Standardizing Recycling Labels with Recycle Across America's Mitch Hedlund

This episode originally aired on September 12, 2014 on Green is Good Radio.

Today on GreenIsGood: Recycle Across America's plan is simple: Provide standardized recycling labels throughout the country to help recycling rates rise.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and I’m so honored to have with us today my good friend, Mitch Hedlund. She’s the founder and Executive Director of Recycle Across America. Welcome to Green is Good, Mitch.

MITCH HEDLUND: Thank you, John. I’m excited to be part of a show.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We are so excited to have you today. You’re doing so many amazing things with Recycle Across America. We’re gonna get to that in a second, though, but before that, since this is your first time on Green is Good, I would love for you to share with our listeners your story and journey leading up to the founding of Recycle Across America because your story’s fascinating and it’s wonderful and I’ve gotten to know you and know your story, but I want our listeners to know you as well.

MITCH HEDLUND: Well, thank you. Really, my history is branding and marketing and communication and I think if you look down the line at the solution, it really evolved within that wheelhouse, but it was years ago that I was doing marketing and communication for a number of companies and I started to delve into the sustainability world. I think basically, that was part of my upbringing. At the time, it wasn’t called green. It was just called a very conservative family as far as resources and very healthy. My mom’s like dessert was honey on a spoon in the freezer. It wasn’t Twinkies, which we all longed for as kids, so she would take us to coops when they were dirt floors at the time and there was really nothing trendy about it so I think just that foundation set me up for where I was going professionally and when I took on a couple of marketing clients in the sustainability space, I really started looking at sustainability and trying to see what are the things that are working and what’s really not working and over the course of time, I was invited to meet with a lot of major corporations and small businesses and schools and universities and airport commissions to talk about sustainability but it was really interesting because every time I met with them, there were a number of things that we were going to be talking about. It was including water and energy and purchasing and waste diversion but in every instance, the subject of recycling came up first. These organizations would start to talk about their recycling program within their buildings and inevitably, every one of them said the exact same thing. They all said that their recycling program doesn’t seem to be working and they wanted to talk about that and figure out what the problem was and it was also interesting because these people are responsible for all of their sustainability including energy reduction and water conservation and purchasing and so forth and recycling is less than 10% of their responsibility, but in each case, they were spending over 75% of their time trying to figure it out and the complaint that they were sharing with me was that people in their buildings, whether it’s employees or visitors or consumers, kept throwing trash in the recycling bin and throwing recycling in the trash bin and usually they’d bring me up to the bins and sure enough, the contents of each bin looked identical so mixed trash in recycling and mixed recycling in with the trash and I personally, as I’m listening to their stories, I’m personally reflecting on my own experience at the recycling bin when I’m out in public places like at the airports or at a sports stadium or wherever I was out in public. I started reflecting on the fact that I too have these moments standing at the bin confused and I’m not sure if I should be throwing my can or my newspaper in the bin and in one instance at an airport, I remember having a really isolated moment of confusion at the recycling bin and a man came up right in front of me and threw in a dirty diaper in the recycling bin and he said, “Oh, it’s all going to landfill anyway,” and so as I’m kind of listening to all these stories come together and having this aha moment about recycling, I was actually asked to be the keynote speaker at a recycling conference to speak about sustainability in general and after that presentation, I had asked the audience, which was about 100 recycling industry executives, if they would mind if I shared some of these observations about their industry with them and so the audience had said, sure, go ahead, and I had actually prepared for it so on the big huge screen behind me, I flipped away from the sustainability presentation I had just completed and I showed an image of five different stop signs on this huge 20-foot screen behind me but none of them were stop signs that we’re familiar with. One was the word ‘stop’ spray painted on a light post and the other was a sign with a hand on it implying you stop and then there were three other signs and none of them were the red sign that we’re familiar with and the audience looked up at me and they were very perplexed and I said, “What would happen in society if everyone had to create their own stop sign? How effective would that be for road safety?” and they still looked perplexed and I flipped the screen away from those images and then I showed literally hundreds of recycling bins and no two of them had a similar recycling label. Some of them imply that you might do the same thing but none of the labels looked alike and I just shared with the audience. I said I know my profession and my focus if on overall sustainability, but the more I’m spending time with companies, the more I’m learning about their challenges with recycling and it’s because of this. This is what recycling currently looks like to the general public and it’s incredibly confusing and out of that, I introduced to that audience the idea of a standardized labeling system and I actually mocked up what it could look like because I didn’t want to just deliver a problem to them. I wanted them to hear what the solution could be for their industry and actually see what that could look like and that was really where Recycle Across America began.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, for our listeners out there that want to go to Mitch’s great website while we’re having this wonderful chat this morning, please go to www.recycleacrossamerica.org, so as you’ve educated me, Mitch, standardized labels for recycling bins is a deceivingly simple idea that has a profound impact on all of us, so now we know why you started this great concept and this great initiative so talk a little bit about how it’s gone since you’ve started and all the amazing energy and velocity that you’ve built up and partners that you’ve gotten along the way and how it’s going.

MITCH HEDLUND: Absolutely. Well, I think from that conference where I was presenting this idea, fortunately, because of my marketing and because of my communication and because of my branding and graphic design experience, I was able to take what was in my mind’s eye and develop it so I think I was really fortunate to be able to tap into my previous profession and experience to bring it together into fruition but we brought on some industry leaders to evaluate the labels to make sure that it wasn’t just me coming out saying these are the new standardized labels but instead, to make sure that we have all sorts of different layers of industry, including the general public and teachers and school administrators and students and parents, evaluate the labels and make sure they really can hold up for what we’re trying to do so that was really a critical part of it, but once we launched the website, really it was just putting the website up on Google or up on the website, I should say, and I think right in the beginning, we were probably on page six of recycling labels if you Googled ‘recycling labels’ but within a very short amount of time, we became the very first recycling label search on Google and that was completely organically and within a very short amount of time, Disney started using the standardized labels in their employee areas and NBC Universal started using them throughout their TV and film studios throughout North America and Hallmark Corporation and AOL and 2,000 schools across the country. All of a sudden, without any effort — plenty of effort but without any marketing or without any sales or outreach — finally it’s being adopted by some really remarkable companies that are leading the way on this initiative and I think that was a great indicator for me personally to know that I’m not the only one that believes that this should be happening but one of the other things that came from this is we ended up having a New York Times article written and in that process, the person writing the story, David Brunstein, who’s amazing, really delved into what’s the outcome of the labels. Are they working? Maybe they’re not just becoming popular, but we need to know are they actually doing a better job from the confusing labels out there and that was a huge moment for us because the results that he found was from Veolia. This is one example. Veolia is one of the largest waste and recyclers in the world. They’re not the largest here in the U.S. They’re very big, but they are the largest in the world, and they’ve been using the standardized labels for many of their Fortune 500 companies and in many cases, even at that time, they were showing us 50% or more in recycling renewables and since then, we’ve heard all sorts of testimonials in recycling renewables are not only going up 50%, but in some cases, doubling and the materials that are going into the bin are much cleaner. In fact, in some cases, like with NBC, they just had their hauler, which is ground disposal, say that they’re just amazed at how clean the capture is and that, to us, is a huge bingo in this because if we can get the standardized labels out throughout society and it results in more people recycling but most importantly, recycling light, so that there’s less dirty diapers, there’s less half eaten hot dogs, there’s less garbage in the recycling bin, that is transformational because now that means that manufacturers will actually want these materials and they’ll be able to buy these materials at a price point that is competitive with virgin materials. Right now, recycling is so highly contaminated with garbage that by the time the processors remove those dirty diapers and half eaten hot dogs and all the things that don’t belong in there. By the time they remove that, it drives the price up so high that manufacturers can’t make the commitment to switch to recycled materials so it’s really been this kind of organic explosion but most important, it’s been great to witness that the labels are actually working and making a difference.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Mitch Hedlund on with us. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s the founder and Executive Director of Recycle Across America and you can see all the great work Mitch is doing at www.recycleacrossamerica.org. It was in that New York Times article that The New York Times did say about Recycle Across America that this is one of the top environmental fixes taking root today and your tagline is amazing and it’s wonderful; ‘Let’s recycle right,’ and you have, Mitch, as you’ve explained to me, so many celebrities and celebrities are the tastemakers and some of the thought leaders now of society. For better or for worse, they are the people that guide our culture in so many ways and you’ve been so well received by Hollywood and by the celebrity world; Gabby Reece, Kristen Bell, Alanis Morissette, Angie Harmon, just to name a few, have signed on to help promote recycling right, Recycle Across America in your program and the Let’s Recycle Right campaign, so talk a little bit about what you’re doing with Hollywood, what you’re doing with participant media, and also what you’re doing with our friends at TerraCycle.

MITCH HEDLUND: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s the evolution that’s been so exciting with this is once we could say, okay, the labels are working, they’re being frequently adapted, companies are starting to use them on their bins, they’re working, recycling levels are going up and renewables are cleaner, it’s such a simple solution to make that transformation and once we had that confidence to be able to say that, then we started tapping into the celebrity space and the window was opened by a great company by the name of Fields, who donated to us in our first year out of the blue, again unsolicited, and not only did they donate money to us, but they introduced us to celebrities who want to get behind us and so that was really the crack in the window that just allowed us to go after celebrities and ask them if they would want to join us and volunteer their time, their voice, and their influence and we were hoping to get about five to seven celebrities and we right away got close to 40. In fact, I think we’re over 40 of celebrities; everything from top models to comedians to Olympic gold medalists to national sports figures and Academy Award-winning actors who want to get behind this and I think the reason we attracted so many was because they also have stood at the bin. They can relate to this. They have been at a recycling bin wanting to do the right thing and I think that’s where that stems from.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We have about five minutes or so left. Can you share a little bit and give a little taste of what’s coming up for you with Participant Media and with TerraCycle in the near future?

MITCH HEDLUND: Yes, definitely. Participant Media is a remarkable double-bottom-line company. They focus, not only on creating great films that we’re all familiar with, including Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation and some others, but also, great films like The Help and Lincoln and so forth, so their goal is to create transformational films and TV shows that really inspire people to think different, act different, and to help change the world and so they approached us a couple of months ago and wanted to partner with us and partner with a great TV show that they’ve created that is a story about TerraCycle and I’m just incredibly honored that these two pinnacle organizations have to come to us to allow us to be part of what they’re doing and to be great advocates for the Standardized Label Initiative and just quickly, Participant has a TV program or TV channel, I should say, called Pivot TV and on August 8th, they will launch a show called Human Resources, which is brilliantly made, and it’s focusing on TerraCycle, which is one of the biggest world changers because they are finding ways to recycle things that notoriously no one thought could be recycled and they’re doing it in a wonderful, systematic way and a very highly capitalized way, so they’re proving recycling is not only good for the environment, but it’s also good for the economy and the economics for business and so we’re part of that story and Participant is committed to having standardized labels be used within the next 12 months because of this effort and this attachment with the TV program.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mitch, we’re down to the last two minutes or so. You were a keynote speaker a few weeks ago at the European Union. Does your Standardized Label Initiative with Recycle Across America have international application as well?

MITCH HEDLUND: Absolutely. A couple of things: We ended up winning an Ashoka Global Fellowship a couple of years ago, and when they heard about our solution, they vetted for a year to determine is there a global application for this solution? Does it create systemic change? And, it was a grueling process to go through that. Ashoka is an amazing organization and we ended up winning the Ashoka Global Fellowship for the Solution because they did see that there is a global application. No country seems to have recycling down to a complete solid science. I think Europe is further advanced in some of the countries than we are. Clearly, they have much higher recycling levels in Germany and Belgium and some other countries, but they are also looking at something that could be universal throughout all the European countries, so we are looking at some initiatives with the Commissioner for the EU for the Environment and I’m hoping that this can become part of their waste diversion program as well.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful. Any final thoughts as we have to sign off right now? But we’re gonna have you back on in the very near future. Any final thoughts for the months and years ahead for Recycle Across America?

MITCH HEDLUND: Well, first of all, thank you again for allowing me to share this story and this critical initiatives. Five to ten years from now, I really think we’re gonna have a tipping point with the standardized labels will become much more mainstream but this is my final note on everything: Aside from this being a game changer for the environment and for the economics of recycling and for manufacturers to be able to close the loop, I also think that we need to talk about waste doubling in 2025. In less than 11 years, it’s expected that world waste will double, which means all the resources spent for those materials, all the CO2 to create those materials will also double and if we’re looking at what’s happening with the ocean and waterways, we also have to take into what’s gonna happen. If we’re not managing waste properly right now, what happens in 11 years from now when it’s expected to double and the only way to get those materials out of the ocean, out of the waterways, and out of the bellies of sea life is to make them valuable. When they become valuable, nobody will want them to be in those nature spaces and one way to do that is to get to recycle right and the only way to do that, we believe, is with the standardization campaign and with the standardized labels.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s why we have to use your standardized labels and go to your website, www.recycleacrossamerica.org. Thank you, Mitch, for being a recycling visionary and showing us all how to recycle it right, which ultimately makes the world a better place. You are truly living proof that green is good.

MITCH HEDLUND: Thank you, John.