On this trip I’ve eaten a good deal more fast food than I am used to. Foil wrapped burgers, small yogurt cups, ice cream bars in shrink wrap, ice cream bars in loose plastic wrappers, ice cream bars in loose foil wrappers, ice cream bars in composite wrappers, ice cream bars on sticks without wrappers, and ice cream sandwiches in folded foil wrappers, to name a few examples.
The result is that we often find ourselves stumped when it comes to deciding if the wrappers are recyclable. Ice-cream-bar packaging is just the tip of the iceberg. PET bottles, newspapers, and the other obviously recyclable items are accompanied by a great host of confusing little bits and pieces.
Ruby Reusable makes art out of pieces like these (bread bag clips, straw wrappers, straws themselves, twist ties, foil peel-off lids, with the list continuing on into a debris-laden infinity). But the point here is that recycling is confusing.
Looking for a little clarity, we visited with Nina Goodrich and Anne Bedarf, from GreenBlue, in Charlottesville, Virginia. GreenBlue is a non-profit that aims to help businesses be more sustainable.
One of GreenBlue’s major projects has been to develop a recyclability reference called How2Recycle. Anne and Nina hope to solve some of the confusion around recycling with a standardized symbol that lets consumers know how to recycle the different components of a package.
Anne and Nina told us that their research has found that most consumers don’t really know how to recycle the different parts of the packages they collect through their daily lives. You buy a box of cereal and you understand that you can put the box in the recycle bin, but what about the bag inside? Or, say you have an ice cream bar: the popsicle stick is wood and that’s compostable, but what about the plastic wrapper it comes in?
The How2Recycle labels are intended to provide consumers with easy guidance as to how to recycle the items. In general, items bearing the Widely Recycled label can be placed in most recycle bins.
Businesses interested in placing the label on their products sign a license agreement with GreenBlue and pay a flat annual fee based on company size. GreenBlue conducts an analysis of their packaging and helps determine what labels are appropriate. GreenBlue has some pretty big supporters; companies like Costco, Target, ConAgra, Best Buy, and REI use the How2Recycle label.
Consumer confusion is clearly a problem for most recycling ventures. When we visited a recycling facility, the manager told us his biggest challenge was removing all the materials that cannot be recycled from the materials he has markets for. Recyclables increase in value when they are homogenous, clean, and come in large quantities.
Providing consumers with an easy to use system of directions not only increases the value of the products recycling facilities produce, but also reduces sorting expenses. We’ll have to wait to see if GreenBlue’s labels will catch on and if they will be capable of dispelling the confusion around the recyclability of the many materials used in packaging.