Michelle "Mitch" Hedlund
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United States

Michelle "Mitch" Hedlund

Eco-Profiles.org and RecycleAcrossAmerica.org
Michelle “Mitch” Hedlund is aligning citizens and businesses around common environmental and economic interests by making recycling more comprehensive and removing the confusion around “green.”…
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This description of Michelle "Mitch" Hedlund's work was prepared when Michelle "Mitch" Hedlund was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Michelle “Mitch” Hedlund is aligning citizens and businesses around common environmental and economic interests by making recycling more comprehensive and removing the confusion around “green.” Mitch’s solutions are making the recycled commodities market and the overall green economy more prevalent, profitable, and predictable.

The New Idea

Mitch is demystifying what environmental responsibility means for citizens and businesses alike in ways that could dramatically increase recycling rates and increase the demand for green products and environmentally responsible businesses in the U.S. Her goal is to leverage lasting behavior change around environmental consumption to incentivize participation in the green economy while guarding against “green-washing” through a market-driven and transparent approach. While there are numerous other initiatives out to increase recycling rates and eco-friendly behavior, none to date are adequately addressing the leading obstacle to behavior change: confusion.

When it comes to recycling, most are surprised to learn that despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on campaigns promoting recycling, according to the EPA, U.S. recycling rates have barely improved in fifteen years. Through Recycle Across America™, Mitch has developed a standardized labeling system to eliminate public confusion at the recycling bin, thereby increasing the amount of recyclables being captured.

Standardized labels have never been introduced before in the U.S. Mitch is working with schools, property management companies, cleaning companies, and some of the biggest waste hauling businesses in the country to widely distribute the comprehensive and consistent standardized labels she developed to help increase recycling capture rates at the bin.

Moving forward, Mitch will leverage the increased supply of recyclable materials to educate the public about next-life products and increase their supply. Mitch has also created Eco-Profiles®, a universal tool that helps the public easily identify organizations that are greening their practices, to begin driving marketshare increases to environmentally responsible organizations.

Each of these interventions drives at the same goal and uses a similar combination of simplifying information flows to educate the public while linking consumer-consciousness to market opportunities that can be leveraged for environmental and economic impact.

The Problem

With the human population now exceeding 7 billion and growing exponentially, and our society’s rapid consumption of finite natural resources, the amount of waste produced is reaching unprecedented levels with severe consequences for our environment and our health. While recycling and “greening” the economy have the potential to dramatically reduce environmental degradation, these solutions remain grossly underutilized and poorly understood. Looking at recycling alone, less than 35 percent of U.S. households recycle; for businesses that figure drops to merely 10 percent. According to the EPA, if 75 percent of the population recycled it would be the equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the road each year, and it would generate 1.5 million new jobs. Nonetheless, these numbers have barely improved since the mid 1990s despite the efforts of a growing green movement.

Although these statistics seem to suggest that most of society is apathetic toward the environment, studies reveal that 85 percent of U.S. consumers would be willing to switch their loyalty to companies that are greening their practices (with all things considered equal). The question therefore becomes: what keeps citizens from acting on their desire to be environmentally responsible? Mitch makes a compelling case that the root of the problem is that green is confusing and not easily actionable.

Taking recycling for a moment: what the public does at the recycling bin is the most important element of recycling and impacts the entire efficacy and economics of recycling. Yet the recycling labels on public area bins (which are the critical visual tool to help people know what to do) are inconsistent, confusing and often ineffective. In part because haulers have not been providing labels, there are hundreds of thousands of inconsistent labels on bins resulting in skepticism, low capture rates, costly contamination and lack of progress. 9 to 25 percent of the recycled materials purchased by material-mills is contaminated (e.g. dirty diapers, hypodermic needles, hotdogs, and so on). This contamination hinders the profitability of recycling and next-life manufacturing. In addition, many commercial cleaning crews are equally confused, which reverses the progress of the few businesses that get it right. The feedback loop between recycling and environmental impact is also missing: not knowing what their recyclables become, consumers aren’t incentivized to keep the cycle going.

For consumers identifying and supporting businesses that are greening their practices is similarly confusing. Although the FCC is setting policies to prevent green-washing, no one has provided a universal public-friendly transparency tool to prevent green-washing. There has never been a clearinghouse where the general public can go to see the actions of businesses, schools, etc. in a way that is easily understandable. Who knows, for example, what Delta Airline’s 47.6 point sustainability rating means or what the slogan “We’ve gone green!” means?

The Strategy

Mitch’s pragmatic outlook on these bottlenecks allows her to see the need for simple, easy and universal tools to lift the confusion and to empower and engage the general masses of society to bring about change. By removing confusion and fostering transparency, Mitch seeks to increase environmental behavior in the U.S. in a way that stabilizes and makes predictable the profitability of recycling and green business practices. Thus, she is driving recognition and market share increases to companies that are implementing green practices and environmentally preferred products in their offerings. With the threat of market share loss, environmentally idle companies will begin greening their operations and offerings as well.

With recycling specifically, Mitch is building bridges between the public’s general desire to do what is best for the planet (as long as it is simple and intelligible) and the hauling industry’s interest in increasing their bottom line by greatly reducing the need for costly triage of contaminated recyclables. She is beginning with recycling because it is the most recognized environmental action and unlike many other green technologies, the benefits are proven, the infrastructure exists and the public is already engaged. Therefore the potential to maximize the benefits of recycling by simply eliminating confusion at the bin through a standardized labeling system, is well within reach and has already proven to result in dramatic and measurable improvements.

The Recycle Across America™ standardized labels, which include: a well-thought out and surveyed methodology for color-coding, simple user-friendly language, photos and the iconic chasing arrows, have been extremely well received. Bilingual standardized labels have also been created (English and Spanish) and the labels can be printed without text for international applications to avoid the need for translations. Even though the standardized labels are full-color and highly durable, the cost of the standardized labels is far less than most black and white text-only recycling labels found online.

Standardized labels have never been introduced before in the U.S. and businesses, schools and organizations are starving for the solution—therefore reception has been remarkable without any major marketing, promotion, media or sales. Fortune 500 companies, such as Macy’s, AOL, Hallmark, and P&G, high-profile universities, high profile counties, property management groups, small businesses, households, K-12 schools, non-profits, haulers, etc. across the country are now using and promoting the standardized labels.

Mitch has introduced the standardized label solution to the recycling industry as a way for them to take a “hero position” by uniting as an industry to introduce this solution to the general public. The reception from the top five industry leaders and the leading U.S. hauler association has been very positive. With the top U.S. hauler involved, that would result in the potential of a 20 percent plus saturation of standardized label usage in the U.S. And the world’s leading recycling hauler, Veolia, is already using the labels and promoting them to their U.S. commercial accounts. Mitch also sees the need for engaged haulers to change their customer service model if they are going to advance the use of standardized labels. This means haulers are begin to sell or offer labels for recycling bins to their commercial and institutional accounts, which they had never done before.

Mitch and her small team are fully aware however, that many large haulers profit more from landfill hauling, so she is cautious not to rely strictly on the advancement of standardized labels by the haulers. They feel strongly that the more successes that take place outside of the hauler industry for the promotion of standardized labels, the more quickly they will be on board to begin leading the cause, hence her efforts with the aforementioned industries.

Recycle Across America™, the organization Mitch founded to bring standardized labels to the U.S. market recently received a $100,000 grant from Kiehls.com (L’Oreal owned company) to fund label makeovers in K-12 schools in some of the largest U.S. cities. The organization has also been given the $50,000 Emerald Sponsorship at the Green Schools National Conference in Denver (February 2012) and asked to host the National Recycling Solutions Summit for K-12 schools.

Mitch also realizes that connecting people’s decisions to their impact is as important as removing confusion. She is in the early stages of creating a website and Public Service Announcement campaign that will help consumers and the public see why recycling is important. It will help them identify mainstream products, brands and companies that are using recycled materials in their manufacturing products and packaging, thereby increasing the public’s understanding of the relevance of recycling, increasing the consumer demand for products made with recyclables, and creating an impetus for ­­more companies to begin using recycled materials in their manufacturing. In the process, the predictability and profitability for the recycling and next-life manufacturing industries will dramatically improve, resulting in more recyclables being diverted from the landfills.

Finally, as more and more businesses recognize this market opportunity, not just around recycling, but around the green economy, Mitch sees the need for greater transparency and clarity around what qualifies as “green.” Recognizing the power of the Internet and the opportunity to virally spread a solution that makes green intelligible and more measurable, she is developing a simple online platform that will guide citizens and organizations on their path to environmental responsibility—including recycling, compositing, energy and water consumption, and much more. It will also provide the public with a real-time understanding of what each entity is doing to become green and how truly green they are, thus increasing transparency and providing society with a nuanced but intelligible understanding of their environmental contributions. One of the main strategies to ensure that this platform, Eco-Profiles, can be adopted virally is through outreach to a few key celebrities. Mitch has already made promising contacts with Oprah Winfrey, Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres. In addition the EcoTree of progress will display the millions of people and businesses that they inspire exponentially to take action environmentally and be transparent. Of the 1,000 Eco-Profile members, 40 percent are companies and there are already some progressive counties that are looking at rolling out Eco-Profile campaigns throughout their communities.

Thus, Mitch is identifying several intervention points throughout the life-cycle of products and across the value chain of the eco-friendly economy to make environmental responsibility less confusing, more prominent and more economically viable. By 2017, Mitch plans to have engaged 75 percent of all U.S. haulers and 15 percent of U.S. public schools in the advancement of the standardized label initiative. She projects that their work will result in a minimum of a five to ten point increase in national recycling rates. In addition she expects to have 20 million active Eco-Profiles online.

Overseeing all three of these solutions is Mitch’s organization, Environmental Advancement Foundation. She has been focusing full-time on these efforts for the past two years, and she and her husband have financed the work until this point. The remarkable reach she has been able to achieve in so little time is all the more impressive given the fact that she only works with a small team of volunteers. She has a strong and balanced board and revenue will be fully reinvested in the foundation’s social mission and to growing her team.

The Person

Mitch’s upbringing and particularly her mother’s leadership and societal contributions have been a tremendous source of influence and inspiration in her life. Her mother, a single mother with eight children, created a non-profit to help women, men and children cope with divorce and she often helped them restore their marriages. On a professional level, although half of her career was spent working for corporations, Mitch identifies as an entrepreneur and inventor to the core. At age 22 she invented the bread cone, which was created to hold deli salads, thick soups, spreads, and be an edible container, thereby eliminating Styrofoam or plastic packaging. In her 30s, after the loyalty marketing company she worked for was sold, she opened a restaurant in the town where she lived, just minutes from Minneapolis. She figured the restaurant would serve two purposes (i) help make the small town that had become rather dormant, have some vibrancy, and (ii) if successful, it could help her launch her own marketing business. The restaurant was a tremendous success and became an icon in the community. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for the first goal, she sold it and began her marketing business.

With every new client she took on through her marketing business Mitch would first learn the industry. When the time came to explore the green space on behalf of her clients, she realized how confusing the environmental movement was. To better understand the landscape of the green movement, she decided to take a cross section of her life to see what companies were doing environmentally and how they communicated it. It was an incredible burden to find any information about what companies were doing environmentally and when she did find information, discerning what they were trying to communicate was difficult. Mitch has since been determined to create society-wide solutions that make environmentally-friendly behavior and communications easier for the general public and businesses, and more beneficial for industries.

Mitch feels strongly that alongside every entrepreneur, there is a team of family and friends who provide invaluable support both financially and emotionally to help an idea become a reality. In addition to the remarkable support of encouraging friends, Mitch attributes much of her strength to her husband and children who have willingly sacrificed time and resources to help see these environmental solutions come to fruition. “I would never have gotten this far without my husband and my children’s unwavering belief in me and their belief in the outcome of these solutions! I share this recognition with them.”

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