If you’ve ever found it confusing to decide whether the package in your hand should go in the recycling bin or the trash, you’ll understand the goals behind the new labeling program launched this year by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Though most Americans have access to community recycling programs, recycling rates remain very low; only about 30% of plastic bottles are recycled. One reason for low recycling rates may simply be confusion about recyclability, and the SPC has introduced new labels designed to make recycling easier to understand.

If a package is made of multiple materials, the “How2Recycle label” breaks down the info for each–showing which part is made of which material, any specific instructions, and a code showing recyclability. If a certain material is recyclable in most communities nationally, it’s marked with the standard three-arrow recycling symbol we’re all familiar with. A crossed-out recycling symbol means that something can’t be recycled.

How is this different than the recycling codes that most plastic packages already have? The labels saying #1 or #2 were never designed to communicate to consumers. They only indicate what a package is made from, not whether it can be recycled. In studies with consumers, the SPC found that many didn’t understand what the numbers meant–some guessed that they were showing that a package was made from recycled content. The codes also only show up on plastic. The new SPC label is designed to be used on all types of packages, and to give clear instructions to consumers. It doesn’t replace the plastic codes, but just adds more information.

Right now, the new label is on some products from two companies–Seventh Generation and REI. This year, ten more manufacturers will also begin printing it on some of their products. In 2013, after incorporating feedback from the first products, the SPC hopes the label will be implemented across a wide range of products. The label also includes a link to a website with more detailed info for specific communities. Since part of the challenge is understanding what your own city will allow in recycling bins, we’d love to see local info get easier to access. Perhaps SPC could also design a mobile app, so a consumer could quickly scan a package with their phone to learn if their location allows recycling.

Main photo and diagram credit: Sustainable Packaging Coalition