Firms implementing new voluntary recycling labels

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WASHINGTON (Oct. 19, 4 p.m. ET) — Five companies, including Microsoft Corp., outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI, and green cleaning products company Seventh Generation Inc., will use the new voluntary recycling labels developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition on some of their products starting in January.

The national pilot program for the Package Recovery Label System, which will roll out next year, also has commitments from Conagra Foods Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. SPC further expects to get commitments from at least three other companies, said Anne Bedarf, project manager for the voluntary labeling project.

Concurrently, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers plans to launch in January an educational campaign on how to recycle — without the numbers.

“We are happy to be a partner in the project to reduce the confusion about plastics recycling,” said APR communications director Keefe Harrison. “We want to decrease the barriers to recycling.”

“Consumers are faced with a confusing landscape of recycling messages and instructions that are often inconsistent or misleading,” Bedarf said during a teleconference to unveil the pilot program Oct. 19. “We believe this label will create a harmonized system that will help consumers and companies contribute to more effective resource recovery.”

That’s not only what SPC wants, but what consumers want as well, she added. An SPC survey of consumers found that they want packaging labels to “accurately and clearly communicate the key recycling message and effectively motivate them to recycle.”

“What’s very important about this project is that it reduces significantly the confusion of consumers about recycling,” said Pete Swaine, director of packaging development at Seventh Generation. “With these labels, we should be able to expand the ease of recycling to a greater number of people in the U.S. We are hopeful that this can be a standard that can be recognized all across the U.S.”

Seventh Generation will use the label on two new projects debuting next year: a 22-ounce pre-wash spray and a 180-ounce laundry detergent bottle. REI said it will roll out the new voluntary packaging label in 2012 on all the accessories for its top-rated Novara bike line.

“The label will help customers make recycling part of their everyday activities,” said Eric Abraham, packaging manager at REI. “It is an authentic, consistent and simplified approach that provides radical transparency.”

Microsoft packaging executive Scott Ballantine agreed. “This should help close the loop so that we can get material back in an economically consistent way that makes sense.”

The initiative, three years in development, is modeled after a program used by more than 100 companies and 90 percent of products sold in grocery stores in the United Kingdom.

The labels developed by SPC will classify packaging either as widely recyclable, not yet recyclable, or having limited recycling and suggesting consumers check locally to see whether it is recycled in their area. The labels will not address recycled content.

The “not recyclable” label will have a black diagonal line through a chasing-arrows icon. Labels for packaging with limited recycling will have the phrase “check locally,” in the center of the chasing-arrows icon and a note at the bottom that it is not recycled in all communities. The icons also will identify material, for example, as a paper or plastic box, container or tray.

That’s slightly different from the original concept, unveiled last May. In addition, SPC has given its consumer informational website a new name and decided to include that web address — — on all labels.

Plastic bags and films will have the phrase “store drop-off” in the center of the chasing arrows icon, and the phrase “recycle if clean & dry” in a box above the icon. Plastic bottles will have the phrase “empty and replace cap” in a box above the chasing arrows icon.

“We want to harmonize communications from the industry to the consumer, and improve the reliability, completeness and transparency of the recycling message and claim,” said Bedarf. “We feel the labeling project will lead to a more effective recycling outcome.”

SPC hopes its labeling project — which it plans to roll out nationwide in 2013 after getting feedback from the pilot project — will increase recycling of all packaging materials and eliminate confusion often caused by resin identification codes.

“Reducing that confusion is important,” said APR’s Harrison. “One thing that regularly trips people up is the resin identification code. That was never intended to be the public interface for recycling. It just points out a resin’s past and does not indicate a resin’s future. Hopefully this labeling program will reduce some of that confusion.”

A wide array of messages on the packaging itself also leads to confusion, Bedarf added.

“There are inconsistent messages about recycling on labels and much consumer confusion,” she said. “While they serve a purpose, a consumer can find the current messages quite confusing.”

She pointed in particular to packages that tell the consumer to please recycle when the material used is only recycled on a limited basis or barely at all. According to federal guidelines established by the Federal Trade Commission, 60 percent of consumers must have access to recycling a material for a company to use a message asking consumers to recycle it.

“It causes confusion and doesn’t allow for a level playing field,” Bedarf said. “We want to get increased material flow to the recycling stream through better packaging, clearer messages and system designs.”

SPC also released its Labeling for Packaging Recovery report which details the top five challenges with packaging labels in the U.S., as well as the four requirements that an effective package labeling plan in the U.S. should have.

The challenges:

• Confusing labels in an environment where greenwashing is common.

•  No harmonized, consistent labeling system across materials.

• The absence of a label in the U.S. that is comprehensively applied to all material types or packaging components.

• A fragmented and inconsistent recycling collection system and infrastructure.

•  Very few legal requirements for packaging, with even those requirements rarely enforced.

“These are five challenges that stand in the way of good recovery of packaging in the U.S,” said Liz Shoch, who is also a project manager at SPC’s parent company, GreenBlue.

The coalition said an effective packaging labeling system in the U.S. should have four requirements:

• Clear goals where the label matches the objective, which is to increase recycling.

• Credibility in the eyes of consumers through the use of a label that gives them information on whether they can recycle a package and how.

• A simple, action-oriented design that is easily recognizable and designed to drive positive action —-recycling — by the consumer.

• Flexibility, so the labeling system can be applied to all packaging today and in the future.

“Education is critical to sustaining recycling,” said Bedarf. “We need a simple system consumers can rely on to help them figure out what to do with the packaging.”

SPC is a working group of more than 200 brand owners, resin companies, processors and retailers. It is project of GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Va., nonprofit organization focused on sustainability implementation.