Could New Labels Boost Lackluster Recycling Rates?

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Earlier this year, we found that one of the top reasons why people don’t recycle is simply lack of convenience and know-how. While recycling may be second nature to some, many consumers are unaware of what goes in what bin and if it truly is, in fact, recyclable.

A new universal labeling system could be one way of taking the ambiguity out of the process. Recycle Across America.org has developed national standardized labels for recycling bins.

The organization calls these labels, “simple solutions that can eliminate confusion, increase capture rates, help improve the quality of materials captured, reduce expenses and expedite progress.”

According to Mitch Hedlund of Recycle Across America, inconsistent labels have been a chronic condition since the onset of recycling in the U.S.

“From the public stand-point, people and students are often having to look into a bin to see if it’s OK to toss in their aluminum can,” Hedlund says.

“The recycling industry or janitorial industry isn’t benefiting from the confusion either because they, for example, might pick up what they think is a recycling bin full of paper and realize that it has been contaminated with a dirty diaper,” she continues. “These are real stories and they’re happening over and over again across the United States.”

Hedlund notes that inconsistent labeling makes recycling inconvenient for the consumer, which may contribute to the country’s dismal 33 percent recycling rate.

“Let’s use a worst-case scenario and say the rate of recyclers doesn’t increase beyond 33 percent in the U.S., but at least the 33 percent is using consistent labels,” Hedlund explains. “Consistent labels being used by those recycling households/businesses has the potential to increase their capture rates of actual recycled material by 47 percent.”

Hedlund says the best environment for a case study to demonstrate the effects of consistent labels is in a school district. She uses the example of one school district of 15 different buildings. District-wide implementation of these consistent labels resulted in a 47 percent increase in their recyclables capture rate.

Prior to that pilot program, every one of the 15 schools was left to figure out how to mark their bins themselves. Hedlund says, sometimes, the children are asked to make the signs, which is charming, but not very affective.

“Again, this is not a rare example, this fragmented approach to recycling is happening in most school districts across the country,” she says. “Now imagine what would happen if all schools were to use consistent labels. And then take it one giant step farther and imagine what would happen if the children began seeing the same labels on bins at the mall, theater, restaurant, retailer, their park, the airport and even at home, that they see at school. It is such a ridiculously simple solution, isn’t it?”

The idea behind Recycle Across America came after Hedlund spoke at Solid Waste Association of North America and Recycle Association of MN conference last year. After presenting the solution to the industry executive committee, they instantly supported it and created a national sign committee to help bring it to fruition.

Surprisingly, changing industry labels may not involve jumping through hoops and ladders to make it successful.

“The beauty of this solution is that it doesn’t require legislation and isn’t a victim of red tape,” Hedlund says. “This solution just requires a willing industry to agree that standardized labels for bins can help society, help their industry and certainly help the environment.”

by Amanda Wills

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