ByHaley Shapley

May 21, 2015

How great would it be if when browsing for items at the store, you could look into the future — seeing just how much of that product might be recycled when at the end of its current life? Most consumers are interested in that idea. In fact, more than 4 in 5 Americans agree that they would like to see a “Recycling Guide” label on products, according to a Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade association that represents manufacturers, processors, brokers and industrial consumers of scrap commodities.

When posed the following question, 81 percent agreed:

I would like to see manufacturers and/or retailers display a “Recycling Guide” label on products (similar to the Energy Guide label on appliances) that would detail the parts and percentage of the product that can be recycled and how.

But just how realistic is such a label — and would people use it if it existed?

Determining Recyclability

William Hoffman, senior scientist and corporate fellow at UL Environment, part of independent safety science company UL, sees the value in such a label — in fact, he’s already developed a recyclability rate validation procedure that could provide the framework. “The reason why I originally put that together was because there’s often a lot of confusion about what exactly is recyclable and what isn’t,” he says.

The confusion is understandable, given that answering the question of recyclability isn’t so easy. Hoffman says there are three factors that enter into the equation: ease of disassembly, cost to get the materials, and value of the materials. In other words, something can be perfectly recyclable, but if it can’t be relatively easily taken apart, and for a reasonable price, or can’t fetch a reasonable price when sold, it’s not going to be recycled.

To add a further layer of complication, those factors differ across the board. “Those three things are pretty variable from recycler to recycler, from region to region, from economic situation to economic situation,” Hoffman says. Take the value of plastics, for instance. Right now, it’s quite low due to the current oil prices. At another time, it could be high, making it more lucrative for recyclers to focus on plastic.

Regional differences matter. “If you live in a remote part of Idaho and the nearest recycler is 200 miles from you, does buying something that says it’s recyclable really work for that person? It might work for someone in Chicago,” says David Wagger, director of environmental management for ISRI. Not only that, but even recyclers right next to each other might accept different materials based on who they have relationships with.

Creating a Recycling Guide label is tricky, given the differences among recyclers throughout the country.
A Recycling Guide label would have to be readable and make sense to consumers in order to work.

Making Assumptions

Due to all of these variances that would be impossible to individually take into account, with a Recycling Guide label, there would have to be assumptions made. Even so, Hoffman believes there’s value in that. “Right now, if I were to say all clean plastic is recyclable, some people might question that, but at least it’s consistent,” he says. “You always get the same answer no matter what the climate is.”

Although making assumptions isn’t ideal, it’s nothing new in the industry. When you see the chasing arrows symbol on a product, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled where you are — just that there’s a better chance it can than not.

Picking It Apart

So what kind of products would make most sense for such a label? Electronics are a natural fit, given the various elements used to put a gadget together. With something like the packaging of personal care products, recyclability is a fairly simple issue — either the type of plastic used is accepted near you or it isn’t. “Washers, dryers, computers, stereo gear, AV equipment — all of that is complex enough that it would benefit from some way of communicating how recyclable the product is,” Hoffman says.

That brings up the disassembly issue, one of the three key factors to recyclability. There’s at least some relationship between how much a product would benefit from labeling (that is, how many parts it has) and how tough it is to separate the pieces. “People don’t want to take a vacuum apart and send the plastic to one recycler and the metal parts to someone else,” Wagger says. They’re much more likely to send the entire product to one place, but then recyclers would need to be equipped to disassemble and process all those parts, or at least the ones that have been labeled as recyclable, for the full value of the label to be realized.

Although the coordination of all this seems like a drawback, the result could be a bit of positive pressure on recyclers to seek out partnerships and put processes in place to handle more materials, ultimately recycling more than ever before.

Would a Recycling Guide label work? The more convenient it is, the more likely consumers are to use it, survey results show.
Would a Recycling Guide label work? The more convenient it is, the more likely consumers are to use it, survey results show.

Will People Act?

Is it all too much work, though? If a Recycling Guide label were widely implemented, the question remains: Would it influence purchasing decisions, and even if it did, would people then act on the label to get their products properly recycled? After all, if the items still end up in the landfill, the label’s not worth the (hopefully recyclable) material it’s printed on.

“There’s some fraction of the population that will do whatever it takes,” Wagger says. “They do that because it fits with who they are.” Studies show the rest have a whole host of factors that would come first in a purchasing decision, such as price and performance, of course, and possibly energy use and potential chemical hazards.

Consumers would be willing to spend an average of 10 percent more for a product if they knew it was made of recycled materials, the Harris Poll on behalf of ISRI found, but only 15 percent think it’s important to consider whether or not a product can be recycled when making a purchasing decision. Convenience is key, with 62 percent Americans saying that if a product is not easy or convenient to recycle, they probably wouldn’t do it.

“Everybody wants to be green, and I think it’s great. I want to be green; I have solar panels on my house,” Wagger says. “I think it’s great that Americans want to do this, but there’s a tension between what I want to do and the convenience of doing it.”

While industry experts may disagree on how feasible it is to create a Recycling Guide label, it’s clear that consideration and cooperation from a number of parties is a must. “It’s a good step in the right direction, but it’s not a slam dunk,” Wagger says. “It would take a conversation with manufacturers, recyclers and the public to get it right.”

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries is one of these partners.

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.