Can New Signs Bring Recycling Up to Speed?

Can New Signs Bring Recycling Up to Speed?

(Updated, 9/29/10: Recycle Across America has produced a slick video following on their recycling effort. You can watch it at the bottom of this article. -- ed.)

According to a report released yesterday, countries that are able to increase their recycling rates will see a huge spike in job growth to address the new stream of recycling.

That report focused on European countries, and set targets of recycling anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of different materials. In the United States, however, recycling rates are stuck at about 33 percent of all waste generated per year.

There are many obstacles to bringing that number up to par with other parts of the world, but the biggest two are a matched set: Different areas have widely different recycling capabilities, so one never knows what materials can be recycled in which bins.

Though it may sound like a small problem, a Minnesota-based nonprofit is working to address the labeling confusion, because it can have a big impact on whether people will put their trash in the recycling bin or the garbage can.

Plastic recycling sign

"If we have to think about it, we won't do it." Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, explained in an interview. "We want instant awareness and recognition of what we're doing."

The first step in gaining that instant awareness, then, is standardizing the signs that tell individuals where and what to recycle. And Recycle Across America has worked with a number of states, cities and waste management companies to develop a broad palette of signs that can clearly ID any recycling bin, from paper to glass to the many flavors of plastics. (Some examples of RAA's recycling signs are below and to the right; click on either image for a larger version.)

"Regardless of who it is, across the country, everyone who is trying to recycle is burdened with trying to identify their bins," Hedlund said. "Let's just attack the most simple and simplified element of it -- which can be really complex all by itself --and we have done that, and we're contining to do that."

The project got its start during a presentation Hedlund made to the Recycling Association of Minnesota's annual conference, and a number of industry and municipal leaders supported spreading the word and developing the signs.

Mixed recycling signThe signs come in a number of configurations, and can be customized with a company or organization's name and logo. As of launch time, RAA has had success getting large waste management companies and institutional service providers to place bulk orders on recycling signage. Hedlund said that waste management compani BFI is going to provide recycling signs for all 11,000 of its service providers in the U.S., and the the National Joint Powers Alliance is providing free standardized labels for all of the 1,500 school representatives attending the first Green Schools National Conference on October 24th.

Although getting schools on board is key to imbuing a recycling mentality in the next generation of adults, getting more businesses to recycle is where the biggest immediate impact lies. Hedlund said that a recent EPA study showed that less than 10 percent of businesses in the U.S. recycled, which stands in stark contrast to the sheer amount of discussion and news about businesses going green.

While making recycling widespread and commonplace -- a feat that is working for some materials, like paper, while lagging on plastics in particular -- is a long-term project, Recycle Across America hopes its new signs can at least start the country down that path.

"In the future, if we can at least take the chaos out of the act of recycling, perhaps it'll become more standardized."

Signs can be custom-ordered or downloaded for free at