The June 17 hearing by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the topic of “Responding to the challenges facing recycling in the United States” offered insightful testimony and discussion. The evidence and consensus opinion are clear: America’s recycling system is broken. Recycling advocates seek federal government policy intervention in areas such as standardization, data development, grants for innovation, recycled material market stimulus, product content requirements, producer responsibility, and consumer education.
There is also recognition that recycling alone will not solve our growing solid waste and pollution crisis. A question at the hearing was asked: “What are the most promising advanced recycling technologies when it comes to single-use plastics?” Ms. Bridget Croke, Managing Director of Closed Loop Partners, answered with a timely pivot: “there is no one solution, there is no silver bullet. We are not going to solve this with an individual innovation. We need to look at reduction strategies, and we need to look at ways to recover those materials at the end of life.”
In a nearly two-hour hearing, this statement most embodies what the policy strategy should prioritize to improve recycling: source reduction. Sitting atop of the waste hierarchy and preceding “recycling” in the three “Rs,” reduce and reuse activities will not only yield greater impacts on cutting solid waste and pollution but also improve recycling conditions. Here are five ways in which a reusable product system (waste prevention) can help recycling (waste management):
- Shrink waste burdens. Products designed and manufactured for durability and used in a system of recovery and continuous purpose will eliminate production of disposable, single-use products that would otherwise add to waste or pollution statistics.
- Strengthen recovery cultures, behaviors, and infrastructures. A system of product reuse requires the return of the asset through dedicated operations and collaborations. System gaps where the product can go outside of the controlled environment are not tolerated, and thus product escape or pollution is minimized. The reuse mindset and methods for effective product recovery would expand in the business and consumer marketplace to help material recovery for recycling.
- Establish accountability. Reusable products are owned by the user, or in some cases a third-party inventory manager. The owner is economically incentivized to maintain product possession and use the recyclable material at end of life. Product and material responsibility is already built into the reuse model.
- Improve recycled material quality. Reusable products can be made with high-quality materials as their repeated use and value extension justifies added investment. After the end of its useful life, that product can be recovered and recycled into premium, non-contaminated material for re-manufacture. More reusable products mean more market-desired recycled material.
- Create a new market channel for recycled content. Reusable products can be made with recycled materials including today’s lower valued plastics. Switching from single use to reusables can spur market demand for current unmarketable plastic types. Ideally, in a complete reuse system, reusable products will provide its own raw material to re-manufacture the same product as a replacement in the system.
By reducing waste generation, building a system approach for product flow and management, boosting product responsibility, keeping highly valued materials in the system, and growing recycling market applications, policies prioritizing effective reuse can lead to improvements in recycling. As a bonus, reuse would also deliver greater returns addressing climate change, energy consumption, and natural resource conservation.
A savvy reader of the above may recognize that systems of reuse execute the three pillars of a circular economy: design out waste, keep products and materials in use at their highest value, and restore natural ecosystems. There is a reason why reuse is represented among the inner loops of the circular economy’s technical cycle, while recycling is the outermost loop or last resort. When legislating to combat waste and pollution, why focus only on the least impactful activity? Policies need to consider and encourage adoption of reuse systems at least at the same intensity as recycling, fostering synergies between both approaches for better results.
While the recycling system needs repair, the reuse system needs formation. Government assistance can stimulate building the reuse infrastructure in many ways, including:
- Service operations. New economies and jobs can be created to perform reuse activities such as product recovery, return logistics, consolidation centers, sortation of dissimilar products, inspection, refurbishment, and cleaning.
- System technologies. Technology to identify, monitor and track reusable products can digitize the supply chain and bolster trading partner collaborations. Automation to optimize processes and improve labor conditions can drive performance and cost-savings. Stimulating investments to innovate reuse models would not only benefit waste prevention but also economic growth.
- Product safeguards. One downside to highly valued reusable products is their attraction to theft. Federal regulations to standardize the patchwork state-by-state organized retail crime laws, for example, can help deter theft and harmonize enforcement and prosecution actions to keep products and materials where they belong.
A hearing on recycling alone is fine unless it is the primary focus on the country’s broader waste management strategy, which unfortunately still seems to be the case today with recent bills introduced in the U.S. Congress. Recycling is not a strategy, but rather a tactic. A genuine strategy should encompass all methods and tools for the greatest gains. Without source reduction measures like reuse as a major component to the strategy, fixing recycling will be a never-ending expensive endeavor and waste will continue to amass at unmanageable levels.
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President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association