Just because a packaging material can be recycled, doesn’t mean people can recycle it in their local area. Many companies confuse people when they label their product as "recyclable" – it may be recyclable in theory, but if people can’t actually drop it for recycling in their neighborhood, that label isn’t very helpful.
Also, many people confuse a product labeled "recyclable" as being made from recycled materials.
That’s why the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) is working to introduce a new set of labels that will provide greater clarity on the actual recycling rates of various materials.
The coalition, which includes more than 200 companies-including heavyweights like McDonald’s, FedEx and Microsoft – wants to delineate between materials that are commonly recycled and those that technically can be recycled, but often are not.
"[J]ust because a package trumpets a label saying ‘100% recyclable’ or comes emblazoned with the chasing arrows logo, it’s no guarantee that it actually can or will be recycled," writes Susan Freinkel in a blog on Fast Company. "Grocery store shelves are littered with misleadingly labeled products, much to the frustration of both shoppers and companies that are committed to recycling."
SPC’s new labeling system is expected to include four categories. Products will carry more than one label, if they include different types of material that are easily separated by consumers.
The categories include:
- Widely recycled – for materials like glass, cardboard, PET plastic bottles
- Limited recycling – for materials that are only recycled in 20% to 60% of the U.S., such as #5 yogurt containers.
- Not recycled – for materials that are rarely recycled, such as Styrofoam.
- Store drop-off – for the bags and plastic film that are generally collected by retailers for recycling.
A limited number of SPC companies will participate in a pilot project this fall that will run through 2012. SPC hopes the new labeling system will eventually become universal.
Freinkel also notes that an initiative is underway to update the numbering system on plastic containers. The American Society for Testing and Materials hopes to come out with a new system in a few years that will take into account a greater variety of plastics now in the market. Currently a broad range of bio-plastics, some of which are biodegradable, are lumped into the #7 category, with other non-recyclables.