'Traffic light' labelling could improve packaging recycling, says SUEZ

The new 'eco-labelling' concept from SUEZA simple, consistent system of labelling for packaging could be the solution to help consumers improve their recycling, according to waste management company SUEZ.

The concept of so-called ‘eco-labelling’, involving a new combined colour and number system, emerged from a recent series of workshops held by SUEZ in which the company engaged with consumers about the barriers to easy and effective recycling.

One element of the proposed system would involve a three-tier ‘traffic light’ code, with red, amber and green versions of the commonly-used Mobius Recycling Loop – this symbol is used simply to indicate that a product is capable of being recycled, and currently gives no indication of how easy it is to recycle or how commonly it is collected.

A red symbol, participants suggested, could have the effect of shaming producers into making their products easier to recycle through an ‘erosion’ of their public image. It could also encourage consumers to think more deeply about their purchases, as “a shopping basket full of red-label goods would be embarrassing at the check-out” – though this effect would only be achieved if the labels were large and extremely visible, unlike the current easy-to-miss recycling information on most packaging.

Alongside this colour system, SUEZ is suggesting that all product categories (to be determined by the availability of a recycling system for that product – so aluminium, card, glass, plastic bottles etc.) are assigned a number, to correlate with numbers to be placed on all bins and recycling containers in the UK.

Businesses and local authorities would then be able to label their waste and recycling containers with the appropriate numbers relating to what they can recycle. This, according to SUEZ, would help to reduce confusion for consumers as well as to placate councils that are opposed to the introduction of new recycling bins and systems in attempts to harmonise collections across the country.

For example, an aluminium drinks can, which is widely accepted for recycling, and can be recycled almost indefinitely, would be labelled with a green Mobius Loop. It could then also be labelled with a number three, clearly identifying to consumers that it can be placed into any bin that also has the number three on it.

'Traffic light' labelling could improve packaging recycling, says SUEZ
The new 'eco-labelling' concept from SUEZ

David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, explained: “For years now, manufacturers, retailers, local councils and waste managers have heard from consumers that the public finds the nation’s ‘binfrastructure’ confusing – a view supported by our recent research.

“There have been numerous calls for ‘harmonisation’ to help us all recycle, but also understandable resistance to this, largely due to the cost, complexity and impracticalities involved in changing systems.

“This purchase by colour and recycle by numbers system, in part designed by the very consumers that will use it, solves the twin challenge of empowering consumers to make more sustainable choices and harmonising bin collection systems, making it simpler to recycle without having to spend a fortune on new ‘binfrastructure’.

“Under this system, it would no longer matter what colour or shape your bins are, and we will all continue to use what we have – but with clear instructions on the packet to make recycling simple and help us make informed shopping choices.”

Does consistent guidance already exist?

SUEZ has suggested that this system could replace existing on-pack recycling labels, stating that there is currently a ‘plethora’ of labels and symbols but no consistent guidance to help consumers make sustainable choices.The new 'eco-labelling' concept from SUEZ

However, this statement has been queried by Jane Bevis, Chair of OPRL Ltd, which runs the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme. The aim of this scheme, set up in 2009, is to create a consistent labelling system for packaging using the Recycle Now ‘swoosh’ (see image) along with information about the recyclability of the product, from ‘widely recycled’ or ‘check local recycling’ to ‘not currently recycled’.

The scheme now has more than 550 members, including retailers, producers, packaging service businesses and compliance schemes. Bevis told Resource that the labels can be found on more than 80 per cent of supermarket products, with all national supermarkets being members of the scheme.

“Our labels are cited as good practice by the UN Environment Programme as giving clear, evidenced advice based on UK recycling collections infrastructure and a clear call to action to consumers,” Bevis said. She added that OPRL would welcome input from SUEZ amongst other stakeholders into the scheme as part of its next review, to take place in early 2019. This review will involve a deeper analysis of UK recycling infrastructure and different available plastics, working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the UK Plastics Pact.

Last year, OPRL launched an online tool to help producers decide which materials and packaging designs will be the most appropriate and easily recyclable for their products. It also aims to help producers accurate label their packaging.

“We really do value input from all stakeholders as we constantly seek to improve,” Bevis concluded, “but we're also confident we've got a good product that retailers and brands using our labels, their customers and local authorities value and understand… We see no reason to throw away the decade of investment in consumer engagement by our members which is now bearing so much fruit, so we do not see a move to traffic lights, which could be confused with nutritional information, as a likely development.”

With OPRL’s labelling scheme continuing to gain new members, and apparently recognised by 90 per cent of 18-24 year olds, it is uncertain whether SUEZ’s proposal for a new system will be taken up. Regardless, Palmer-Jones is calling on government to introduce mandatory on-pack labelling for all packaging as part of a “radical shake-up [to] influence the way we make, consume and discard materials sustainably as a society.”

He added that he hoped the upcoming Chancellor’s budget this month would contain “measures to combat throw-away items while incentivising the use of recycled material – driving a domestic circular economy.

“The resources and waste strategy for England, due in November, must also contain measures to assign greater financial responsibility to manufacturers, for recycling and disposal costs associated with the materials they place on the market, if we are to address the issue of waste being designed-in at source.”

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