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Consumers are confused about recycling, and here’s why

Consumers are confused about recycling, and here’s why
Better labeling can help consumers figure out how to recycle their used packaging.

Even though recycling rates are the highest they have ever been, recovery rates across waste streams are still increasing at incredibly sluggish rates. Even so, sustainability has become a far more visible subject today than it ever has before. So why don’t our recovery rates reflect this rising interest? The truth is that recycling has become an extremely confusing process due to vague labeling, a lack of standardization and the absence of clear disposal instructions. To put it bluntly: consumers are confused.

One of the chief causes is something all packaging professionals should be well versed in: SPI’s Resin Identification Code for plastic containers and packaging. This relatively simple coding system has helped improve the sorting infrastructure and plastic waste collection rates, but not without its own share of complications.

The problem is that the system was primarily developed for recycling centers and processing facilities, not for the consumers that try (or don’t) to recycle them. The symbols can be deceptive, in that they look strikingly similar to the universal recycling symbol, yet are not necessarily an indication of the package’s recyclability.

On top of this confusion, the types of plastic polymers accepted by municipal recycling systems vary greatly from community to community. Many people have no idea what varieties of plastic their local recycling program accepts, causing them to put any plastics—regardless of the RIC or if they are accepted locally—into the blue bin. This causes problems on all fronts: recycling streams get contaminated, energy and manpower is spent removing incorrectly sorted plastics from the processing line, and consumers remain misinformed about the recyclability of their plastic products and packaging.

Confounding the issue further is multi-component or hybrid packaging, which can contain a variety of plastic resins and other materials. This further complicates the collection, sorting and processing of these waste streams, so much so that the value of the recycled end-product isn’t typically high enough to offset the logistic and processing costs of recycling.

It isn’t uncommon for packages to consist of a variety of materials, like a plastic container with a foil top and a protective laminate lining. To properly recycle or dispose of such a product, the consumer must identify each material present (including the plastic resin), properly separate each material accordingly and then determine what can be properly recycled by their municipality. This is a significant barrier to recycling for many consumers who will tend to throw an item away if there are no obvious (or accessible) indications of recyclability on the package.

Most consumers will not go out of their way to determine if they can recycle product packaging, so the only other viable solutions from a consumer’s point of view are to: (A) stop buying the product altogether to prevent further waste generation; (B) throw it away with no attempt at recycling; or (C) find an alternative recycling program for the post-consumer waste, such as the new Zero Waste Boxes offered by TerraCycle, allowing anyone to recycle any non-hazardous solid packaging and other waste. While we recognize Zero Waste is more of a goal or mind state than an actuality, we hope this new offering can help people take steps towards that goal. Something this simple can significantly lower the barrier to recycling as all that is required from the consumer is to put the waste in a box and ship it.

Consumer-facing search databases for recyclable materials like 1-800-Recycling can also help direct consumers to locations that accept waste that might not be accepted in curbside programs. These are among the few limited options available to consumers until a better system is developed to standardize the recycling infrastructure, educate consumers and better communicate the recyclability of a package or product on-pack.

So if confusing labels, a lack of consumer awareness and limitations to the municipal recycling system are some of the problems behind low recovery rates, what can be done to mend the issue? The answer is simple: create a more consumer-friendly label and plastic identification system so proper recycling techniques can be better communicated.

GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition has an interesting solution to the confusion surrounding this flawed system. SPC developed the increasingly well-known How2Recycle Label, a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates to the consumer the proper recycling instructions for a package or product. Started in 2008, the How2Recycle Label is starting to gain greater momentum and has been receiving support from brands and grocery retailers like Wegman’s, General Mills, and Honest Tea, among many others. On these labels, the packaging material and any special recycling instructions are clearly displayed.

While it is apparent recycling rates are on the rise (albeit very slowly) there are still countless consumers who have a difficult time determining the more sustainable disposal option for their products and packaging, or what exactly is or is not actually recyclable. By raising awareness through educating consumers, and by developing a more unified code of understanding to better communicate proper recycling techniques, we could be more effectively reusing, maintaining and recycling the valuable, finite resources on our planet instead of needlessly and wastefully sending them to the landfill.

Author Tom Szaky, founder/CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, recently published a book called "Revolution in a Bottle" and is the star of a National Geographic Channel special, "Garbage Moguls."

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