Author: MK Moore

How Will Policy Change Labeling? Updates on Refreshing the How2Recycle Label

How2Recycle labels against pink background.

How Will Policy Change Labeling? Updates on Refreshing the How2Recycle Label

Back in 2008, members of our sister project at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) got together to solve a problem: How do we create a packaging label that consistently, clearly, and effectively communicates disposal instructions to consumers? 

Today, How2Recycle has flourished into its own labeling program with more than 525 brand and retailer members and more than 200 manufacturing members. Of course, a big part of the power of the label is its widespread adoption in the U.S. and Canada. More members means more on-pack labels—and, critically, more recognizable instructions for consumers. From packaging on Yoplait containers to REI products, every glance at a How2Recycle label can help reinforce the signal that: Hey, you’re looking at disposal instructions

And while the How2Recycle label has provided labels for hundreds of thousands of packages thus far, right now we’re at the middle of a crossroads. The recyclability landscape is changing. States are adopting EPR legislation across the country. And California’s SB 343 is redefining the laws around labeling. 

To meet the moment, the How2Recycle team is going back to our roots. We’re working with our partners at SPC’s Packaging Design Collaborative to solve a new problem: 

Can we refresh the How2Recycle label to not just meet new legislative requirements, but to also increase consumer understanding and advance innovation? 

The Shifting Label Landscape: How Will Policy Change Labeling? 

Historically, the How2Recycle team has used national data to assess recyclability. Whenever we complete a recyclability assessment, we’ve weighed the following factors:

  • Applicable law
  • Access to collection
  • Sortation
  • Technical reprocessability
  • End markets

Our label is one of the most stringent, data-backed labels on the market. We use national-level data to conduct our assessments and consistently update our guidance to ensure we are reflecting the current state of recyclability. We also consult with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to confirm that our labels responsibly communicate to consumers, and are closely following the changes led by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to ensure our label continues to comply with guidance at the federal level.

States are raising the bar now and adopting legislation to advance recyclability beyond federal requirements. Several states, California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon, have adopted EPR legislation, which assigns producers responsibility for products’ end-of-life management. 

California has also adopted SB 343, which restricts the use of the “chasing arrows” on packaging. SB 343 requires that products with the chasing arrows meet two key criteria: 

So, what does this all mean for brands? It means that we’ll need to understand a material’s recyclability in compliance with California’s state standards before applying the chasing arrows to packaging. We’ll need to make sure that labels comply with SB 343 and other state-specific labeling laws for brands with national footprints. 

And it means we’ll need to refresh the How2Recycle label. 

“How2Recycle has always been and needs to be a living program,” GreenBlue Executive Director Paul Nowak said. “We’ve adjusted the program before as new policy and data came forward. This is the next natural step and shows that the founders of How2Recycle built a flexible program that can take us into the future.”

So alongside the SPC Packaging Design Collaborative, we’re working to advance a label that is flexible enough to meet state-specific requirements, makes room for labeling innovation, and still accurately, clearly communicates instructions to consumers.

Refreshing the How2Recycle Label

If you’re not familiar with SPC’s Collaboratives, they’re issue-specific, action-oriented working groups covering everything from policy to compostable packaging. The Packaging Design Collaborative, which comprises experts in branding, on-pack ‘real estate,’ consumer education, and design, is the perfect partner for this project. 

Headed by SPC Packaging Design Collaborative Program Lead Brandi Parker, who brings more than 20 years of experience from the packaging and design industry, the Collaborative has embarked on two phases of research so far toward a refreshed, better label. 

In the first phase, they’ve identified the myriad catalysts for changing the label and developed initial direction and concepts to guide a new label. With experts on consumer packaging design involved, they broke down what catches a person’s eye, what people are likely to read, and, critically, what they’re likely to miss. 

Three UK recycling logos.

We surveyed recycling labels in other regions, like the UK. Photo: London Recycles

In the second phase, the Collaborative took the How2Recycle team’s feedback and consolidated concepts into themes to be researched and tested with consumers. In these and future phases, we’re looking at everything from compliance with California standards to consumer understanding of the slash-through chasing arrows. And we’re not just looking at our own label. We’re also drawing insights from labels across the globe that clearly communicate disposal instructions to consumers. 

Next up for the Collaborative is consumer research and testing. From there, we’ll continue iterating towards a refreshed design for the label that meets the moment. Members of How2Recycle can look out updates about this work in our July Guidelines for Use and at our How2Recycle summit, and expect an announcement in the fall about the new label design.

One of the concepts that the SPC Packaging Design Collaborative is exploring is How2Recycle’s first scannable label. We’re leveraging the consumer brand equity in the How2Recycle label and combining it with a dynamic, QR code label. From there, the QR code connects consumers to audited databases that give them more localized information for disposal. Our first pilot project on a dynamic label is currently running in parallel with the SPC Packaging Design Collaborative work and The Recycling Partnership’s Recycle Check program. 

Looking Ahead: How Can We Design a Recognizable, Future-Proof Label?

“Throughout this process, we’re asking ourselves: If we refresh the chasing arrows, will consumers recognize that our label is the place to look for disposal instructions?” said Karen Hagerman, How2Recycle Director.

“There’s an information hierarchy in design. Chasing arrows aren’t just arrows. They’re a cue to consumers saying: Look here for disposal instructions.” 

So far, our consumer research indicates that 87% of tested consumers found the How2Recycle label helpful. These results speak to the tremendous brand equity in the current How2Recycle label, used by brands from Costco to Estee Lauder. 

Beyond that brand equity though, this moment marks an excellent opportunity to create a label that’s not just recognizable, informative, and innovative—but to create a label that’s future-proof. A label that can meet future changing legislative requirements and consumer needs. Together with some of the best and brightest minds in the packaging and design industry, we’ll keep working toward a dynamic solution while never losing sight of our mission: to get more materials in the recycling bin by taking the guesswork out of recycling.

Learn more about How2Recycle, follow us for label design updates, or get involved with the SPC’s Packaging Design Collaborative.

 

By: MK Moore, Communications, Content & Design Manager, GreenBlue

Reflections on Earth Day: Recycling’s Gaps & Opportunities

A black and blue bin stand in front of trees.

Reflections on Earth Day: Recycling’s Gaps & Opportunities

April 22, 2024

Before the first Earth Day in 1970, the natural environment across the United States seemed to be in tatters. Oil splurged across the shores of Santa Barbara, smog blanketed skies in Los Angeles, and oil-coated rivers caught fire in Ohio. Dennis Hayes, an organizer of the first Earth Day, helped turn those tatters into action, “Earth Day gathered up those strands, and dozens more, and knitted them together in the public consciousness as ‘environmental’ issues.”

In the years that followed, the passage of legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency marked seismic shifts in our country’s environmental response. Throughout that same decade though, a more mundane shift that would help curb pollution, save energy, and conserve water was underway.

Recycling was picking up steam.

Throughout the 1970s, communities across the country rolled out curbside recycling programs, they built the first MRFs, and importantly, they helped make recycling a mainstream concept.

Today we know the potential that recycling—and other solutions like sustainable design, reuse, and compostable packaging—have on our environment, energy, and water. In the decades since that first Earth Day, the recycling system has seen incredible innovations, from large-scale curbside recycling programs to robotic sorting machines. But we’ve also seen the recycling system struggle to keep pace with production.

I’m sure you’ve heard statistics like this: Only 9% of plastics are recycled, or maybe that plastic waste makes up 80% of marine pollution. These widely dispersed statistics are emblematic of the public conversation about recycling—a conversation that’s focused on the system’s shortcomings. Take the perspective of Wasteland author, Oliver Franklin-Wallis:

“Recycling has been called a myth and beyond fixing as we’ve learned that recyclables are being shipped overseas and dumped (true), are leaching toxic chemicals and microplastics (true) and are being used by Big Oil to mislead consumers about the problems with plastics.”

Franklin-Wallis has traveled the world to investigate and research the global waste system, meeting with waste pickers and MRF administrators alike. In his research, he found what rang true to the first Earth Day organizers: We have one Earth, it’s connected, and consequently, the waste we produce doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it has repercussions that ring around the world.

In his latest piece for The New York Times, Franklin-Wallis helps characterize the public sentiment around recycling, but, more vitally, he outlines the solutions toward fixing a system with incredible potential.

So this Earth Day, the How2Recycle team is breaking down Franklin-Wallis’ insights and following his lead. We’re looking clear-eyed at the gaps in the recycling system to inform concrete solutions. In doing so, we hope that by next Earth Day, recycling—at least our corner of the system—will reap better outcomes for our environment.

The Gaps in Recycling

In his opinion-editorial, Franklin-Wallis points out several prominent flaws in the recycling system.

For starters, one of the most often discussed flaws in the recycling system is that plastics are recycled much less frequently than the public assumes. Franklin-Wallis cites statistics showing that the PET recycling rate is about 30%. He points to other plastics that fare worse, with recycling rates below 10%. To consumers, the takeaway from these statistics could be that 70%-90% of the waste they recycle isn’t getting recycled. The reality is that these gaps exist largely because 79% of recyclable waste never even enters the system—which needs to be solved. And the effect is that trust in the system is eroded.

Franklin-Wallis also sheds light on the fact that, in the United States, landfilling is quite prominent compared to other major economies: “According to the E.P.A., America’s national recycling rate, just 32 percent, is lower than Britain’s 44 percent, Germany’s 48 percent and South Korea’s 58 percent.” Together, a low recycling rate and a high landfill rate create a sort of one-two punch, undermining trust in the system.

However, what might be most visible to the public is the pervasive downstream effects of low recycling rates paired with high landfill rates. In his book, Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, Franklin-Wallis points out that, with time, landfills pose greater environmental threats, “Over time, they erode, until inevitably they spill their contents.” The combination of low recycling rates, high landfill rates, and the addition of any polluted waste, paves the way for marine waste and microplastic pollution, both of which garner significant attention.

Taken together, Franklin-Wallis creates a clear narrative throughline: The recycling system is “broken,” the alternative (landfilling) is dangerous, and the consequences to our health and our environment are pervasive.

He identifies the gaps in the system but looks to the past to inspire improvement rather than abandoning recycling: “Yes, recycling is broken, but abandon it too soon, and we risk going back to the system of decades past, in which we dumped and burned our garbage without care…”

And so, we turn to the promise of an improved recycling system.

The Promise of an Improved Recycling System

Recycling has untapped—or perhaps less noted—potential. From an economic point of view, as Franklin-Wallis points out that more recycling means more jobs: Recycling creates as many as 50 jobs for every one created by sending waste to landfills.

Of course, from an environmental perspective, recycling has incredible benefits. When we recycle instead of landfill, we can reduce landfills’ methane emissions. Franklin-Wallis points to improved energy efficiency and water conservation as well, with steel recycling saving 72% of the energy and 40% of water it would take to produce new steel.

So, how can we meet that potential?

In his editorial, Franklin-Wallis proposes several solutions for improving the recycling system, including:

  • Government intervention
  • Responsible design from companies
  • Transparency around recycling rates
  • Clear labeling

Labeling is where we come in. Clear labeling leads to clear decisions. Our research shows that 87% of consumer participants found the How2Recycle label to be helpful for informing their disposal action.

Of course, we also hope that this clarity—understanding what you can and can’t recycle—does more than inform one person’s disposal decision. Clear labeling can increase consumers’ participation in the recycling system, and directly impact broader recycling rates. Plus, at a deeper level, we want consumers to feel empowered in their informed decision-making so that we can help to restore trust in the recycling system’s potential to improve environmental outcomes.

Our labels help to demystify the recycling process for consumers, but our work doesn’t start—or end—there. The team at How2Recycle helps members improve packaging design and the quality of recycled materials. We also conduct rigorous recyclability assessments and consumer research to ensure that our labeling is both accurate and actionable.

From the moment a piece of packaging crosses our desks for assessment to the time of disposal for a product, we’re working to make sure that we capitalize on the potential in the recycling system.

Still, our work isn’t over. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made so far as an organization, but we won’t ignore the problems still looming in the recycling system. That’s why, this Earth Day, we’re looking at the problems directly that expert Oliver Franklin-Wallis outlined, and we’re promising to continue working toward solutions—like improved packaging design, on-pack labels, and consumer education tools—alongside our members to address these problems and drive better environmental outcomes.

Learn more about our work to drive responsible recycling and design or become a member to help your organization reach your recyclability potential.

 

By MK Moore, Communications, Content & Design Manager