How Well Do Packages Convey Their Own End-of-Life Message?

Posted on 6/7/2013 8:32:32 AM By Jeff Timm

Much has been written about consumer and business–to–business confusion surrounding end-of-life (EOL) options when one is finished using and must make a choice on how to dispose of a package.  Earth911®, Inc., a subsidiary of Infinity Resources Holdings Corporation, recently published a very thoughtful and informative white paper with a focus on the eliminate of this confusion by addressing what consumers have utmost in their minds as they look for EOL options:

  • Is there a local recycling market?
  • What steps are required to recycle it?

The premise presented by Earth911® in their Earth911® Special Report: Labeling is that lack of information and confusion, especially when it comes to recycling, are the greatest contributors as to why the current rate of recycling in the U.S. is under 35%.  The report goes on to explain that “by the time a product has been selected, purchased, used and reaches its EOL, a consumer has been exposed to multiple messages about an item.  Problems arise when the messages are mixed, inconsistent, incomplete, vague, wrong and/or misleading.”  An example cited is certification package labels which indicate the environmental impact of a product (100% organic, made with XXX% recycled content, Energy Star, etc.) but the product package does not state if it can be recycled.  Even if a package cannot be recycled knowing what non-recycling options are available is important consumer knowledge.

Once the EOL viability has been determined, the first step is to determine where items can be recycled.  The Earth911® Recycling Locator is a recycling directory database available through multiple interfaces (web, mobile, etc.).  The purpose of Earth911 “is to motivate brand owners, retailers and consumer product companies (CPCs) and those with a stake in the sustainability initiatives of their companies to create a streamlined communication process about product end-of-life through a centralized resource.”

The biggest take-a-way from the report is the acknowledgement that U. S. recycling is local.  Many environmental initiatives may indeed be national or involve many states but “the ability to recycle and the methods of recycling most often stop at city and county borders.”  As the recently issued FTC Green Guides indicate merely suggesting that a package can be recycled is not enough to increase the recycling percentage in the U. S. or even be truthful if in fact there are no recycling programs or collection sites for the consumer in a particular geographical area.

Most recycling information that appears on the product packaging usually answers the question, “is my package recyclable?”  Most of the time it does not tie the local recycling infrastructure to the place of purchase nor does it tie the ease of recycling to the package recycling information (drop-off, curb side pick-up, etc.).  An example of this is even in municipalities that offer curb side pick-up Earth911® reports that on average these programs only serve 70% of the population.  This is due to multi-family housing and areas excluded from curb-side pick up within the municipality.  If one should live in a rural area where drop-off is the method of collection a typical 15 mile drive to the drop-off location is certainly not very convenient.

Earth911® concludes that in order for consumers and brands to receive the true value in recycling there must be localized information for a product and its package.  Earth911® touts their national centralized resource of localized recycling information as the critical component of a corporation’s sustainability blueprint which serves as the link that ties the recyclable package to the successful consumer recycling action. 

As discussed the Earth911 Special Report: Labeling goes into detail identifying local recycling locations, but it is also the history, background information and examples concerning the state of recycling in the U.S. which make this report a must read for anyone involved in packaging design, marketing, retailing and recycling.

Earth911® certainly provides a needed and valuable resource to the recycling industry which is indeed part of the solution; however more needs to occur to solve the systemic issues that cause all the recycling confusion in the first place.  Some of these solutions are:

  • All stakeholder’s need a common language to describe environmental responsibility-product stewardship
  • All stakeholder’s need a common language associated with recycled materials across the whole value chain
  • Adopt a common package label used to identify the “what, where and how” of package recycling by packaging component and material type (The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has developed a How2Recycle label currently in evaluation testing)
  • Establish a national recycling program vs. the hodge-podge efforts of municipalities involved in recycling collection (3,025 cities with populations over 10,000 with organized county or county-equivalent governments in the U. S.1)

Like Earth911®, let’s hope others in the packaging industry can make a difference to help sort out the confusion, add to the national discussion and create solutions to educate consumers with the end result being easier recycling and increased recycling rates.   

Source:  Earth911 Special Report: Labeling

Related Links:


Earth911 Special Report: Labeling

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

Federal Trade Commission – Green Guides

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