Don't Believe the 'Store Drop-Off' Label When It Comes to Plastic Packaging

It's a charade, which is why Greenpeace is suing Walmart.

Walmart storefront
Walmart and Greenpeace are now embroiled in a legal battle over mislabeled recyclable plastic packaging.

Getty Images / Joe Raedle

Several years ago, a new label started to appear on plastic packaging. It said "store drop-off" and it directed shoppers to return their packaging to special in-store collection bins that would ensure it got recycled. Soon more than 10,000 items carried the label and an associated website said there were over 18,000 drop-off bins across the United States. All that waste would be turned into wonderful things like park benches. 

Too bad it wasn't true. Worse yet, "the great store drop-off charade," as it's called, continues to expand while misleading customers into thinking that their waste is somehow serving a useful purpose, rather than contributing to a horrific buildup of garbage around the world.

The Problem

Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, has become an outspoken critic of this charade. She spoke to Treehugger about her ongoing campaign to put this issue of mislabeled packaging on people's radars and to hold companies accountable for their unsubstantiated claims. 

"I am trying to raise awareness and expose the fact that these labels that companies are putting on products just aren't legitimate," Dell says. "There is no store drop-off system."

Dell, who lives in Laguna Beach, California, downloaded a list of supposed drop-off locations throughout southern Orange County in 2019. There were 52 listed, but she only found 18 when she went looking for each one in pre-COVID times. There wasn't a single one in any Walmart store, despite the company using the label on thousands of products. The ones she did find were full of contamination, as well.

Store drop-off label on Hefty products
Store drop-off label on Hefty products.

Jan Dell

So the collection points just aren't there, which is the first big problem. The second problem, Dell says, is even when plastic films are collected there's no proof that they are being recycled, despite this being a requirement by the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Green Guides

"Things can only be marketed as recyclable if they are recycled in 60% of households where they are sold," explains John Hocevar, director of ocean campaigns for Greenpeace USA, who also spoke with Treehugger about this topic. "In California that has been enshrined in state law, so it's straightforward from a legal standpoint."

The U.S. has less than 5% processing capacity for plastic films, and most of that comes from back-of-store sources like pallet wraps that tend to be cleaner. Unfortunately, it's far cheaper to make new plastic film than to collect and reuse old films. "Maybe if oil was $500 a barrel, then it would make sense ... But the cost of collecting, sorting, cleaning, reprocessing is, what, 100 times higher than new plastic?" Dell points out. "New plastic is just so cheap."

Even when companies claim to be doing good things with old plastic, they're barely making a difference. The Trex group that makes decking from plastic waste, Dell says, "has capacity for less than 3% of our plastic film ... so this whole store drop-off program, in my opinion, is just hollow." 

As a member of the California Recycling Commission, Dell says she's spoken with representations from Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) across California: "They all say nobody wants to buy plastic bags or films. If anyone's collecting them, they're trashed or sent to Asia." 

Clorox label
Store drop-off label on Clorox products.

Jan Dell

The Lawsuit

In response, Greenpeace has sued Walmart—which, Hocevar tells Treehugger, is "not something we do every day, and not exactly our first inclination, but we felt it was necessary." Greenpeace had documented many examples where it looked like Walmart was misleading its customers about the recyclability of their products and packaging. When they shared that information with Walmart, the company was unwilling to change, and so a suit was filed.

Data collected by Greenpeace from MRFs across the U.S. showed that only #1 and #2 plastic bottles and jugs meet the standard for being marketed as recyclable. "Everything else is bound for landfill or the incinerator," Hocevar says. "So Walmart was putting 'how to recycle' labels on products that did not meet these standards."

This lawsuit matters, he said, because Walmart has made a commitment to switch all of its packaging to recyclable, compostable, or reusable options—but their actions indicate otherwise. 

Hocevar explained: "[It seems like] they are considering a lot of packaging that is not recyclable as recyclable. In theory, almost anything can be recycled if you throw enough money, effort, and energy at it, but that doesn't mean it makes sense to recycle it." 

The Solution

Better design plays a role, but really, "the most important solution is to move away from single use in general, to break our throwaway packaging habit and invest in scaling up reuse, refill, and package-free approaches."

Solutions do exist, he said. There are dozens of "hungry startups ready to help companies scale up these solutions." He gave the example of Walmart running a pilot project in Chile with a zero waste company called Algramo, which he is "happy to see, [but] a pilot in one country that is a tiny portion of Walmart's overall business, is not matching the urgency or the scale that's needed right now."

Would investing in reusables make items more expensive for companies and/or customers? Hocevar doesn't think so. "In some cases, there would some cost to start it, but once you have the process and the infrastructure in place, they're not having to pay for the packaging anymore, and that's a not-insubstantial part of their cost. The more companies shift to reuse, it will increasingly save them money as more states and countries adopt Extended Producer Responsibility programs. Companies would otherwise have to pay to produce single-use packaged items."

Dell shares Hocevar's can-do-it attitude, agreeing that solutions exist, such as new technologies using cellulosic films. She gives an example of fiber boxes being used to package fresh produce in Europe. Fiber has an 84% recycling rate in the EU, 68% in the U.S.—so much better than plastic. 

Both insist on the same thing: We'll never get to a better place unless we stop pulling the wool over our eyes and falling for the "Great Store Drop-Off Charade." In Dell's words, "We'll never get to that if we get to pretend plastic film is sustainable." 

Hocevar says the goal is to create a more "reality-based conversation" about how Walmart is approaching its commitment to go greener. "Once they acknowledge that many of these products are not actually recyclable, it will be easier to start thinking about how to redesign them."

In the meantime, customers can add their voices to the conversation. Speak to local store managers if you see the store drop-off label on the packaging. Ask where the collection bins are. Reach out to Walmart with demands for clearer labeling. Support the work that both Greenpeace and Last Beach Cleanup are doing to improve transparency. 

Most importantly, avoid unnecessary plastic packaging whenever possible. To quote Hocevar, know that, "once you have a plastic thing, you're stuck with it in one form or another for generations." It's really not worth it.