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Are Recycling Labels Telling the Right Story? (Commentary)

As a recycler, we field lots of questions from companies about how we can help them make their product or packaging recyclable. The recycling symbol continues to be a status symbol, or a perceived seal of approval, if you will, for a “sustainable” product. But “Is my product recyclable?” is not the only, or even most important question that a company should be asking about their product or packaging. They should be asking how they can invest in a circular system that ensures that their product IS viably recyclable. And that starts with using recycled content.

It is critical that we as recyclers reframe the discussion with manufacturers to go beyond a product’s recyclability and engage with them about their supply chains— including what their products and packaging are made from. We need to ask companies, “How much recycled content is in your packaging?” and “How much more can you add in your product lines so that you could actually help create a market demand for your recycled product?”

Research shows that increasing recycled content of a product lowers the negative environmental impacts. For example, a bottle made from 30% post-consumer recycled content has a lower environmental impact than a bottle made from 0% recycled content, including lower climate impact, less energy use, less air and water pollution. This translates into a direct call to action for companies: For the products and packaging you already use, increasing recycled content may be your best bet to lower the carbon footprint and the negative health and environmental impacts of your products.

What the recycled content label doesn’t say but should

While companies are eager to add the recycling label on their product, the use of labels that identify post-consumer recycled content are much less widespread. This is an important tool for telling the story about how the product is made and its contribution (or not) to a circular economy. When a consumer sees that a company uses 25% post-consumer recycled content, for example, they likely feel good knowing some recycled materials went into the product and sounds like a meaningful step to becoming more sustainable.

But maybe we’re telling the wrong story by only identifying that 25%. Let’s dig into what the label doesn’t say. A product made from 25% post-consumer recycled plastic is a product made from 75% fossil fuels. Retelling the story from this perspective emphasizes that 25% isn’t enough--we are still far from our goal of a circular economy. Customers feel dissatisfied and pressure companies to use more post-consumer recycled content that truly supports recycling programs and a circular system. Research shows that “negatively framed messages are more effective than positively framed ones in prompting consumers to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.” Think about it: Would you be more likely to eat organic food if conventional foods were labeled “grown with pesticides?”

Surgeon general’s warning for plastic

For those of us in the recycling industry, recycled content has a lot of meaning, but for the general public, it’s a vague concept and probably not the most effective messaging to create behavior change. So what is a good example of negative messaging that drives change? The surgeon general’s warning on tobacco products comes to mind. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “warnings on cigarette packages are one of the most important sources of health information.” A systematic review of studies in 20 countries found that “strengthening [cigarette] pack warnings is associated with...increased quitline calls, reduced smoking consumption, increased quit attempts, increased short-term smoking cessation, and reduced smoking prevalence.”

Maybe it’s time to consider a surgeon general’s warning on plastic products. What if the next plastic package you picked up said: “This plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels and is known to contribute to climate change and health issues such as impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and more. Less than 10% of plastic has been recycled worldwide.”

Of course plastic isn’t the only product with negative social and environmental impacts. We could see similar labels for paper or aluminum, such as “the making of this copy paper is a leading cause of deforestation and causes climate change, water pollution, and species extinction, and endangers indigenous populations.”

Committing to recycled content

Currently, major brand owners use only 8% post-consumer recycled content in consumer plastic packaging. California’s pending legislation for recycled content in plastic bottles will raise that to 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. This is a great step forward, but this still implies that we are willing to accept that 50% of the bottles in 10 years are still made with fossil fuels. As the use of plastic bottles continues to rise, we will continue to use more fossil fuels for plastic bottles. Our role as recyclers is to continue to shift the conversation beyond the recycling symbol to highlight the importance of recycled content to drive down the negative environmental and social impacts of products and packaging. We need to promote brands and products that use 100% recycled content, encourage all brands to know how much recycled content they use and push to them to add more across their entire product line, and establish a system to easily identify the amount of recycled content in all packaging.

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Kate Bailey is the Policy & Research Director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest recycling organizations in the U.S.

 

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