Empty colored carbonated drink bottles. Plastic waste

Supposedly Smarter How2Recycle Labels Criticized as Misleading

The plastics and manufacturing consortium known as How2Recycle hopes to improve consumer recycling by eliminating what they believe are the confusing aspects of most municipal recycling efforts. One of their means of doing so is a new recycling label for plastic products. But the supposedly smarter label is being criticized as misleading.

Yogurt, cottage cheese, and butter containers labeled as ‘Widely Recycled’ are offered as an example of misleading labeling in a recent Wall Street Journal report from contributor Saabira Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri says environmental groups are chiding How2Recycle for allowing the containers to be labeled as such despite the fact that so few of them are actually recycled.

How2Recycle’s new and smarter label is designed to provide consumers with clear information about how and when to recycle certain products. The label is divided into four sections, each one offering a specific kind of data:

  • Material preparation
  • Recycling potential
  • Material type
  • Packaging format.

The recycling potential category is the one facing the most criticism. It is allegedly misleading due mainly to wording choices. For example, just because a product is labeled ‘Widely Recycled’ doesn’t actually mean that it is. Another product labeled ‘Not yet Recycled’ may never be, despite the implication that future recycling may be on the way.

  • Why the Label Was Created

How2Recycle created the smart label due to their belief that the current numbering system is too confusing for consumers. Apparently, consumers don’t know which numbered plastics are recyclable in their local areas. So they either throw all paper, glass, and plastic into the bin or do whatever suits their fancy at any given time.

Perhaps accusing smart labels of being misleading is going a bit too far. But it is hard to see how this new system is less confusing than the old system. If you know your municipal recycling program accepts glass and paper, then you throw those items into the bin. If you know that your hauler collects 1 and 7 plastics, all you need to do is look at the numbers on plastic packages. It is not that hard.

On the other hand, consider the ‘Widely Recycled’ label. All it tells you is that the chances of that particular product being recyclable in your community are high. But it is not a guarantee. There is also no guarantee that putting a ‘Widely Recycled’ product in your recycling bin will keep it out of the landfill.

  • An Inefficient System

Another valid criticism of the How2Recycle smart label is that it does nothing to address the inefficiencies baked into the current residential recycling system. Comparing industrial plastic recycling with residential recycling shows just how inefficient residential programs are.

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that offers industrial plastic recycling in seven Midwestern states. Their operation is the model of efficiency. They purchase already cleaned and separated plastics from industrial companies, grind those plastics into a reusable material, and sell the material to manufacturers. It is simple, straightforward, and profitable.

A load picked up by Seraphim can be sent through grinders within minutes of arriving at the processing plant. Meanwhile, the loads picked up by municipal recyclers need to go through time-consuming and expensive sorting just to prepare them for sale to recyclers.

Few would argue that we have a recycling problem in America, particularly in relation to consumer plastics. It is a problem that can be solved through a combination of improved efficiency and a change in consumer behavior. The How2Recycle label is supposed to help address the latter issue. Time will tell if that actually has any meaningful impact.

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