Attorney General Ellison sues Reynolds, Walmart for defrauding consumers, deceptively marketing ‘recycling’ bags that are not recyclable

Recyclable materials in ‘recycling’ bags end up in landfills and bags harm recycling facilities and endanger workers, while companies claim they are ‘perfect’ for recycling

June 6, 2023 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today that he has filed a lawsuit against Reynolds Consumer Products, Inc., the parent company of the Hefty bag trademark, and Walmart for defrauding and deceiving Minnesota consumers through their marketing of so-called “recycling” bags. These bags are not in fact recyclable in Minnesota and render unrecyclable all materials placed within them, even items that would otherwise be recyclable. All recyclable items that consumers place into Reynolds and Walmart’s “recycling” bags end up at a landfill, contrary to consumers’ intentions. Moreover, any “recycling” bag that makes its way into a recycling stream at any material recovery facility (MRF) in Minnesota can cause the sorting machinery to malfunction, cause fires, and result in unsafe conditions for workers who must crawl into the machinery to remove them.  

As a result, these bags raise costs for MRFs and taxpayers, undermine well-intentioned consumers’ recycling efforts, and create more unrecyclable waste that ends up in our landfills and waterways. 

“We Minnesotans love our natural environment and value our clean land, air, and water: that’s why we have one of the highest recycling rates in America. Reynolds and Walmart, however, are taking advantage of Minnesotans’ good intentions to misleadingly market so-called ‘recycling’ bags to us that can’t be recycled and actually harm recycling,” Attorney General Ellison said. “I’m holding Reynolds and Walmart accountable for putting their ill-gotten profits ahead of people, our environment, and the law. It’s my job to protect consumers and our environment, so I cannot and will not tolerate this kind of deceptive marketing in Minnesota.”  

“Plastic bags are not recyclable in our programs, and we don’t accept them — but we get lots of them anyway. They wrap around equipment making it less effective, contaminate and decrease the value of other material like paper, and cause safety hazards like fires. Additionally, when recyclable material comes in to our facility contained in a plastic bag, we have to throw it away because there is too much risk of injury for our employees to rip open the bags as they come across the line,” explained Lynn Hoffman, Co-President of Eureka Recycling, a non-profit Zero Waste social enterprise recycler. “It is a common misconception that plastic bags are recyclable, which is made even worse by false marketing claims. We appreciate Attorney General Ellison for seeking accountability for these harmful practices. “ 

The allegations 

The complaint alleges that Reynolds and Walmart actively deceived consumers and profited from well-meaning Minnesotans at the expense of the environment and the recycling industry.  Specifically, the complaint alleges that Reynolds and Walmart sold these bags intending that consumers believe their products will facilitate consumers’ recycling efforts. Reynolds and Walmart claimed their bags are “prefect for all your recycling needs,” were “developed for use in municipal recycling programs,” that they will “reduce your environmental impact,” and that they make recycling “refreshingly easy” and “simplify sorting for municipal programs.” These claims are false. 

The complaint also alleges that not only are defendants’ bags not recyclable, but all otherwise recyclable contents placed within them are landfilled or incinerated. The bags are made from low-density polyethylene, which cannot be processed by any Minnesota MRF. Additionally, the costs and risks to MRFs from having their employees tear open the bags and sort through their contents are too great to justify—employees can be harmed from careless or accidental deposits of harmful materials into the bags, like needles, toxic chemicals, or broken glass and sharp metals. Thus, the bags and everything inside them are disposed of as trash. 

Further, the complaint alleges that defendants’ products harm Minnesota recycling companies. If the “Recycling” bags are unintentionally processed by an MRF, they can entangle and jam the machinery used to separate and categorize recyclables, cause friction-induced fires, and harm MRF employees who must remove the bags or crawl into the machines to untangle the equipment, thereby increasing recycling costs and delaying the process.The bags force MRFs to shut down their facilities two to three times a day to untangle the machinery, and MRFs bear the costs of disposing of the bags, transporting them and the materials they contain to a waste collection site, and fixing the sorting machinery.  

If the bags are not thrown away or entangled in the machinery and make it through the sorting process, they end up devaluing the rest of the recycled materials by diluting them with unrecyclable, low-density polyethylene plastic and increasing costs for down-stream processors and distributers of recycled materials who then must filter out the bags from other recyclables. 

Eureka estimates that “recycling” bags and other plastic bags in their recycling streams cost approximately $75,000 a year in lost productivity and lower revenue. These are costs that are passed on to all the residents of the municipalities Eureka serves. 

blog post and a one-page flyer from Eureka Recycling website also lay out these challenges in more detail. 

Images of Reynolds’ deceptively marketed Hefty brand ‘recycling’ bags and Walmart’s deceptively marketed Great Value brand “recycling” bags are available on Attorney General Ellison’s website. 

Finally, it appears that Reynolds and Walmart understand that what they are doing is intentionally misleading, but they continue to do it anyway. Recent changes that Reynolds and Walmart have made to their websites and packaging suggest they are aware of the misleading nature of their claims that the ‘recycling bags’ are recyclable. For instance, in recent months, Reynolds revised the claims on their website to state that the bags are “designed for use in participating program areas only” and impose the burden on the consumer to “contact your local municipality to confirm acceptance” despite no MRF or municipality in Minnesota accepting the bags. Additionally, Walmart altered the claims on its packaging to no longer include that they are suitable for municipal recycling programs, despite continuing to sell the bags with similar misleading statements and pictures that encourage consumers to use the bags as receptacles for recyclable materials that will inevitably be processed by municipal recycling programs.  

Tips for consumers 

Eureka Recycling offers tips to consumers about plastic bags on their website. They include:  

 Attorney General Ellison encourages consumers to keep recycling. Consumers who have questions about the suitability of any items for recycling should contact their municipality or local material recovery facility. 

Consumers with concerns about so-called “recycling” bags should contact Attorney General Ellison’s office by filing a complaint online or calling the office at (651) 296-3353 or (800) 657-3787.