Liz Schoch

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
Improved labeling might reduce contamination and boost recovery

Despite years of advocacy, the overall packaging recovery rate remains anemic in the U.S. There are a number of contributing factors, including a lack of national leadership, regulation and policy incentives, market development and enforceable recycling targets.


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Locally variable collection infrastructure and financing options, poor coordination between the design of packaging and recovery systems, and increasing diversity of packaging material types are further challenges to raising U.S. recycling rates. Even when materials are collected, sorting and reprocessing facilities increasingly complain of contamination issues when the wrong materials are placed in recycling collection bins.

The issue of contamination is closely linked to public confusion over recyclability and the variability of collection and processing systems. In addition to contamination, the packaging industry also places the blame for low recycling rates on consumers, since ultimately the consumer is responsible for physically putting the packaging in the correct recycling bin.

So how can the packaging industry help consumers understand how to recycle? A better recovery label is one part of a solution. Increasing public demand for transparency in sustainability performance requires a clear labeling system that can effectively communicate to consumers and inspire consumer confidence in the system, making them more likely to regularly recycle. This is one part of the puzzle of how to increase recycling rates.

Over the past three years, GreenBlue has studied the effectiveness of packaging recovery systems, including an evaluation of existing labeling schemes, through its "Closing the Loop" research project. In October 2011 we will release a report, "Labeling for Recovery," which summarizes the labeling system research and recommends a labeling system for the U.S. that could increase the effective recovery of all packaging.

The report's findings center on the fact that neither recycling infrastructure nor labeling systems in the U.S. are harmonized. Any common legal requirements for labeling in the US are inconsistently applied and rarely enforced, allowing a proliferation of labels that are confusing to consumers. Though many labels are correctly used, greenwashing remains common. The U.S. has no harmonized label that applies across all materials and across the entire country. Often, recycling labels are not applied to all parts of a package, conveniently neglecting to impart recycling information on currently unrecyclable materials.

To remedy this, any successful labeling system must have these components:

• A label design that matches its stated objective.

• Nationwide administration and enforcement.

• Easy recognition by consumers along with the ability to drive positive action.

Flexibility to adapt to new packaging material types, formats and recovery systems.

Members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition have worked for the past two years to develop a voluntary labeling system that meets the above criteria. It is based on the OPRL Labeling Scheme currently in use in the U.K., but has been modified and adapted to better-fit packaging in this country, the state of our recycling infrastructure and U.S. legal requirements. While the goal of the label is simply to communicate more transparently to consumers, the SPC is counting on better communication leading to higher recycling rates for all materials.

GreenBlue's "Labeling for Recovery" will be available, free of charge, at In October 2011, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition will introduce the companies that will pilot the label on packaging, starting in 2012.

Liz Shoch is a project manager for GreenBlue's Sustainable
Packaging Coalition ( For additional
information, email [email protected].

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