Could New Labels Boost Lackluster Recycling Rates?

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Earlier this year, we found that one of the top reasons why people don’t recycle is simply lack of convenience and know-how. While recycling may be second nature to some, many consumers are unaware of what goes in what bin and if it truly is, in fact, recyclable.

Recycle Across America believes that consistent labeling of recycling bins and materials could boost the country's recycling rate by at least 14 percent. Photo:

A new universal labeling system could be one way of taking the ambiguity out of the process. Recycle Across has developed national standardized labels for recycling bins.

The organization calls these labels, “simple solutions that can eliminate confusion, increase capture rates, help improve the quality of materials captured, reduce expenses and expedite progress.”

According to Mitch Hedlund of Recycle Across America, inconsistent labels have been a chronic condition since the onset of recycling in the U.S.

“From the public stand-point, people and students are often having to look into a bin to see if it’s OK to toss in their aluminum can,” Hedlund says.

“The recycling industry or janitorial industry isn’t benefiting from the confusion either because they, for example, might pick up what they think is a recycling bin full of paper and realize that it has been contaminated with a dirty diaper,” she continues. “These are real stories and they’re happening over and over again across the United States.”

Hedlund notes that inconsistent labeling makes recycling inconvenient for the consumer, which may contribute to the country’s dismal 33 percent recycling rate.

“Let’s use a worst-case scenario and say the rate of recyclers doesn’t increase beyond 33 percent in the U.S., but at least the 33 percent is using consistent labels,” Hedlund explains. “Consistent labels being used by those recycling households/businesses has the potential to increase their capture rates of actual recycled material by 47 percent.”

Hedlund says the best environment for a case study to demonstrate the effects of consistent labels is in a school district. She uses the example of one school district of 15 different buildings. District-wide implementation of these consistent labels resulted in a 47 percent increase in their recyclables capture rate.

Prior to that pilot program, every one of the 15 schools was left to figure out how to mark their bins themselves. Hedlund says, sometimes, the children are asked to make the signs, which is charming, but not very affective.

“Again, this is not a rare example, this fragmented approach to recycling is happening in most school districts across the country,” she says. “Now imagine what would happen if all schools were to use consistent labels. And then take it one giant step farther and imagine what would happen if the children began seeing the same labels on bins at the mall, theater, restaurant, retailer, their park, the airport and even at home, that they see at school. It is such a ridiculously simple solution, isn’t it?”

The idea behind Recycle Across America came after Hedlund spoke at Solid Waste Association of North America and Recycle Association of MN conference last year. After presenting the solution to the industry executive committee, they instantly supported it and created a national sign committee to help bring it to fruition.

Surprisingly, changing industry labels may not involve jumping through hoops and ladders to make it successful.

“The beauty of this solution is that it doesn’t require legislation and isn’t a victim of red tape,” Hedlund says. “This solution just requires a willing industry to agree that standardized labels for bins can help society, help their industry and certainly help the environment.”

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  1. These labels are a step in the right direction. Educating consumers on the proper handling of recyclables is essential to reducing contaminants and to making materials usable to the manufacturers who actually do the recycling (as opposed to the waste management firms, which simply collect and sort recyclable materials).

    Even if consumers take the time to sort recyclables into different bins, these separated materials often get mixed together again by waste collection companies. It’s more convenient and less costly for some waste management firms to transport materials in the same truck rather than keep them separated. One place where you see this happening is at airports. Many airports have separate recycling bins for paper, but on the back end, the paper gets mixed in with bottles and cans.

    Oftentimes, commingling paper with other recyclables — particularly beverage bottles and other recyclable containers bearing food waste — will contaminate waste paper to such a degree that it can’t be recycled and must instead be thrown away. Paper, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the most common material by volume in our landfills.

    The best practice is to keep separated recyclables separate. That’s not a problem consumers can directly address. Instead, municipalities and the large businesses that contract with waste haulers must open their eyes to their contractors’ waste collection practices. Are they engaging in collection practices that are cheap and convenient but that sacrifice the reusability of recyclable materials? Many paper recyclers think so. Check out this article on a manufacturer of recycled paper:

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article. I am writing an academic assignment about the planet going green, and your information here is very much worth referencing. APA format is required, so you will definitely get credit. Your thoughts here are very interesting, as I never would have believed that cheap collection practice would sacrifice the number one material which can be recycled. I have included a reference from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well, although your reference makes a stronger point about recycling on a single stream level in relation to the article itself. Separation of recyclable materials at the consumer level is of the highest importance in my eyes, thanks to you! Now, if only the waste collection comapnies would catch on and do something about this all too common problem…



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