The How2Recycle label empowers people to recycle more and better, and influences brands to change their packaging to be more recyclable.
How2Recycle® is the first and only comprehensive recycling labeling system for packaging in the US, designed specifically for consumers. The label can be applied to any product, any packaging material, any format.
How2Recycle was created because Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) identified the critical need for an accurate, consistent on-package labeling system. When SPC initially identified this need, greenwashing about packaging recyclability was ubiquitous. There was no impartial organization that synthesized and interpreted the divergent and diffuse data about recycling access and technical packaging recyclability. Additionally, there was no pragmatic recovery communication tool for the industry to voluntarily leverage as a group.
The How2Recycle label tells consumers how to prepare each component of a package for recycling, tells them if they need to Check Locally to see if their local program accepts the material, and includes the URL How2Recycle.info so they can go online for more information. It also tells consumers when they should not recycle something, which reduces contamination in the recycling stream.
Today, the How2Recycle program boasts over 75 corporate members, cumulatively representing over 500 brands. Companies including Target, Nestle, Coca Cola, General Mills, Hasbro, the Kellogg Company, Walmart, Unilever, Clorox, Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, SC Johnson, Walgreens, and Church & Dwight are members. The How2Recycle label is on thousands of products in the marketplace, instructing consumers how they can recycle more, and more accurately.
How2Recycle isn’t only changing the recycling behavior of consumers, but it’s also catalyzing design changes in packaging. How2Recycle labels influences brands to innovate their packaging to be more recyclable.
We also developed the How2Compost label to work in harmony with How2Recycle in 2016, that let’s you know that the package is BPI-certified compostable.
Is this proposal for a practice or a project?
What actions do you propose?
This is an existing program that catalyzes physical actions to fight climate change. It is a tool that both influences recycling behavior of consumers and also incentivizes design behavior inside of brand companies, to make their packaging more recyclable.
More brands can become members of How2Recycle and use the label on their packaging to tell consumers exactly how to recycle each part of their package. Adding the label to their packaging design artwork is low hanging fruit that will help people recycle more.
The more materials get recycled, the less goes to landfill, and the more greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided.
Recycling plays a tangible and important role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the US EPA, in 2014, the 89 million tons of municipal solid waste recycled and composted provided an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars.
In our survey on the How2Recycle website, consumers tell us that the label helps them recycle more and more accurately. Slightly over half tell us that they change their recycling behavior as a direct result of How2Recycle. Of the half that say they don’t change their behavior, the majority of the time it’s because they don’t have access to recycle that specific package or they already knew how to recycle the package. Since the How2Recycle label triggers correct recycling behavior, it helps support the future resilience and success of the recycling system.
How2Recycle also helps the general public by educating them and helping them to recycle. 84% of respondents tell us they are learning more about recycling from the How2Recycle label.
But How2Recycle is more than just a label. It can serve as a mirror, showing brands how recyclable their packaging really is. Sometimes it surprises them. Members can embrace the insights the label generates, and use the label as a conversation piece with R&D teams, procurement teams, or suppliers—so they can explain to them where they are with the recyclability of their packaging, and where they want to go.
Because How2Recycle triggers more recycling, and more correct recycling behavior by consumers—and also is driving the consumer packaged goods industry to design more recyclable packaging overall—it has a huge potential to help fight climate change.
Receiving an award in this contest would specifically help How2Recycle shift attitudes and behaviors about climate change more than it is already doing so, by increasing the use of the How2Recycle label on packaging. More How2Recycle labels on packaging means more people know how to recycle those items, and are reminded on a more consistent basis to recycle. This increased use of the label could be achieved in a few potential ways:
1. Increased awareness and use of How2Recycle amongst currently non-participating brands and retailers. Because of Climate CoLab’s reach and influence, an award from this contest would bring greater recognition and visibility to the label, so brands and retailers who aren't currently in our program could become aware that How2Recycle exists and then be excited to join us. Or for those that know about us but haven’t joined yet, it could make membership in our movement more compelling to see our project be recognized by an award like this one.
With part or all of the $10,000 grand prize, How2Recycle could allocate new resources towards our recruitment efforts to get more companies to understand why the label is valuable and important to them as a business, to their consumers, and to the climate. Specifically, we could develop and execute a marketing campaign to position our label in front of more brand companies and retailers—something we haven’t done in an especially intentional or traditional way before. We could use targeted and customized outreach in our network through the use of videos, dynamic communications materials, and maybe even in-person visits to convey the value of the label with more vigor than we have had available to us before. The team would focus this effort on the companies that would be the most receptive and inclined to join How2Recycle, and those with the greatest potential reach in the marketplace. As a separate project or part of this project, we could investigate and research what is most persuasive for companies to join new initiatives, and then weave that insight into our recruitment strategies. For example, we already know that from a business perspective, consumer perception data is extremely compelling to brands’ decisionmaking; for this reason, we could commission research to demonstrate how much consumers value transparency in recyclability claims, and how this is something people actively expect from modern brands.
2. Deeper use of the How2Recycle label amongst existing member companies. Existing members may be more likely to place How2Recycle on packaging that doesn't feature it yet or isn't planned to feature it, based on the credibility/excitement boost that an award from Climate CoLab would generate internally at their companies. It could persuade executive leaders of existing member companies that How2Recycle fits into any existing corporate climate goals, which would drive deeper implementation on package designs and redesigns. We would send an award announcement to all How2Recycle members encouraging them to expand their use of the label, with a custom call to action to those companies with carbon reduction or recyclability goals.
With part or all of the $10,000 grand prize, How2Recycle could allocate more resources towards encouraging our existing members to use the How2Recycle on more packaging, and to place it more prominently on pack. Specifically, we could deliver customized attention to our members in a new way to identify barriers for getting the label on more packaging more quickly (for example, better understand artwork timing & costs to update each package, or what criteria sales & marketing teams look for to approve packaging artwork). In turn, we would develop tools or strategies to overcome those barriers (for example, develop an internal buy-in plan to arm our How2Recycle champions inside member companies with compelling reasons for their colleagues to prioritize How2Recycle more so than they may currently). This could involve one-on-one investigative interviews with implementers at our member companies, customized guidance for implementing How2Recycle faster and broader based on company type, or adding new functionality to our Member Platform to give specific, automated feedback about opportunities to use the label that they are currently missing.
3. Develop more resources for our members and consumers about what good packaging design for recyclability looks like. How2Recycle catalyzes design changes in packaging already, and has design feedback mechanisms on our Member Platform. But, with part or all of the $10,000 grand prize, we could generate excitement within our membership and with consumers through our website and social media about what ‘good’ looks like. We would put a spotlight on the materials that are most valuable to recyclers, and the easiest design changes to improve recyclability, so that more high-value material gets recycled instead of going to landfill. If consumers have greater awareness about what materials are most valuable to recyclers, and what packaging designs could easily be fixed to be more recyclable, companies may be more likely to make those changes for more recyclable packaging.
4. Provide no-cost How2Recycle memberships to local businesses in our hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. With part of all of the $10,000 grand prize, we could subsidize How2Recycle memberships of all businesses with consumer packaged goods based in the Charlottesville, Virginia area (none are currently members of our program), including all local breweries and vineyards, juice and snack companies, co-operative seed companies, bakeries, and local foodservice restaurants. This would result in the first city in the United States with consistent, accurate recycling labeling system available for the packaging of its local businesses. Intentionally creating such a consistent labeling experience in a community would increase consumer awareness of the correct way to recycle, and that knowledge could spread to other cities by word of mouth. And since Charlottesville is a dynamic, creative and academic city with a lot of engaged citizens, that could create a social ripple effect in our region that people need and expect brands to help them know how to recycle. Additionally, we could potentially coordinate with local officials to develop matching How2Recycle instructional signage for our public recycling bins, such as those of our pedestrian urban park, the Downtown Mall. If successful, we could scale the model to our neighbor cities in Virginia and beyond.
Who will take these actions?
Brandowners—or in other words, consumer packaged goods companies, retailers or quick service restaurants—will become members of How2Recycle and place the How2Recycle label on all or a selection of their brands’ packaging. Then, packaging engineers and designers within those companies will harness the recyclability insights that the label uncovers and in turn, make their packaging more recyclable.
How2Recycle currently boasts over 75 brandowner members, representing hundreds of brands in the marketplace. How2Recycle is already on thousands of products and growing every month.
How2Recycle is a part of 501(c)(3) nonprofit GreenBlue in Charlottesville, Virginia. When How2Recycle members submit their packaging specifications to receive a How2Recycle label, the How2Recycle team conducts custom recyclability assessments to determine the appropriate label for their packaging. We work with experts such as those at Association of Plastic Recyclers and the Recycled Paperboard Alliance, to remain fully up-to-date on latest developments in packaging recyclability.
Where will these actions be taken?
How2Recycle was designed with US law and recycling infrastructure in mind, and has expanded to Canada, so it is a North American program at this time.
While the labels only appear in North American markets right now, many of our existing members are global brandowners. Because of this, the packaging design insights could spread beyond the US and Canada.
Because the program was built thoughtfully from the start, and has experienced tremendous momentum in recent years, we have a strong blueprint for our program in place. We could scale it anywhere abroad where there’s meaningful access to recycling infrastructure—if we received the right funding and opportunity.
In addition, specify the country or countries where these actions will be taken.
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What impact will these actions have on greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?
As mentioned previously, recycling plays a tangible and important role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the US EPA, in 2014, the 89 million tons of municipal solid waste recycled and composted provided an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars.
We do not have data showing us to what extent the How2Recycle label may directly be contributing to improving the overall US recycling rate. The US EPA Facts & Figures is the best, most recent data for this measure, but is only current as of 2014, before How2Recycle was really coming of age.
We are currently building an online platform for our How2Recycle members where we will be able to track with greater specificity the packages that feature How2Recycle. If we were able to combine this with sales volume data, as well as conduct a consumer behavior study to see how much we actually cause more recycling, we could come up with some calculation.
In the meantime of having that ideal data, we can say two things:
1 - We are working with Walmart on its Project Gigaton, where Walmart is inviting its suppliers to join them and commit projects that will reduce emissions one gigaton by 2030. How2Recycle is a recommendation within their packaging pillar to reduce GHGs. We (Sustainable Packaging Coalition) were a strategic contributor in designing how packaging changes under Project Gigaton can be measured from a GHG reduction perspective. The methodology is somewhat complex and not suitable for inclusion here because its scope is broader than How2Recycle and also very detailed.
2 - Even if we were to do the crudest speculative calculations with the EPA WARM model and the Facts & Figures report, and say that the How2Recycle label increased the US recycling rate such that we saved 1% more MTCO2eq per year than recycling did in 2014, we would potentially reduce 1,810,000 MTCO2eq, or the equivalent of 382,333 passenger vehicles driven for one year. However, this is purely theoretical calculation; we would need to show causation between the How2Recycle label and behavior, and get more recycling rate data. Still, it shows the potential of How2Recycle in helping fight climate change--it could have broad, sweeping benefits if implemented fully in North America.
What are other key benefits?
How2Recycle can help consumer packaged goods companies with existing carbon reduction targets meet their goals; it also fits in nicely to the UN Global Goals.
We are currently observing a 'next generation' of corporate goals to reduce carbon footprints, from companies such as Unilever, PepsiCo, Walmart, Campbell's and General Mills. Many of those same companies also have specific recyclability commitments. Those companies just mentioned are all How2Recycle members.
How2Recycle will help its members track the recyclability of their packaging portfolio, and tell them how to make specific packaging design improvements to make their packaging more recyclable. Overall this will help the companies meet their carbon reduction goals with the packaging space because it shows them where they are, tracks their progress, and tells them how to improve.
How2Recycle also fits in cleanly to the UN's Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals). Under goal 12, responsible consumption and production, there is the specific target goal of "By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse." Because How2Recycle drives more recycling, it helps society towards this goal of reducing waste. When business leaders look to the UN Global Goals for inspiration in setting their sustainability strategies, How2Recycle could be specifically targeted as an initiative supporting goal 12.
What are the proposal’s projected costs?
How2Recycle memberships cost between $2,000 and $6,000 (per brandowner per year), based on the company’s annual revenue and whether that company is also a member of Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This is an all-inclusive fee and covers an unlimited variety and volume of How2Recycle labels (and in turn, packaging design insights).
We have designed our program to be largely turn-key for our members, but they still need to manage their use of How2Recycle like any other project. They have to allocate internal time and resources to implement How2Recycle on their packaging. This includes collecting packaging specifications, sending to How2Recycle, applying the label to packaging, and working with the How2Recycle team on any other aspect of implementation or design feedback.
Because it's a successful existing program, How2Recycle has been making an impact on consumers and brands since it launched in 2012. As the program scales, it will continue to make a greater impact into the future as more brands adopt the How2Recycle label for their packaging and make more packaging changes based on the information in the How2Recycle label.
As for the long term timeline of How2Recycle: well, recycling is complex. It's a sometimes volatile system ultimately driven by global commodities markets, and is an interconnected but independent linkage of consumers, communities, material recovery facilities, reclaimers, and buyers of recycled materials. Further, corporate sustainability goals are on the rise but it is unclear how they may look decades into the future.
For these reasons, what the recycling industry itself will look like in the long term (50 to 100 years) will be hard to predict, and brands' commitment to transparent recycling labeling and moving to more recyclable packaging on the very long term is unknown. We may also see big changes to logistics, infrastructure and waste management in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; recycling could play a huge role in the resilience of society as we face greater material scarcity and climate volatility, but have better technology to face those challenges.
Importantly, How2Recycle is an evolving program. As the definition and aspiration of 'recyclability' evolves, as the use of materials in society evolves, and companies and consumption patterns evolve, How2Recycle will change along with those things in order to continually seek to maximize impact.
Ultimately the label is curated information that empowers people with the right knowledge to make a real impact.
About the author(s)
This proposal was written by Kelly Cramer. Kelly leads the How2Recycle program as a Senior Manager at Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Under her leadership, the How2Recycle program has grown in membership size by 82% in a little over a year and a half, and has strategically scaled its operations to successfully influence brands to change their packaging design to be more recyclable. In 2017 she co-created the new Essentials of Sustainable Packaging training course, and has spoken at many events, conferences and universities such as GreenBiz, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, and the Walmart Packaging Sustainability Summit about topics ranging from sustainability trends to behavior change to why we’re all asking the wrong questions about circular economy. Kelly loves the challenge and fun in managing change in an accelerating, complex world--and she is driven to empower people with the right insights so they can make real impact. Kelly holds a J.D. in Environmental Law from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon and an undergraduate degree in psychology and Spanish from the University of Tennessee. Kelly resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.
Recycling’s important tie to fighting climate change:
Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures, US EPA.
Recent media & articles about How2Recycle
The simple way big brands can evangelize recycling, By Meghan McDonald, GreenBiz, June 8, 2017
Buying In: Plastics recycling stakeholders say they are finally seeing signals from packaging producers that indicate they see recyclability as a real concern, by Mike Verespej, Plastics Recycling Update, Feb. 27, 2017
How2Recycle label changing recycling habits, by Heather Caliendo, Plastics Technology
Q&A: Reflecting on the How2Recycle label’s growth, by Lacey Evans, Resource Recycling, Dec 20, 2016
Case Study, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business - Rewarding Consumers for Recycling Packaging: Kimberly-Clark Seeks Shared Value, Harvard Business Review Press, Berkeley Haas Case Series. By Sara L. Beckman, Stefanie Robinson, Seren Pendleton-Knoll, Jan 1, 2017
Walmart Sustainability Hub: Packaging, for Walmart's Project Gigaton, 2017 (recommends How2Recycle)
How2Recycle® label program wins DuPont Packaging Innovation Silver Award, How2Recycle.info, May 30, 2017
2016: A breakout year for How2Recycle, by Kelly Cramer, How2Recycle.info, January 16, 2017
How the Sustainable Packaging Coalition makes the new plastics economy real, GreenBlue.org, by Kelly Cramer, May 15, 2017
Recycling Collection Programs: A Bigger Pinch Point Than We Thought, EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Web Academy Webinar, Nov 17, 2016
How millennials are influencing the shape and style of plastic packaging, Plastics Today, Sep 2016
Stanford University, Land, Buildings & Real Estate: FAQs: Benefits of Recycling