Coming Soon: A Universal Recycling Label System

How do you know if a package you buy will be recycled? That hasn't been easy—until now.

recycling bins

How do you know if a package you buy will be recycled? More often than not, there's no easy way to tell. The inscrutable number codes on the bottom of plastic packages only describe the type of plastic it contains, not whether that plastic is recyclable. And just because a package trumpets a label saying "100% recyclable" or comes emblazoned with the chasing arrows logo, it's no guarantee that it actually can or will be recycled. Grocery store shelves are littered with misleadingly labeled products, much to the frustration of both shoppers and companies that are committed to recycling.

With that in mind, a business group devoted to recycable packaging is launching a label system it hopes will clear up the confusion. The new system is the brainchild of GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a working group of more than 200 companies that includes some of the country’s biggest manufacturers and retailers—including Microsoft, FedEx, and McDonald's. The SPC system classifies four types of packaging:

• Widely recycled: packaging materials such as glass, cardboard, PET plastic bottles which are recycled in most communities.
• Limited recycling: materials that are only recycled in 20 to 60% of the U.S., such as polypropylene yogurt containers.
• Not recycled: materials that are rarely recycled, such as Styrofoam.
• Store drop-off: category for the bags and plastic film that are often collected by grocery stores for recycling.

The labels are not mutually exclusive; a single product might sport several, depending on its packaging. For instance, a box of cereal may carry both a "widely recycled" label, for the cardboard box, and a "limited recycling" label, referring to the plastic bag inside.

"The idea is that each component that is easily separable by the consumer is labeled separately," said Anne Bedarf, the SPC project manager who helped develop the system. The labels, which were in development for more than three years, are based on ones that are widely used in Britain. Bedarf said it was difficult to determine if the labeling system had boosted recycling rates there. "But I can say it has increased consumer awareness of recycling."

Meanwhile, a parallel effort is underway to revamp the resin code used for plastic recycling: those squint-to-read numbers stamped onto plastic containers. Critics say the code is outdated because it doesn’t take account of bio-plastics or the great variety of polymers now pigeonholed simply as #7’s (AKA "other plastics"). The standards-setting group, the American Society for Testing and Materials, is wrestling with that issue and isn’t expected to come out with a new code for a few years.

Some member companies of the SPC will start testing the new labels this fall, as part of a pilot project extending through 2012. After that, the group plans to make them more widely available. "Our hope is for it to become a universal label," Bedarf said.

[Top image: modified from Flickr user]

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. A San Francisco writer, her work has appeared in Discover, Smithsonian, the New York Times, Reader's Digest and other national publications.

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  • Mogwai

    Nope, already lost. Too many qualifiers which leave too many unanswered questions. Any sort of a learning curve, and you've lost a significant part of the audience this would have been initiated to engage: people who will only recycle if there are no barriers. Unfortuantely, this system presents another barrier.
    Also, it looks a lot like previous systems. So the language is diluted by irrelevant symbols from incumbent infrastructure that just adds more confusion.
    The net result of this exercise is to condemn the credibility of recycling systems, making it that much harder for a future, competent labelling system to claw back to wide institution.

  • Peter Rose

    I disagree.  This framework with qualifiers is much more coherent to consumers than the incumbent system.  In the US but also in Canada consumers must contact the local municipality to know what is and isn't recyclable, often communities differ greatly and the list of possible recyclable items is long and hard to go through.  In the new case items that are reliably recyclable in most communities are marked as such and there is little or no thought the consumer needs to put into recycling the item.  Items that are not widely recyclable are marked as such and so concerned consumers have a signal to then check their community.  In the old system a not widely recyclable item might have a recycle symbol or might not.  In either case the consumer might have a false positive for recycling or have a false negative where the unmarked recyclable item is placed in the landfill.  Furthermore, the old system does not address packaging with different components some recyclable some not.  Credibility in this context I think comes from being transparent and responsible to the consumer about a products recyclability, including all component parts.  The incumbent system does not address the variance of recycling capacity among different communities and places much more responsibility on the consumer to go seek out the information for his/her local community.  In the new system at least a clear line has been drawn between the bare minimum of what communities should offer and the questionably recyclable items that need to be double checked.