Easier-to-understand labeling for materials will aid recycling efforts

Use of packaging labels related to materials and recyclability continues to grow, despite indications that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidance will place firmer limits on related claims. The USDA BioPreferred Program recently announced the first 60 products certified to carry the biobased label. One manufacturer launched a $25,000 contest to design a new bioplastics symbol and Recycle Across America has introduced standardized recycling labels without misleading Resin Identification Codes (RICs).

With an increasing amount of claims on labels, FTC research indicates consumers remain confused about the terms renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. This demonstrates the problem of inconsistent, marketing-focused approaches to materials identification and recyclability labeling. It is doubtful that piecemeal efforts will be effective.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition launched an initiative more than two years ago to harmonize the way industry communicates to consumers on materials and recyclability on-package. This month, the coalition will launch REstart the CYCLE, a voluntary label system that will be piloted by a number of major companies over the next year. Using fact-based instruction and package labeling by component, the goal is to standardize recovery messaging using an approach that is transparent about actual recyclability and easily understood by consumers.

The labels have been adapted from a successful program developed in the U.K. that has improved consumer understanding. The proposed U.S. system specifies that each separable package component is labeled using one of four categories: Widely Recycled, Check Locally, Not Yet Recycled, and Store Drop-off.

These categories are determined by access to recycling, in communities across the U.S. If the recycling reach data indicates 60 percent availability or more, then the "Widely Recycled" label applies (to include the "Store Drop-off" label for plastic bags and films). If access is less than 20 percent, then "Not Yet Recycled" applies. If the reach data shows between 20 percent and 60 percent access, then "Check Locally" applies.

Consumer research has indicated that a simple approach to recyclability labeling is best, and a national survey conducted by the SPC shows that the proposed labels strengthen consumer understanding.

The SPC has partnered with brand owners and retailers, material manufacturers, recyclers and government at the local and state level, to assist with crafting the details regarding access to recycling data and performance indicators.The pilot will run through mid-2012, with approximately 10 packages nationwide featuring the new labels. However, other brand owners and retailers will be considered through May and should contact the SPC if interested. Find out more at www.RestartTheCycle.com.

The related issue of the resin codes is being addressed through an American Society of Testing & Materials (ASTM) process. The group has been working on the issues of additional codes (such as one for compostable biopolymers), proper use of the code, the use of chasing arrows and interaction with state laws. The SPC recommends phasing out the use of RICs as consumer communication tools, as well as the use of chasing arrows with RICs, while allowing for the diversity of plastic materials to be more accurately reflected through the RIC number and material abbreviation.

The author, Anne Bedarf, is a project manager for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue
(www.greenblue.org). For additional information, [email protected].

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