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Finally: Simplified Recycling Labels Are on Their Way

The current system for identifying what you can recycle is a total mess. This simple four-label alternative, coming this fall, might be the solution.

So you bought a coffee in a disposable cup (it happens) and you want to recycle it. What do you do? Who the hell knows. The fact that the plastic lid has a recycling symbol on it doesn't necessarly mean you can, in fact, recycle it. It depends on what kind of plastic it is, indicated by that tiny, mysterious number printed inside the recycling logo, and where you live. Some kinds of plastic are recyled almost everywhere; some, like Styrofoam, are rarely ever recycled. Plastics without a number, like utensils, can't be recycled at all. It's confusing.


To address that problem, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the nonprofit group GreenBlue, is working to redesign recycling labels. The group's current proposal features four labels: "widely recycled," "limited recycling," "not recycled," and "store drop-off." Unlike the current system, this gives consumers clear, general guidelines, in words. For materials that can only be recycled in certain places, the "limited recycling" label can carry an additional note that might, for example, advice consumers to "check locally."

Here are the draft designs. They're still being tweaked.

This isn't just some design exercise. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has around 200 member businesses, including everyone from Burt's Bees to Nike to Proctor and Gamble. Once the label designs are finalized, ten of these member businesses (no word on which ones yet) are going to participate in a nine-month, nationwide pilot project. You should start seeing the new labels on shelves in early October. The eventual goal is to make them the new standard.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user donjd2

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