Recycle Symbol – The Green Dot?

Unknown to many, the Green Dot logo (see diagram below) is not exactly a recycle symbol, but rather a trademark that is used in Europe. However, it does indicate of some green efforts to recover and recycle packaging waste. As such, in this article, I shall still refer to this logo as a “recycle symbol”.

The Green Dot symbol

Not sure what I mean above? Let me elaborate and clarify the situation for you below.

History of the Green Dot recycle symbol

It started with Germany in the early 1990s, where the disposal of waste via landfills had become a problem. Available landfill space was decreasing, yet the amount of waste to be disposed of was increasing. And amongst this waste, product packaging made up about 25 to 30% of the waste.

As such, Germany took active steps to reduce the amount of packaging waste that landed up in the landfills, by passing the Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste (Verpackungsverordnung) under the Waste Act.

This legislation made industries responsible for the entire life-cycle of the packaging they used. In other words, the industries had to see to and bear the cost of recovery, recycling (if possible) or disposal of the packaging they used for their products. The cost of managing packaging waste was hence shifted away from the government and public services, to the private industries and businesses.

However, it was not always possible, or practical, for companies to collect their product packaging back from consumers, especially when the products were produced and distributed in masses. As such, Duales System Deutschland GmbH (DSD), a not-for-profit organization in Germany, introduced the “Grüne Punkt”, or Green Dot system, in 1991, and started the service of recovering and recycling packaging waste in Germany on behalf of its licensees. What happened was that licensees (who pay a fee for their license) would print the Green Dot recycle symbol on their packaging, and DSD would collect packaging with the Green Dot recycle symbol on behalf of these licensed companies. The fees that the companies had to pay were dependent on the type of packaging and its weight.

In this way, companies now had an incentive to take into consideration waste management costs when they design or select their packaging materials. They would seek to reduce their packaging, so as to reduce their business cost.

Seeing the success of the waste reduction efforts in Germany, the European Community (now known as the European Union) decided to pass the "Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive - 94/62/EC", now known as the European Packaging Directive, in 1994.

This directive requires all companies in Europe to recover their own packaging. Companies could choose to engage the services of the Green Dot system, or other national packaging recovery programs in their country, to do the recovery work, or carry out the recovery efforts themselves. Companies that do not comply with the directive might be penalized by regulatory authorities in the individual European countries.

Nonetheless, the different European countries had their specific sets of packaging and recovery related regulations, often built upon the 1994 directive. For example, manufacturers, importers or distributors of end-consumer products in France will need to comply with the French packaging regulations. According to Wikipedia, there are even some countries that environmentalists complain of ignoring the European directive altogether.

To facilitate compliance to the 1994 directive, PRO Europe, which means “Packaging Recovery Organization Europe”, was set up in 1995. As an umbrella organization for Europe’s packaging and packaging waste recovery and recycling, PRO Europe seeks to assist the various national recovery programs in the different European countries in servicing the industries, such as in assisting them in the implementation of effective packaging waste collection systems for their industries.

Besides promoting education on the advantages of reducing packaging waste, PRO Europe also administers and licenses the use of the Green Dot recycle sign, or more rightfully, the Green Dot trademark. In administering the use of the Green Dot recycle symbol or trademark in the various European countries, PRO Europe appoints a company in each of these countries to manage the recycle symbol or trademark. For example, Valpak Ltd licenses the Green Dot trademark in the United Kingdom.

According to PRO Europe, industries in 26 countries have adopted the Green Dot system to assist them in the recovery of their packaging waste. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. There are also countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, which do not make use of the Green Dot program at this point, but they have their own non-Green Dot recovery programs.

The Green Dot recycle symbol or trademark is now registered in more than 170 countries, with more than 170,000 licensee companies. In these countries, about 460 billion packaging items are being labeled with the Green Dot annually. And in 2009, about 32,000,000 tonnes of packaging, equivalent to more than 25 million tones of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, was recovered by the members of PRO EUROPE.

What does the Green Dot really mean

While the Green Dot recycle symbol or trademark may mean a lot to industries and national packaging-recovery programs in countries that adopt the Green Dot system, it actually says very little to consumers.

Whether or not companies have the Green Dot recycle symbol on their products and packaging, ALL companies in Europe (in accordance to the 1994 European Packaging Directive) are required to recover and recycle their packaging waste (although the enforcement levels in different countries may differ widely). As such, not only companies licensed to use the Green Dot recycle symbol recover and recycle their packaging waste. This means that non-Green-Dot-products companies can also be green.

For example, in the United Kingdoms, companies have to pay for the recovery and recycling of their packaging waste, but they do not use the Green Dot system. As such, the recycle symbol or trademark does not have any meaning to anyone in the UK. In fact, products in UK do not require the Green Dot at all. (Under certain circumstances, the Green Dot symbol appears on some UK products. In such cases, the product companies need to pay a license to Valpak Ltd).

In countries which adopt the Green Dot recovery system, what the Green Dot recycle symbol trademark merely does is inform the local regulator which system a particular company engages to recover its packaging waste. It also informs the Green Dot recovery program of whose packaging to collect. Of course, the Green Dot program collectors would only collect the waste packaging from companies that have paid the Green Dot license. In Germany, the recycle symbol or trademark informs consumers of which packaging to place in the dedicated yellow bags or bins emptied by DSD.

Consumers should not interpret the Green Dot symbol as an assurance that an item is recyclable, or that it would be recycled. The Green Dot simply means that the Green-Dot-program collectors (if they are operating in your particular European country) would be collecting that waste packaging, and would manage it according, either by recycling or disposing of this waste.

Whether a waste packaging (with or without the Green Dot) gets recycled eventually still depends on many other factors such as the following: - whether product manufacturers choose to make use of recyclable packaging for their products in the first place; a non-recyclable packaging waste simply can’t be recycled- whether consumers make an effort to send their waste packaging to the dedicated packaging recovery bins (Green Dot or not) instead of leaving the packaging with the general waste where it can be contaminated and rendered no longer recyclable- the level of enforcement in a particular European country in terms of ensuring that companies actually recover their packaging waste, and recycle them as much as possible.

It is the lack of understanding about the Green Dot trademark that has left many consumers confused about the significance of the symbol.

Because it is often seen in lists of recycling symbols, it is often taken as a “real” recycle sign. As such, many consumers associate packaging, and even products, with the Green Dot as recyclable, made of recycled materials, will be recycled, or simply green! And you can be sure that many companies make good use of this confusion to draw consumers to their products, even if their products are not genuinely environmentally friendly.

Do not be tricked by the logo. Do your checks, and spread the word.

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