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New Ad Campaign Helps Consumers Sort Out Recycling Confusion

Tuesday, August 18, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
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Source: USA Today

If you're confused about the nuances of recycling — Does the greasy pizza box get recycled or trashed? Do glass and aluminum get separated? — join the club.

But help is on the way. Aiming to both increase the percentage of people who recycle, and get those who do to stop tossing whatever they want into recycling bins, several organizations are stepping up education efforts in the coming months to bring national awareness to an industry plagued by confusion.

"We don't like to have to think about things more than we have to. The more convenient you make a recycling program, the more likely people are to participate," says Jessica Nolan, a professor and head of the Conservation Psychology Lab at University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

From 1970 through 2012, recycling had non-stop growth in the U.S., going from a rate of 6.6% of waste recycled to 34.5%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And that's where the growth halted for the first time in more than 30 years, with roughly the same percentage, 34.3%, recorded for 2013, the most recent year for data. And due to issues ranging from the disparate set of nationwide guidelines and labels — determined by municipalities and private companies — to the growing use of different plastics, experts worry the growth rate will stay stuck in that groove.

"No one has ever been instructed on how to label their bins," says Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, "and therefore everybody is coming up with their own thing, and none of it is working."

Recycle Across America, for its part, is launching its first national TV campaign this month to promote the organization's recycling labels in an attempt to create a nationally adopted system with agreed-upon standards for things like whether bottle caps should be left on or off, or what to do with that pizza box. The 30- and 60-second ads will star celebrities including Kristen Bell and Mark Ruffalo, who tell viewers, "Let's recycle right." Billboards and print ads are also part of the campaign.

The non-profit feels its labels can also help address the growing contamination of the recycling stream — the result of those new plastics and a push toward "single-stream" bins. With only one bin to choose from, single-stream has led many consumers to freely experiment with what can go inside them.

Susan Robinson, director of public affairs at Waste Management, the nation's largest processor of municipal waste, says the recycling it processes is 16% contaminated, double the average of the 8% contamination rate 10 years ago. In surveys of recycling facilities across the country, the Environmental Research & Education Foundation has found that contamination rates on average rose from 7% in 2007 in 437 facilities to 16% in 2013 in the 97 facilities so far counted.

Contamination erodes the ability to turn waste into usable materials, says Hedlund, which then contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the ability of waste-management plants to generate revenue, which can mean the closing of such plants.

Recycle Across America's labels have been around since 2011, when the organization launched. They're already used by more than 10,000 customers, including about 3,500 K-12 schools and universities, Bank of America, NBC Universal, Whole Foods and Disney.

The non-profit Keep America Beautiful, which has a variety of ongoing programs to encourage recycling, has several fall initiatives in the works, including Recycle Bowl, a national K-12 school-based recycling competition. Late last month it announced the winners of its "I Want to Be Recycled” video contest, which asked people to create their own recycling public service announcements.

And in response to the rising contamination issue, the National Waste & Recycling Association plans to ramp up its consumer education campaign, "Begin with the Bin." It focuses on educating consumers about what should never be put in recycling bins, like plastic bags, which have to be returned to grocery stores that participate in plastic bag recycling.

"Education is key," says Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the association. "Part of the reason for contamination is what I call 'aspirational recycling' — where people with the greatest intent believe, you should be able to recycle this, so the logic is, (the processors will) figure it out. It just unfortunately doesn’t work that way."

Recycling don'ts: These items should generally stay out of bins

• Plastic bags: They can be recycled, but not in curbside bins. Take them back to your grocery store.

• Styrofoam: Goes in the trash.

• Plastic and metal clothes hangers: Donate them or take them to your dry cleaner.

• Hypodermic needles: Yes, this happens. It's dangerous and unsanitary.

Sources: Recycle Across America, Begin with the Bin, EPA

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