What happens to recalled products? Can they be recycled?
There are six government agencies that issue recalls to protect consumers from exposure to a variety of defective and dangerous products:
- US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for consumer products.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for motor vehicles.
- US Coast Guard (USCG) is responsible for boats.
- US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for food, medicine, veterinary products, and cosmetics.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are responsible for environmental and agricultural products.
Because of the wide variety of products recalled and both the human and environmental risks associated with some recalled products, there are many different scenarios for what happens to recalled products. Some recalled products are dangerous to humans in their current form, but can be disposed of safely in landfills or even recycled into new products, while other products pose risks for humans and cannot be recycled and should not be disposed of in landfills.
Food that has been recalled is often dangerous for people to consume, but not necessarily dangerous to dispose of. For example, when there was a recall for Jensen Farms cantaloupes due to a listeria outbreak a few years ago, the FDA instructed consumers to simply dispose of the product in a sealed container to prevent children or rodents from getting to it and spreading the food-borne illness.
Products with low levels of toxicity may be able to be diluted to levels safe for human contact and then recycled into other products, like park benches. Devices that are not toxic at all, but merely defective, can ultimately be reconstructed correctly and resold; parts can be salvaged, or scrap materials can be recycled.
Products recalled for being highly toxic, however, are treated as hazardous waste and stored in large drums before being properly disposed of. And drugs that have been recalled by the FDA should be brought or mailed to pharmacies or designated drop-off centers, the same way you would properly dispose of used medical supplies, so that they can be diluted and disposed of as biohazard waste if appropriate.
Of course, these results assume that recalled products are collected and turned in to the proper agencies for proper disposal. According to CPSC spokesperson Scott Wilson, the recall power of an agency is limited beyond its issuance; getting products off retail shelves is possible, but with little control over consumers, receiving recalled products from the people who already own products is far less likely. And when you’re looking at something like toys tainted by lead paint, the results of improper disposal are, well, bad: If the toy is donated, it gets into the hand of someone else; if it is thrown in the trash, it sits in a landfill, possibly leeching into the groundwater supply over time.
To make sure you handle your own recalled products correctly, read the recall notices closely. Recall notices issued by companies should inform consumers of what they need to do, often requesting return to retailer or manufacturer.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The New York Times
Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP
US Coast Guard (USCG)
US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)