Two major government actions to boost the U.S. recycling system occurred in November 2021.  Improvement, actually transformation, is needed on a stagnant 32% solid waste recycling rate especially if efforts to curtail waste exports overseas further strains domestic markets for recycled materials.  Federal policy intervention and investment are important tools for better waste management and resource recovery.  When it comes to policies for waste prevention, however, which is undisputedly preferred and more impactful for addressing waste, pollution, and resource conservation, the U.S. government continues to work at the periphery of change by prioritizing action on waste management through recycling.  Now there are encouraging signs of a shift to a more balanced approach.

First, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law providing $350 million for solid waste and recycling grants.  The infrastructure bill incorporated the RECYCLE Act and allocated $75 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish a grant program for improving recycling through public education and outreach.  The bill also provides $275 million of funding to implement the 2020 Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, including new grants for waste management and recycling equipment.  Furthermore, it calls for EPA to develop a model recycling program toolkit to improve recycling rates and decrease contamination in the recycling stream.

The infrastructure bill did include funding for “pollution prevention,” allocating $100 million for supporting the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 and EPA’s Pollution Prevention (P2) Program.  EPA defines P2 as “any practice that reduces, eliminates, or prevents pollution at its source prior to recycling, treatment or disposal.”  While the scope of P2 activities is broad including water, energy, and agricultural inputs, preventing packaging waste is among them.  Packaging makes up 28% of U.S. solid waste.  EPA offers the examples of “reusing materials such as drums and pallets rather than disposing of them as waste,” and “using reusable water bottles instead of throw-aways.”  How the Agency uses the new funding for stimulating reuse models and infrastructures remains to be seen.

Second, EPA published the 2021 National Recycling Strategy to address current recycling system challenges and to achieve an increase in the recycling rate to 50 percent by 2030.  The new document outlines five strategic objectives for implementing the 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System

EPA identifies the National Recycling Strategy as “Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy.”  The Agency is clear in their recognition that advancing recycling alone “will not create a circular economy” and “work is necessary to broadly encompass areas not addressed here, including product redesign, source reduction and reuse.”  While the timeline of strategies may be a bottom—up approach in the waste hierarchy, tackling recycling first before reducing and reusing, the call to action on source reduction as an integral part of a comprehensive circular economy initiative in the U.S. is nevertheless a good step forward.

Taken together, funding for pollution prevention and strategy development for reuse activities are encouraging signs for a more transformative shift in federal policy on solid waste.  Legislative and regulatory activities are still an at imbalance in 2021 as recycling commands significantly more resources than source reduction, running counter to circular preferences of designing out waste by maximizing product use and value first before dealing with the material waste of that product.  But progress is apparent. 

The New Year is poised to accelerate policies incentivizing source reduction and reuse systems.  Extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging laws passed in Maine and Oregon last year, and more states are looking at a larger coordinated EPR approach.  On the national front, the proposed Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act offers sweeping measures to reduce single-use plastic products that largely end up in landfill or the environment.  The U.S. recycling rate for plastics is a meager 9%.  With these and other legislative actions including local ordinances on zero waste, 2022 promises to gain more ground on an approach that emphasizes waste prevention over management, resource conservation over recovery, and circular models over linear.  There is a long way to go to achieve a more effective balance, but the end of 2021 appears to put us in the right direction.

Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association

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