Addressing recycling challenges beyond the local level
Recycling in the United States historically has been a local affair. Thousands of communities across the country developed recycling programs to collect and process valuable materials that would otherwise be thrown away. It is truly a great example of civic action in support of protecting human health and the environment. Successful recycling programs typically require substantial investments in infrastructure and a robust market for the end materials they create. Unfortunately, these are factors that individual cities and counties often do not have much control over.
When the Chinese government announced in July 2017 that it would impose severe restrictions on imported recyclables, the US and much of the world lost a large market for their recyclables.
When the Chinese government announced in July 2017 that it would impose severe restrictions on imported recyclables, the US and much of the world lost a large market for their recyclables. This loss highlighted many of the weak points in our system, including high rates of contamination in the recycling Americans were putting out at the curb, processing equipment that did not keep up with the evolving recycling stream, and a dependence on foreign markets to absorb large amounts of the recovered material.
With this international issue affecting local recycling programs, a federal response became both more necessary and more broadly considered. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) has been working with its members, other recycling organizations, and local, state and federal leaders to develop innovative solutions to these challenges. Along with growing concerns regarding plastic waste in oceans and other waterways, the management of waste in this country has become a national conversation. As a result, several bills have been introduced, or are slated to be introduced, that would address some of the challenges municipal recycling programs are working to solve.
The Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Values of Expanding Recycling Act (RECOVER) Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives on November 15, 2019. It provides matching grants to states, local and tribal governments to invest in recycling infrastructure, programs and education efforts. Over five years, $500 million would be provided to help communities deal with the two issues that prevent recycling from working well in many places: (1) public confusion about how to recycle correctly and (2) infrastructure that cannot handle the variety of materials being made.
Representatives Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) and Larry Bucshon (R-IN) introduced this bipartisan bill (H.R. 5115) in order to encourage local and state governments to invest in recycling programs and new technologies to increase collection rates. It has received support from numerous groups, including SWANA, and has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Legislation to address recycling outreach and public education specifically was introduced on November 21, 2019, by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act provides $75 million in competitive grants to states, local and tribal governments, non-profit organizations, and public-private partnerships to improve the effectiveness of residential recycling programs though public education and outreach.
Consumer confusion on how to properly recycle is one of the top recycling challenges, and this bill (S. 2941) provides vital funds for education and outreach that will both increase participation in recycling and decrease contamination.
Consumer confusion on how to properly recycle is one of the top recycling challenges, and this bill (S. 2941) provides vital funds for education and outreach that will both increase participation in recycling and decrease contamination. SWANA and others support this vital legislative action and the RECYCLE Act has garnered support from the following co-sponsors: Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Susan Collins (R-ME), Todd Young (R-IN), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Margaret Wood Hassan (D-NH). Since its introduction, the bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Save Our Seas 2.0 Act
The Save Our Seas 2.0 (SOS 2.0) Act is a follow-up to legislation successfully passed in 2018 to address marine debris. This legislation recognizes the important role that strong domestic solid waste management programs play in preventing marine debris, including robust recycling systems. The bill is intended to strengthen domestic recycling infrastructure to prevent the creation of new marine debris and includes $55 million annually for five years to states for grant programs to improve local waste management and recycling systems. An additional $10 million dollars annually for five years would be provided to trash-free water grants for local governments, tribes, and nonprofit organizations.
SOS 2.0 is led by US Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), has numerous co-sponsors, and is supported by SWANA. With the final portion of the legislation approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in November 2019, it could be voted on by the Senate in early 2020. A House version of SOS 2.0 was introduced in August 2019.
Udall/Lowenthal Plastic Waste Legislation
In addition to legislation affecting materials management and recycling already introduced in Congress, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) have circulated a discussion draft of a bill intended to address plastic waste in the United States. Among other extensive actions, it would require producer responsibility for collecting and recycling materials, require nationwide container deposits and impose fees on non-reusable carryout bags. SWANA provided comments on an earlier outline of this legislation in Fall 2019.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked with SWANA and other stakeholders to develop a first-of-its-kind National Framework for Advancing the US Recycling System.
Federal activity has not just been limited to the legislative branch. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked with SWANA and other stakeholders to develop a first-of-its-kind National Framework for Advancing the US Recycling System. This Framework was released on America Recycles Day, on November 15, 2019. Along with the Framework, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler also announced that the EPA will work to establish national recycling goals in 2020 that are similar in nature to the federal government’s existing voluntary goal to reduce food waste.
American recycling is moving past the initial shocks of international market disruptions, and the solutions to a more sustainable recycling system are becoming clearer. As communities and industries continue working together to make recycling work at all levels, federal action and support will play a key role in shaping how that future will look.
By Jesse Maxwell, Advocacy & Safety Manager, Solid Waste Association of North America