon packages to Walmart bags. They're a result of a new policy that is flooding through manufacturer and pre-consumer industries that use plastic. On its face, the aim of the policy is to reduce plastic waste, but in practice it has served mostly to shield companies from sustainability-based criticism and confuse consumers about what they're supposed to do with their plastic waste.

More than 500 brands across the US have adopted this policy, meaning even the most well-intentioned consumers will encounter this hurdle on a weekly basis. Plastics recycling is already difficult for consumers. Despite the best efforts of advocacy groups and governments, millions of people across the country, even those doing their best to reduce plastic waste, are met with confusing packaging, hidden rules, and many other roadblocks when it comes to sorting their waste. And this (relatively new) phenomenon adds another layer to that onion.

This process asked of consumers almost seems intentionally difficult. First, you must find a place to put your "Store Drop-Off" plastics so that they don't end up in your other bins, then you must search online for a nearby drop off location and then finally you have to take time and effort to take your plastics there. In this situation, you've become the sorter and the hauler for your own waste, despite likely already paying for trash and recycling services at your home.

Additionally, the last step of getting to the drop off location might not even be possible. According to a consumer in Orange County, CA, out of 52 drop-off locations advertised, only 18 were in service. With all these roadblocks added together, it's not unreasonable to assume that some people might have to spend hours out of their day to complete this arduous task.

Even if consumers successfully get their eligible plastics to a drop-off location, factors outside of their control might send that plastic to a landfill anyway. Journalists at Bloomberg conducted an investigation in 2023 that attached trackers to plastics dropped off at participating retailers. 13 ended up in landfills and only 4 ended up in recycling centers. And while that recycling rate might be slightly higher than the 9% national average, it's certainly a far cry from the sustainability that the firms participating in this movement advertise.

Oftentimes, the firms wash their hands of responsibility the moment dropped off plastic leaves the building. When asked about why their plastics were ending up in landfills, many companies shifted blame towards the middlemen in charge of hauling and sorting. Also, they sometimes shift the blame to consumers, making dubious statements about widespread "contamination".

While some factors in these issues are outside of retailer control, like decreased demand for recycled resin and potentially bad actors elsewhere in the supply chain, this entire movement reeks of "greenwashing".

Since the start of the 21st century, companies have made increasingly ambitious sustainability goals. And the ability to put the widely recognized "reuse - reduce - recycle" symbol on their products is very alluring. The "Store Drop-Off" movement was heavily pushed by groups representing the plastics industry and they seem to have found common ground with retailers. "Greenwashing" is one of the major hurdles in the face of building a truly circular economy, and calling this movement for what it is, intentionally misleading, may be one way to pressure plastics using companies to change their policy and contribute to actual change.

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