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More and more companies are labeling their products as recyclable, but the term is used more as a consumer come-on than out of concern for the environment, a new study shows.

Researchers from the University of Utah, Oregon State University and the University of Illinois drew that conclusion after checking the labels of hundreds of supermarket products over the past three years.Results of the study were released by the U. on Tuesday and are being used by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as it prepares for summer hearings on the "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims."

According to the study, fewer companies are exaggerating the environmental claims about their products following the adoption of FTC advertising guidelines three years ago.

However, many still are making vague references to recycling in an effort to get consumers to buy the items.

"Theoretically, anything is recyclable," said Robert Mayer, pro-ject coordinator and chairman of the department of family and consumer studies at the U. "The question is, `Will it be recycled?' "

Data were gathered from five sites, including Salt Lake City; New York City; Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; San Diego; and Corvallis, Ore.

Many companies are describing their products as "environmentally friendly," "environmentally safe," "environmentally smart." In fact, such labels on the front of packages increased by 36.2 percent since September 1992, according to the study.

But exactly what those labels mean is anyone's guess, Mayer said.

"The way the claims are being made now is almost absurd because they mean almost nothing," he said. "Just telling people to recycle is of little value. It's like food advertisements telling people to watch their weight but withholding information about caloric content."

Sonja Wallace, pollution prevention coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the problem has persisted for several years.

Her office gets several calls a day from people trying to interpret broad labels. Some products also can be recycled only in certain states where there are recycling companies that handle such materials.

For instance, Meyer's study found that almost every one of the soda bottles examined had labels that said they were recyclable. But few states have recycling companies that will accept glass products.

"There are good advertising guidelines, but I think refining what terms mean is something that would be helpful," Wallace said. "Our goal at the Department of Environmental Quality is ultimately source reduction. If you can't reduce it, then reuse it."

Linda Shotwell, spokeswoman for the National Recycling Coalition in Washington, D.C., said another problem stemming from environmental labeling is a lack of consumer education.

"I think we need consumer awareness as to exactly what these labels mean," Shotwell said.

The confusion, she said, has contributed to a low recycling rate that was about 21.7 percent in 1993, according to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In comparison, Utah recycles about 10 percent of its waste, Wallace said.

Meyer suggests that the FTC tighten its labeling guidelines and continue to monitor those labels.

"Several companies and industries use their own environmental symbols," he said. "All of this leaves consumers potentially confused and/or cynical."