Sometimes I think the main point of recycling is to relieve consumers’ guilt. Those nice chasing-arrows symbols on the bottoms of plastic containers, those reassuring label words like “recyclable” and “compostable,” are mostly there to make people feel better about all that packaging they’re discarding.

It’s perfectly understandable that packagers would want to tap into that sentiment. But the concept of “recyclability” often bothers/annoys me, because it’s so utterly ambiguous. Just about everything on Earth could be used, either whole or in part, for something else, making it theoretically “recyclable.” If I attached wings, a propeller and an engine to my kitchen table, it might fly, but that doesn’t make it an airplane.

This isn’t just a theoretical debate. Packagers who make careless ecological claims might find themselves in trouble with the Feds.

Bob Lilienfeld, author of thebook“Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are,” has agreat reportavailable on his website of the same name, summarizing Federal Trade Commission regulations on the issue. He warns against vague claims like “recyclable” and “recycled content.” Unless an established program for recyclingfor that particular material is in place and readily available to consumers in a given area, for instance, making a prominent claim of “recyclability” (as opposed to putting the inconspicuous chasing-arrows symbol on the bottom of the container) could be considered deceptive.

As the name of his book and website suggest, Lilienfeld places a lot more stock in material reduction as an environmental strategy than he does in recyclability. That’s why he’s a little worried about how the emphasis on recyclability may inhibit the use of flexible packaging, which is often less practical to recycle than rigid containers. Packagers weighing their choices from an environmental standpoint should take full account of the overall material savings that often are achievable through flexible packaging, even at the expense of sweeping recyclability claims.