Five companies, including Microsoft Corp., outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI, and green cleaning products firm 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 at least three other companies to commit, said project manager Anne Bedarf.
Concurrently, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers plans a January launch for 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.
“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.”
An SPC survey found that consumers also want packaging labels to “accurately and clearly communicate the key recycling message and effectively motivate them to recycle.”
“We are hopeful that this can be a standard that can be recognized all across the U.S.,” said Pete Swaine, packaging development director of Seventh Generation.
Seventh Generation will use the label on two projects debuting next year: a 22-ounce pre-wash spray and a 180-ounce laundry detergent bottle. REI will roll out the new voluntary packaging label in 2012 on all 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 —how2recycle.info — on all labels.
Plastic bags and films will have the phrase “store drop-off” in the center of the chasing arrows icon, and “recycle if clean & dry” in a box above the icon. Plastic bottles will say “empty and replace cap” in a box above the icon.
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.
APR's Harrison said, “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.”
An array of inconsistent messages also leads to confusion, Bedarf said. She pointed in particular to packages telling consumers to please recycle when the material used is only recycled on a limited basis or barely at all.
According to guidelines established by the Federal Trade Commission, 60 percent of consumers must have access to recycling a material for a firm to use a message asking them to recycle it.
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 four requirements an effective package labeling plan in the U.S. should have.
Challenges include a fragmented and inconsistent recycling collection system and infrastructure.
One requirement for effective package labeling is giving consumers information on whether they can recycle a package and how. “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.”
SPC is a working group of more than 200 brand owners, resin firms, processors and retailers. Its parent is GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Va., nonprofit focused on sustainability implementation.