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7-Eleven Beats Some Claims in Suit Over ‘Recyclable’ Plasticware

Sept. 14, 2022, 3:26 PM

“Recyclable” means “can be recycled,” not “Will Be Recycled at a Facility Near YOU!,” a federal court in Illinois said, significantly trimming a proposed class action against 7-Eleven Inc. over its portrayal of its plasticware.

When Devon Curtis bought store-brand foam cups, foam plates, party cups, and freezer bags marked “recyclable,” she didn’t think they’d end up in a landfill or incinerator. Curtis alleged that the word is deceptive because although the items are made of plastic that can be recycled, very few recycling facilities actually accept that type of plastic.

She also alleged that some items lacked recycling designations known as Resin Identification Codes or RIC labels, which give recycling facilities the necessary information to sort the products.

The natural meaning of recyclable—capable of being recycled—"places outer limits on any claim of deception,” Judge Steven C. Seeger of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois said Tuesday. The word describes the product, not what happens to it after it goes into the recycling bin, he said.

A reasonable consumer wouldn’t read into the word “recyclable” a guarantee that there are local facilities that recycle that type of plastic, and 7-Eleven never represented anything about the likelihood of recycling, the court said.

“True, maybe consumers have unreasonable expectations about how often products are recycled,” Seeger said. “But that’s not on 7-Eleven.”

Curtis said 7-Eleven violated the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which provide guidance about when it’s deceptive to represent that a product is recyclable. But an average consumer likely doesn’t have the guides at hand when buying plasticware and it’s “not clear how useful” they are “when evaluating the views of a reasonable consumer at a convenience store,” the court said.

“People buying red party cups at 7-Eleven are more likely to be thinking about beer pong than the FTC’s consumer guidelines,” the court said.

But Curtis may proceed on the theory that the foam plates and the freezer bags can’t be recycled because they lack RIC numbers, the court said.

Last month, Niagara Bottling LLC shook off a proposed class suit challenging the labeling of its plastic water bottles.

Keurig Green Mountain Inc. and a certified class of consumers reached a $10 million settlement in litigation over the recyclability of single-serve coffee pods. The deal has been tentatively approved by a federal court in California.

McGuire Law PC represents Curtis and the proposed class. Winston & Strawn LLP represents 7-Eleven.

The case is Curtis v. 7-Eleven Inc., N.D. Ill., No. 1:21-cv-06079, 9/13/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Steinberg in Washington at jsteinberg@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Brian Flood at bflood@bloomberglaw.com