2009 has already been a much more active legislative year for the solid waste industry than the previous two years. With any luck, it will be more productive as well.
As of mid-April, more than 1,500 bills related to solid waste and recycling had been introduced in state legislatures. Seventy of those bills have already been signed into law.
Most are minor. Arkansas, for instance, exempted litter collected during Keep Arkansas Beautiful cleanup days from its trash tax. However, some are significant. For example, Connecticut added water bottles to its container deposit law and “seized the escheat” by directing that unclaimed deposits be sent to the state treasury.
Recycling remains the most popular waste-related topic for state legislatures. At the federal level, climate change legislation, with its potential impact on recycling programs and landfill gas recovery, will dominate congressional interest. However, city and county governments will be the busiest areas for recyclers and solid waste managers as local governments struggle with the holes left in their budgets by the recession.
The following is a brief look at some of the solid waste and recycling issues our elected officials will be debating this year.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the federal solid waste and recycling law, makes it clear that solid waste and recycling are local issues. As a result, Congress tends to pass little in the way of legislation affecting either subject. Last year, however, Congress passed the Recycling Incentives Save Energy (RISE) bill as part of the budget package. RISE gives a tax break to purchasers of recycling processing equipment. Promoted by a coalition of recycling groups, RISE was the first recycling incentive passed by Congress in years.
This year, Congress has already used the stimulus package to help recycling and solid waste programs. The new law extends the provisions of RISE; sets up energy efficiency grant money that is available to local recycling programs; establishes the Diesel Engine Recovery Act, which includes a grant program to help local governments switch to alternative fuel trucks; and creates tax relief that could give recycling companies help in riding out the consequences of last fall's collapse of recycling markets.
Electronic products recovery also will be debated by Congress. A House committee has already approved a bill to establish a grant program for electronic device recycling programs. Legislation limiting the ability to export discarded electronics to overseas recyclers has also been introduced and is likely to move forward.
However, unless product manufacturers, retailers and the recycling community can agree on a way to pay for electronics recycling, Congress is unlikely to establish a funding mechanism. As of this writing, the funding logjam remains unbroken.
The previous Congress closed a loophole in federal law that prevented states and local governments from having regulatory control over waste transfer stations located at railyards. However, the Surface Transportation Board, which has regulatory authority over railroads, must still enact its own regulations for these facilities. The same public-private coalition that was effective in getting last year's legislation passed will be working to ensure that the new regulations realize the law's potential.
Finally, Congress will spend a great deal of time debating climate change. Recyclers will try to benefit from such legislation. The problem is that collecting and processing recyclables slightly increase greenhouse gas emissions. The key for recyclers is to find ways to reward industries that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions when recyclables are used as a raw material.
Landfill managers will be looking for opportunities to promote landfill gas recovery because those disposal facilities are the second biggest source of anthropogenic methane emissions. One key issue will be Congress' responsiveness in encouraging the use of landfill gas as a renewable energy source.
Electronics recycling legislation was big last year at the state level with eight states passing “producer responsibility” laws. A total of 16 states now have such laws. Look for many of these states to amend, and hopefully improve, their regulations. Several other states might also enact e-recycling legislation this year.
Producer responsibility laws aim to make electronics manufacturers responsible for recycling their products. Although the recycling cost is hidden in the purchase price, advocates claim this higher cost will force companies to find ways to lower the costs of recycling.
Only one state, California, has an “advance recycling fee” law that shows consumers the price they are paying to recycle electronics products. Interestingly, a study released this spring showed that when consumers saw the additional price they were paying to recycle a product, they became less likely to buy new products than when the cost of recycling was hidden.
State legislatures will be under pressure to help subsidize local recycling programs as they struggle with depressed recycling revenues. Those same legislatures will also be faced with the temptation to divert current recycling subsidies to other programs or to the state's general fund.
States will also be asked to ensure that procurement requirements for infrastructure stimulus money do not discriminate against recycled content products. Metal and plastic products, in particular, can use recycled content. Scrap tires and mixed glass can be used in a variety of infrastructure applications.
Bottle bills will again be debated at the state level, although the most interest will be shown in states with existing container deposit laws. New York state is poised to follow Connecticut's lead in expanding its deposit law to cover water bottles and seize the escheat. The latter provides an easy new revenue source for state budgets. Recyclers will have to work to get their share of that money.
States will also be in the thick of the climate change debate. California is in the middle of implementing AB 32, the first such state law in the nation. New rules will affect landfills, recycling and compost programs. Many other states either have task forces in place to develop state climate change strategies or are likely to establish these task forces this year.
The biggest action for recycling and solid waste will come at the local government level. As these governments struggle with budget deficits, they will be looking carefully at the costs of all their solid waste programs, with recycling and composting likely to get the most attention. Columbus, Ohio, for instance, recently stopped collecting yard waste at the curbside as a money-saving move. The city is considering a $99 per year subscription charge for yard waste collection and may also charge residents for collecting garbage and recyclables instead of paying for those services out of the general fund. Toledo, Ohio, which is struggling with a $27 million budget deficit and had to lay off 75 policemen, may discontinue its curbside recycling program.
Many communities will try to use energy efficiency grants from the stimulus package to help pay for recycling programs. However, other projects will also be competing for those funds. Recycling programs will get a share, but it will probably be a small share.
Bans or taxes on plastic bags will also be a popular item at the local level. Seattle's City Council imposed a 20-cent fee on plastic bags. In response, the bag industry forced a citywide referendum on the fee. Voters will decide its fate in August. Washington, D.C., is the site of another hard fought battle over plastic bags, with proponents arguing the bags are a key source of litter and waterway pollution, and plastic bag supporters arguing that a tax will hit poor people the hardest.
Chaz Miller is the state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations.