Shortly after Sandra Keil moved last year, she got a letter from her homeowners' association threatening a $50 fine for putting paper in a recycling bin.
"I gasped," the Arlington, Va., resident recalls. "I'm a recycling expert."
Keil, an executive with recycling directory Earth911.com, didn't know that her new neighborhood - unlike the last one only 3 miles away - requires paper such as printouts and envelopes to be put in bags next to the bin, not inside it. "I was wrong," she says.
Her story shows just how local and confusing recycling rules can be. To clarify them and boost recycling rates, which have slowed in recent years, a new label will appear on dozens of products this fall, and more will come next year.
The voluntary How2Recycle label indicates whether a product is recycled in most, some or few communities so consumers have a sense of what their neighborhood might do. It's no guarantee; residents are encouraged to check local rules. Curbside recycling, which is most common in the Northeast and least in the Midwest, serves 71% of the population, federal data show.
"There's a lot of confusion and misinformation about recyclability," says Anne Bedarf, who helped develop the label for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition of GreenBlue, a non-profit environmental group. "We want to provide information that's transparent and consistent."
The label, patterned after one used in the United Kingdom, launched this year on laundry detergent by Seventh Generation and hand towels by outdoor-gear retailer REI. Other companies that have agreed to use the labels on some products include Estee Lauder, Costco Wholesale, General Mills' Yoplait, Microsoft, Orville Redenbacher, BJ's and Best Buy.
"This is a great idea," says David Weiss of Sealed Air Corp., which makes inflatable air pillows used in packaging. This summer, his company's products will begin bearing the label, which features a triangle urging shoppers to drop the item off at places such as grocery stores that accept plastic bags. Few communities take the inflatable packaging in curbside bins.
Aside from "store drop-off," labels also may say "check locally" if fewer than 60% of Americans can recycle the item at a curbside or drop-off location. Items include cups, lids and clamshell plastic containers.
The triangle will have a black line across the label for products such as chip bags that fewer than 20% of Americans can easily recycle. It will have no words or lines for items such as bottles, jars and newspapers if more than 60% can do so. Compostable items are not included.
The How2Recycle label differs from a triangular one with a number in the middle that appears on the bottom of plastic containers. That triangle with the chasing arrows indicates what type of plastic a product is made from but does not mean it's recyclable. It's often used to tell consumers what to recycle; #1 and #2 plastics are the most commonly accepted.
Bedarf says the designations, which also say what the product is made of and which part can or cannot be recycled, are based on national data. Because products often are made for broad areas, labeling for local variations is virtually impossible.
There will a learning curve, she says, but once consumers understand the label, it will help them master the maze.
Others are doubtful. "It may cause more confusion," says Keil, who argues that recycling varies too much from place to place. "It's really hard to have a standardized label when there's no standardized policy."
She says consumers want to know what they can recycle, not what most Americans can. She fears the label may lead to mistakes and higher local costs.
Recycling "is very tricky, and it's very local," she says.
Her group, Earth911.com, has a ZIP code database listing what communities will recycle at curbside or drop-off spots. An app to scan products' barcodes for recycling information is in the works.