Flushing the Greenwash: Recycled vs. Recyclable

a toilet roll holder with green tiles

We’re back with another examination of common tactics used in greenwashing, and this time we’re diving into a big topic for environmentally-friendly manufacturing: recycling. 

“Reduce, re-use, recycle” has long been a mantra among the environmentally-conscious, and many products that are marketed as sustainable will be labelled “recycled,” “recyclable,” or (ideally) both. 

So what’s the difference between “recycled” and “recyclable,” and how does understanding the distinction help us to spot the things a company isn’t telling us? 

Material to be turned into recycled toilet rolls

What Does "Recycled" Mean?

We’ll start with a straightforward one.

“Recycled" refers to material that has been reprocessed from its previous use, and made into new products. When a product is labelled as "recycled," it means that it contains materials that once served a different purpose. For example, the recycled toilet rolls we make at Naked Sprout started their lives as packaging materials (cardboard and kraft paper) that have been collected, broken down, and transformed into new paper.

So "recycled" is a past-tense form. Products made from recycled materials help reduce waste by using materials that might otherwise go to landfill. They can also conserve non-renewable resources and energy, because manufacturing with recycled materials will generally require less processing compared to starting with virgin material.

That’s the “recycled” part of the equation. Naked Sprout packaging and cores are all 100% recycled - and they’re recyclable too. 

Naked Sprout recycled cardboard boxes

What Does "Recyclable" Mean?

'While “recycled” is about what has already happened, the term “recyclable” is about the future.

"Recyclable" refers to products and materials capable of being recycled. Of course, this does not mean that the material will be recycled but rather that it could be. If a box of chocolates comes in packaging marked as “recyclable,” this means it could be recycled if certain conditions are met, but those conditions are rarely provided. 

So what are the conditions? 

The first one is you. For your recyclable chocolate box to become recycled cardboard you’re going to need to get it into a recycling system. The cardboard boxes that contain Naked Sprout facial tissues, for example, are made from recycled materials and they’re also recyclable, but for them to get back into the paper and card recycling network we rely on our customers to pop them in the recycling bin at home.

That’s straightforward enough, most of the UK has had some form of recycling collection through their local authority since 2010 and cardboard is one of the most widely recycled materials, along with metal and glass. 

Recycling provision for other materials tends to be patchier; plastic is a trickier issue because plastic containers will tend to incorporate different plastic elements (e.g. a bottle and a lid) that are made in different ways, with some recyclable and some not. Plastic even finds its way into cardboard packaging. Some toilet roll manufacturers that deliver in cardboard boxes, for example, secure these boxes using plastic tape. If the cardboard ends up in the recycling with the tape on it, that tape has to be removed before the box can be recycled.

Of course, many of us already know what everyday materials can be recycled and where. In the case of glass, paper, and cardboard, the fact that these materials can be recycled is common knowledge. So why do companies go to the effort of pointing out that paper wrapping or cardboard boxes can, theoretically, be recycled? 

Well, a reminder is always helpful, but there might be another motive in play. While you’re looking out for the best place to sort your recycling, you might want to keep an eye open for greenwashing. 

Recycling bins

The Bait and Switch

As we’ve said, most people know what “recycled” means, and understand that it is a positive part of environmental progress, reducing the strain on natural resources and keeping unwanted materials out of landfill. Brands are aware of this, and if a product or its packaging is made from recycled elements, they will always point it out.  

You can see this on our own packaging for our toilet rolls - where the different elements of the product, e.g. the cardboard boxes themselves and the inner tubes in our toilet rolls are listed, and clearly marked as “recycled and recyclable.” The fact that our products can be recycled in future is noted, but on our website and packaging you’ll generally see we’ve made more of a feature of the fact that they are made from recycled materials, because that shows the work we have already undertaken to reduce the amount of virgin materials in our products. 

So, if you’re looking at packaging that doesn’t say recycled, but does say recyclable, it’s very likely the raw materials used are not recycled. If they were, the packaging would be shouting about that instead! 

So a toilet roll sold in a cardboard box or paper wrapping that is labelled “recyclable,” for example, is likely to be a toilet roll sold in packaging made with virgin raw timber, by a company who is anxious to improve their image and wants to use the connotations of recycling to do so. 

This kind of practice is now being openly called out by campaigners; in 2023 a body representing consumer groups across Europe raised a complaint with the EU about multinational drinks companies selling their products in bottles marked with vague terms like “100% recyclable,” regardless of recycling rates in the areas where the products were sold, or even if all of the elements of the bottle could be recycled. The group argued that vague terms like “recyclable”, accompanied with green images and labels, constituted greenwashing, creating a “false idea” that these products were not damaging to the environment. 

We’re aware of examples of virgin materials prominently described as “recyclable” in our own sector of toilet rolls; with cardboard packaging, paper wrapping, and inner cardboard tubes that are made from virgin materials with the word “recyclable,” included prominently on the packaging and website (and no mention of the virgin paper). 

If you remove a “recyclable” paper wrapping from a toilet roll and then throw the wrapping in your general household bin the “recyclable” label means nothing at all, and the same amount of timber has been used either way.

a logging operation

What to look out for

Greenwashing isn’t an all-or-nothing practice. Companies know that there are some grey areas in common definitions and understandings that they can use to make a product seem just that bit more eco-friendly than it really is. But there are some strategies we can use to get a more realistic view of the product and how it’s made. 

  1. Look for specifics: A specific claim like "Cardboard packaging made with 100% recycled material" is more meaningful than a vague claim like “recyclable packaging.”.
  1. Look for what’s not mentioned: Understand that if a product is labelled “recyclable” and not “recycled,” that likely indicates it’s made from virgin materials.
  1. Look for the labels: On-pack recycling labels can provide more information about the elements of a product that can be recycled, and certifications such as those from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for paper products can provide reassurance about the recycled content and sustainability practices.
  1. Know what you can recycle: What’s recyclable varies widely by region. If you’re in the UK you can use this handy lookup provided by recyclenow.com to check the materials recycled by your local authority.
recycled cardboard boxes


We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, none of us are perfect consumers. Those of us who try to keep the environment in mind while shopping will always have to make the odd compromise along the way, and do our best with the information we have.

Understanding small distinctions like the one between “recycled” and “recyclable” helps us to see what’s going on beneath green labels and positive buzzwords, in the actual processes and supply chains of a business. So next time you see those terms we hope they’ll serve as a reminder that you can’t save the world from your own recycling bin, the companies you choose to shop with have a responsibility to the environment as well!

If the labelling on a product looks to be highlighting what
might be recycled, rather than what already is, you can ask the business to make it more clear. As always, we are happy to answer any questions about out products - you can reach us at hello@nakedsprout.uk 

Want toilet rolls, tissues, and kitchen rolls delivered in recycled, recyclable cardboard, with no virgin paper wrapping or virgin cardboard boxes? 

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