When we think of recycling, we often break things down into a few main categories such as plastics, metals, and paper. As technology advances and more materials (and their variants) are created, the process of recycling them efficiently and effectively becomes challenging. Doubly so when no one’s really sure what bin to toss them in. To fight this problem, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition seeks to treat the issue with standardized recycling labels to help educate American consumers on how to recycle their waste correctly.
Certainly, recycling has grown to a $200 billion industry in the United States with no indication of slowing down any time soon. When our country’s recycling levels reach 75%, it’s estimated to be the equivalent of removing 55 million cars from the roads each year, while also creating a million and a half new jobs to support the recycling industry’s expansion. But we still have a long way to go before we get to that magic 75% threshold.
Despite roughly three quarters of Americans having curbside access to recycling services that come right up to their houses, people still aren’t educated well enough to recycle things properly. The EPA estimates that 75% of what’s thrown away is recyclable, with only 30% actually making it into the recycling process. This phenomenon is a bit silly, especially since non-ferrous metals like aluminum can be recycled and re-formed an infinite number of times with virtually no loss in product quality.
As there’s so many types of recyclable materials nowadays, some cities simply don’t have the collection services to support them all. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines, if at least 60% of the population has access to a certain material’s collection services, it’s considered within a sufficient recycling threshold.
As Packaging Digest observed, “with the exception of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS), all plastic bottles, cups, and rigid containers were found to be accepted in recycling programs available to more than 60% of the population. Aluminum beverage cans and glass bottles were found to be well over the 60% threshold [along with] aerosol containers (both steel and aluminum).”
There is still a need, however, for better recycling programs and collection services for “rigid polystyrene containers, polypropylene and polyethylene lids, aluminum food containers, bulky plastics, and others.” Moreover, the separation of multiple recyclable components, such as paper labels on plastic containers, aren’t taken into account when consumers toss their recyclables in collection bins; while it might seem harmless, this “cross contamination” of materials makes it difficult to properly reclaim them. After all, no one wants bits of paper fibers floating in recycled plastic for a variety of quality and cosmetic reasons.
Bringing Order to Recycling Chaos
Believe it or not, there isn’t any strong enforcement for standardizing recycling labels. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has designed a new labeling system, however, to reflect the FTC’s new 2012 Green Guides to help Americans sort their recyclables and gather data on areas without sufficient collection and materials reclaim services. By increasing education and awareness, it’s theorized consumers can then call these issues to attention in their own towns. After all, if you can’t recognize a problem’s existence, you can’t do much to solve it.
But according to How2Recycle, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s labeling system, education just scratches the surface of what the program’s intended to do:
“Available to recycling isn’t the only fact that How2Recycle analyzes. We also look to whether or not a package is likely to be sorted correctly at material recovery facilities, as well as reprocessed effectively. What that means for How2Recycle is that our recycling labels don’t just convey whether the material a package is made out of has a certain available percentage; we holistically look at the entire package and analyze how the components fit and interact with one another.”
This is again the example of paper pulp being caught in plastics and polymers, chiefly PET thermoforms: “individual paper fibers making up pulp are very small and difficult to remove, so some travel with the PET. Paper fibers remaining in the RPET carbonize when the material is heated and melted, causing unacceptable quality degradation.”
Overall, How2Recycle aims to solve three main problems:
- Most recyclables end up in landfills due to lack of consumer awareness and education;
- There’s no standardization of recycling labels, leaving most recyclable packages labeled improperly or inconsistently;
- And recycling information is difficult to understand, especially with the amount of specialized materials such as PET and other polymers.
All of these are addressed through the program’s easy-to-read labels that break down information in one helpful image, such as the one shown at right. As you can see, the new label includes preparation, how the package is recycled, what it’s made from, and what format the material is in (that is, a plastic bottle isn’t in the same format as a rigid plastic container for cold cut deli meats).
For those multi-component packages, How2Recycle has expanded instructions to help consumers understand and break down complex packages:
With a growing list of major consumer goods manufacturers and companies like Kellogg’s, Nestle, General Mills, McDonald’s, Target, Clorox, and REI, How2Recycle looks like it’s set to spread throughout the market. As people become more educated and aware of good recycling habits and what programs they have available locally, public demand will continue to increase along with an expectation for these standard labels, forcing other companies to join in.
Rather than waiting for the very last minute to join in, according to a recent consumer survey, 77% of respondents told How2Recycle that their impression of a company becomes more positive when they learn the company participates in this program. Naturally, this is a reflection of current consumer trends favoring green and sustainable technologies and initiatives.
That in mind, feel free to visit How2Recycle’s website for more information about these cool new informative labels and how to sign your business up today! If this is meant to be the FTC-approved standard, might as well get the ball rolling. With clearer, standardized recycling labels along with increased awareness, the full benefits of this new program are yet to be seen. By getting consumers more involved with sorting, preparing and separating complex packaging, only time will tell how their participation will affect the entire recycling industry, streamlining the process while reclaiming more materials that otherwise would’ve been left to rot in landfills.
Learn more about FP International’s stance on plastic use here.