Recycling is great, and the people who make it happen—from recycling companies to the end users of recycled materials—should get points for being green. But a brand that claims it is helping the environment by manufacturing recyclable products is not doing much more than greenwashing.
Take plastic: most of it is recyclable. That doesn't make it an eco-friendly material, or mean we should be consuming more of it—it's still an oil-based product, and still consumes energy during production. (Not to mention the resources that go into transporting it, and then for soda or water bottles, refrigeration at the store often consumes more energy than the transportation and bottling processes together.)
None of that energy is replenished by recycling the bottle, a process that itself consumes energy. Recycling is better than landfilling it, of course, but the company has no control over where its products end up. For the company, environmental stewardship ends with printing "recyclable" on the label.
"Recycled" gets major green points (though reused always gets more).
My toilet paper is made from recycled paper and I bring containers to the store for refill when possible, rather than purchasing new ones. Yes, virgin paper products are recyclable, but trees are still killed in order to make them, and while I might be able to recycle plastic containers, it's better for the planet if fewer are produced in the first place.
Using recyclable plastics may be better than using styrofoam, for sure, but we need to aim a little higher if we don't want our children playing in playgrounds near gas drilling wells—because that's already happening, and the wells will only get closer and more numerous.
Greenwashing: don't stand for it
Hold your favorite brands to higher standards—instead of boycotting or just giving up, write in to the company, or get someone on the phone, and let them know you appreciate their effort to encourage recycling, but why don't they use recycled materials as well? If they use even 30 percent recycled packaging, for example, how many green-conscious consumers will be drawn to the brand?
It may sound petty, but it's an important distinction. The race to go green is not a warm-up exercise, and everyone from companies to citizens have to learn to keep up. Touting a product's recyclability shifts environmental responsibility to the end user, rather than accepting a share of the struggle to save the planet