Recycling Label Seeks To Clear Consumer Confusion

How2Recycle recycling label
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Recycling — it can get a little confusing at times. Most people think that if a package has a little recycle symbol (the chasing arrows around a number) on it, that means that item can be recycled. Many people choose packages with that recycling symbol on it thinking they’re making a more sustainable choice.

Are you as shocked as I was to find out that little symbol does NOT necessarily mean that item is recyclable? Beth Terry opened my eyes to that fact last year at ShiftCon. My mind was blown – is yours?

What do those recycling symbols mean?

Recycling codes

When it comes to recycling, Resin Identification Codes (RICs) are simply a plastic labeling system that indicate what type of plastic the item is made of.

If your mind is blown like mine was, you’re probably wondering what those chasing arrow symbols – Resin Identification Codes (RICs) – mean. RICs are simply a plastic labeling system that indicate what type of plastic the item is made of. They are typically used to be a recycling indicator. For example, your curbside recycling program may tell you that “all #1 and #2 plastics” are recyclable. However, RICs were never intended communicate recyclability.

Don’t worry. You’re not alone in being confused by the RIC system. Multiple studies show RICs to be confusing. People think they mean anything from recycled content to degree of popularity.

How do you know if something is recyclable?

So I got to thinking – and I know I’m not alone – how do you actually KNOW whether something is recyclable or not? My husband’s philosophy is to just put anything questionable in the recycling and let the trash company figure it out. I prefer to know the answer though, and make it easier on everyone by putting things in the correct bins.

When our trash service started offering curbside recycling, they gave me a little pamphlet of what could be recycled when I ordered my recycling bin. I read it over, but I have to admit, I don’t always remember what should go in what bin.

Wouldn’t it be more sustainable if everything was properly labeled, so we knew whether or not it was recyclable? I think more people would recycle more things if they knew what to do with them. If we want recycling rates to go up, we have to make it easier for everyone.

Enter the How2Recycle™ label system

How2Recycle recycling label

The How2Recycle Label is a way for on-package recycling information to become consistent and transparent for all.

Have you heard about the How2Recycle Label yet? It’s a standardized labeling system that is designed to clearly communicate recycling instructions – so everyone can easily understand whether or not something is recyclable. The How2Recycle Label is a way for on-package recycling information to become consistent and transparent for all.

The How2Recycle Label’s intent is to replace the RICs as a consumer communication and education tool, but not completely replace them. The use of RICs are dictated by laws in 39 states as well as an ASTM International standard that is undergoing a revision process.  According to How2Recycle, the label was designed with the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides in mind.

I’m really excited about the How2Recycle label, and I’m looking forward to seeing it on all packaging. And, it looks like I’m not the only one excited. Here’s what other How2Recycle label consumers had to say.

  • “Finally someone has stepped up to help make consumers more aware that packaging can be recycled in detail. Thank you!!”
  • “More products should do this!! It takes away the ‘guessing game’ of recycling.”
  • “I didn’t know these plastic films could be recycled. Thank you so much for providing this recycling information. I’m so glad to know I can recycle more things!!!!”
  • “I would love to see other stores/brands with your label to help people properly recycle. I will definitely support stores/brands that carry your label over those that don’t.”

Right now, the How2Recycle label only applies to packages sold in the U.S. There are, however, a few select labels available for packages sold in Canada, so keep an eye out for those too.

How does the How2Recycle label system work?

The How2Recycle Label is simple to understand. There are only four symbols that you’ll need to look for which clearly communicates the information you need to make sustainable decisions about recycling.  Those four labels are as follows:

  • Widely Recycled – At least 60% of the U.S. population can recycle this package type at curbside or municipal drop-off locations.
  • Limited Recycling – Between 20-60% of the U.S. population can recycle this package type at curbside or municipal drop-off locations. Check your local program.
  • Not Yet Recycled – Less than 20% of the U.S. population can recycle this package type OR includes a known contaminant to common recycling systems.
  • Store-Drop Off – Polyethylene bags and films are widely recycled at store collection points, including grocery and other retail stores. Check for participating locations.
How2Recycle rcycling label categories

The How2Recycle Label is simple to understand. There are only four symbols that you’ll need to look for which clearly communicates the information you need to make sustainable decisions about recycling. Image Credit: How2Recycle

With regard to recycling access and availability, How2Recycle sources what it calls ‘best available data’.  Later this year they will be releasing an annual ‘Availability of Recycling Study’. The body of work is a centralized study to research outlining important characteristics of consumer access to recycling programs in the U.S., including national access-to-recycling rates for 41 packaging categories.

Why store drop off programs are important

Most people think plastic grocery bags and other plastic bags aren’t recyclable, so they avoid them thinking they’re not sustainable. Others use them anyways, but feel guilty for making choices that aren’t sustainable so they hide them in the bottom of the trash can hoping no one will notice.

Fortunately, many of these plastic bags, films and wraps can be recycled. You can’t put them in your curbside recycling bin, so please don’t do that unless your local recycling program specifically permits it (10% do), but they can be put into plastic bag recycling bins located at many grocery stores and other retailers around the country.

What items can go in Store Drop Off bins?

To find out if your plastic bags, films or wraps can be recycled through a Store Drop Off Program, take a look at the plastic identification codes. If you see a #2 or a #4, then you can recycle that item at a Store Drop Off location. You can also look for the How2Recycle Store Drop-Off label. Visit plasticfilmrecycling.org to learn more. Click here to find a Store Drop Off location near you.

Compostable label coming soon

Composting is becoming a more common sustainable practice around the country. More companies are introducing compostable packaging to stay on point with this trend. How2Recycle recognizes that, so they’re currently developing a composting label, How2Compost, in collaboration with BPI. Look for that label coming soon.

Keep up to date with local policies

While the How2Recycle Label system is a great new program, you still need to keep up with your local recycling policies. This is because the How2Recycle Label was created based upon national data. There will be variation in policies around the country, so make sure you stay up to date on your local policies.

Feature image credit: GreenBlue

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Chrystal Johnson

Chrystal Johnson, publisher of Happy Mothering, founder of Green Moms Media and essential oil fanatic, is a mother of two sweet girls who believes in living a simple, natural lifestyle. A former corporate marketing communication manager, Chrystal spends her time researching green and eco-friendly alternatives to improve her family's life.