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My 2021 Vision (Commentary)

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In late January of 2020, I spoke about recycling markets at the Connecticut Recycling Conference. I did okay on my market predictions. Well, actually, I did well until mid-March when the pandemic hit. For some strange reason, I did not foresee COVID-19.

Predicting what will happen in 2021 is challenging because we simply don’t know how the pandemic will play out. Will the vaccines work and create herd immunity? Will the economy bounce back? Will workers return to offices or continue to work from home? I’m old enough to know how I want the future to play out and smart enough to know none of us really knows what the next 12 months will be like.

Nonetheless, I have some thoughts about what to expect in 2021. I’m going to focus on the legislation and policy front. Pandemic or not, Congress and all 50 state legislatures will be in session this year. They are about to embark and on a totally new reality. This is particularly true of state legislatures. Normally, they meet in person at the state capitol, hold hearings with all the speakers in the same room, and are available in person to other members, constituents and lobbyists from both industry and advocacy groups. In 2021, virtual meetings will be the norm.

Legislators are keenly aware that this limited access lessens their ability to fully understand issues and avoid drafting problems. As a result, they are likely to focus on the priorities they must address including budgets, pandemic-related problems and congressional redistricting. Environmental issues will be a second-level priority. As for solid waste, it is not a pressing problem in most states, nor is recycling. 

Some solid waste and recycling issues, however, could be debated and voted on this year. PFAS in landfills is a growing state and federal issue. Environmental justice concerns related to both disposal and recycling facilities will be raised in some states. Bans on plastic products including bags and single-use plastics will pass in several states.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation for packaging and paper products is getting the most attention in the trade press. Bills are likely to be introduced in at least eight states. It is worth noting that all are on the west coast or in the northeast.  

EPR legislation is very complex. I’ve seen draft bills that are more than 70 pages long and that raise more questions than they answer. The complexity is caused in part because states vary widely in how they manage solid waste and recycling. The mix of public and private collection and processing of recyclables, along with franchises in some states and subscription services in suburban and rural areas further muddy the waters. 

In addition, EPR sets up a statewide monopoly over residential recycling. We don’t have experience with that in this country. If an EPR bill for residential recycling is enacted in 2021, that is most likely to occur in a state with a legislature that stays in session throughout the year, or that has extensively studied the issue.

On the Federal level, legislation will be introduced into Congress. But any bills without significant bipartisan support will go nowhere. The two Save Our Seas bills, the only recycling bills passed in the last two Congresses, had that kind of support. It’s too early to determine if any proposed legislation will meet that test.

As for markets, who knows? January prices for old corrugated containers and mixed paper continued to rise as did those for most of the plastics collected at the curbside. The increased capacity to use recycled content at North America is quickly replacing some of the lost Chinese markets. But most of the new capacity has yet to start operating. The same is true for recycled plastics. If the vaccines are successful and if enough Americans take them to create herd immunity, I suspect the economy will do well and recycling programs will benefit from better markets. 

Beyond that, I am reluctant to speculate. If you are curious about my 2020 predictions take a  look. I got some right, but I made the same mistake I made in Connecticut.

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