Environmental Law

Does Green Mean Good Recycled Isnt Always Best

The cloth shopping bag. The gold "permanent" coffee filter. The recycled computer paper. The current trend toward recycling and reusing has consumers feeling better about their consumption by knowing they are doing something to preserve resources and lower waste. But are there dangers lurking in products made from "recycled materials"?

A Recycled Symbol Gives Limited Information

For several years, consumers have spotted the universal symbol for "recycled" on many products, including computer paper, grocery bags, and other products. So far, little concern has been raised about the safety of using recycled materials for such products. There are currently no specific federal regulations limiting or restricting the use of recycled materials. Federal agencies such as the FDA and USDA have regulations for the safe packaging of foods and medications. So do their state counterparts.

To date, there isn't any requirement that recycled products or packaging contain disclosures similar to the "Nutrition Facts" listing appearing on packaged foods sold at retail stores. You may see phrases such as "non-chlorinated process used" or "60% post-consumer materials." However, those bits of information are offered voluntarily by the manufacturer or seller, and aren't subject to regulation except as to food or drug packaging. So don't rely too heavily on packaging disclosure.

Lawsuits May Be Feasible if Recycled Items Are a Hazard to Health or Safety

One unusual lawsuit, filed in September 2009 by an attorney on behalf of several people in federal district court in Arizona, claims that recycling wastewater for use on a ski slope operating on federal lands under a special use permit could result in serious and permanent harm.

The suit, brought by "The Save the Peaks Coalition" and nine residents of the area, asks the court to issue declaratory and injunctive relief against the US Forest Service and the supervisor of Coconino National Forest.

The suit says the Forest Service hasn't fully considered the harmful health and environmental impact of their plan to use "reclaimed sewer water for snowmaking." Even though there are signs on the ski slopes warning about the source of the snow, the plaintiffs contend that this is insufficient to guard against the public health hazards. The outcome of this suit may shape public policy about recycled products and resources.

Use Caution If You Have Allergies or Sensitivities

Now that peanut and nut allergies are widely known, we've witnessed a sea change in the disclosures for foods containing nuts, or made in the same plants where peanuts and other nuts are processed. So too with recycled materials. If you have extra-sensitive skin, labeling such as "chlorination-free processing" will be reassuring. If you've been severely injured because you used a product with undisclosed ingredients, see an attorney.

Difficult hurdles in lawsuits include establishing that your injury or illness was caused by an undisclosed ingredient or chemical process. Generally such proof requires enlisting an expert witness, and this can be quite costly.

One new offering that is touted for its "green" impact is a new Motorola cell phone which is made from recycled plastic water bottles. The phone, known as the W233 Renew, made its debut at the well-known Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2009.

Another surprising area for recycled products is in low-income housing offered by some homebuilders. These homes are built entirely from metals and woods that have been discarded. Whether these unusual uses give rise to a call for regulation and labeling remains to be seen.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If it could be proven that a recycled product caused an injury or illness, what types of damages could someone seek in a lawsuit? Would damages be limited to direct harm, or could damages be broader in scope?
  • Since there isn't widespread regulation for the use of recycled materials, what if a defect or injury caused by such materials isn't discovered for some time? Is it still possible to bring a lawsuit?
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