Another label is coming to popcorn, yogurt and other products, but instead of adding to the visual noise caused by some confusing labels, this one is designed to give plain and simple recycling information.
The How2Recycle label, created by nonprofit GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), will pop up on 10 companies' products throughout the summer and into 2013. The label explains the recyclability of each component of the package, clearly stating the material each part is made from and adding special instructions if needed.
"When consumers think about sustainability, they think about recyclability, so having that transparent communication is really important," said Anne Bedarf, SPC's senior manager.
The standard recycling symbol means a material is widely recycled, while the symbol with a slash through it means the material isn't recycled. The addition of the phrase "check locally" means the material is recycled in limited areas. The label with the phrase "store drop-off" is for plastic bags, wraps or films that are accepted at many grocery and retail stores.
The How2Recycle label is already being used on two Seventh Generation products -- a limited edition 180 oz. detergent bottle and new 22 oz. pre-wash spray -- and more than 50 products at outdoor gear company REI.
Both companies are members of the SPC, and fellow members ConAgra Foods (NYSE: CAG), Costco Wholesale (NASDAQ: COST) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) will join them in using the label on Orville Redenbacher popcorn, Kirkland Signature brand products and computer accessories.
Consumers appreciate labels
Transparency was one impetus behind the birth of the label, which started as discussions among SPC members in 2007 about greenwashing in brand labels. Concerned companies asked the SPC to research material and recycling labels, which ultimately led to the SPC asking its members to develop their own ideas for what an informative recycling label should look like.
The SPC took those ideas and spent much of 2010 speaking with governments, trade associations, recyclers and the Federal Trade Commission to get input before rolling out the How2Recycle label.
The label is partially based on the On-Pack Recycling Label in the United Kingdom, which also breaks down each packaging component and declares how commonly it's recycled.
Bedarf said studies of the U.K. label found consumers appreciate that companies are clear about the recyclability of their packaging, even if the materials can't be recycled.
Danielle Peacock, an SPC project associate, said the same thing is happening here.
"U.S. consumers are also finding that just knowing that the company is making an effort means a lot to them," she said. "They think highly of the company just for using it."
Next page: Thumbs-up from governments
Governments show support
The SPC members using the label came from the core group of companies that drove its development. The non-SPC members have gotten on board, Bedarf said, either from hearing her speak about the label at conferences or finding out about it through news items or the SPC's social media outreach.
Governments including New York City's Department of Sanitation, the state of North Carolina and StopWaste.org of Alameda County, Calif., have also endorsed the label.
"Local governments aren't really financially equipped to deal with a lot of the waste they get," Bedarf said, "so they're focused on having clean steams of waste."
When non-recyclable materials get tossed in with recyclables, they can contaminate other wastes or, in the case of plastic bags, muck up machinery at recycling centers.
By directing consumers to "check locally" on goods that may not be recycled everywhere, the SPC is hoping to help people learn more about their own local recycling steams and keep unwanted wastes out. In addition to endorsing the label, New York City is adding information to its recycling website explaining what "check locally" means for materials people in the city might be tossing.
Moving from soft to full launch
The SPC is still in the "soft launch" phase of the label and will be taking consumer feedback and input from companies, seeking other products to test the label and developing a business model.
One issue already raised is the fact that the label is based on U.S. recycling data, yet companies may use it on products sold in other countries.
"Do we add 'U.S. only' or something about it being a U.S. recovery label?" Bedarf said.
Once the SPC is ready for a full launch of the label, it also plans to develop a long-term business model to support its use, since right now the SPC is covering administrative, research, legal and data expenses with its member dues.
"That may be the case for years to come," Bedarf said, "or it might not be."