The Natural Resources Council of Maine blog gives four ways to improve the worsening waste and recycling crisis.
Most people understand that reducing waste and recycling is an environmentally critical endeavor. The urgency to conserve our natural resources, save landfill space, and reduce harmful pollution that our consumer economy creates only increases as time goes on. The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) estimates that meeting Maine’s 50 percent recycling rate goal would provide the carbon equivalent of taking 166,000 cars off the road, which is 20 percent of the state’s passenger car fleet.
It is not effective enough to rely on fragmented taxpayer-funded recycling programs and voluntary corporate initiatives. The real, lasting changes that we need will not happen without government leadership. Individual actions matter, but the truth is that more federal, state, and local policies are essential if we are ever going to get out of this worsening recycling and waste crisis.
Here are four things that need to be done:
- Reduce reliance on single-use plastics and, to be honest, single-use everything. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Plastic pollution is of primary concern, with one garbage truck load of plastic dumped into our oceans every minute. But plastic pollution is only part of the reason why we need to replace single-use plastic bags, food containers, and other throw-away items with reusable alternatives. By taking materials like these out of production we prevent emissions and waste, while also removing common contaminants from our recycling streams.
- Require at least a minimum amount of post-consumer recycled content in products and packaging. Demand-side intervention is a powerful policy tool. This is particularly important for plastic given the low recycling rate, and comparatively low recycling processing capacity compared with virgin plastic production. Many large corporate brand-owners have publicly pledged to use more recycled materials in their products and packaging, but they should be held accountable with policy. If we level the playing field for these companies with a legal requirement, and thereby reduce market uncertainty, then we will see investments in recycling collection and processing infrastructure, as well as more support for policies that help guarantee a steady supply of quality recycled plastic, glass, paper, and metals that they will need.
- Adopt a proven policy solution — Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging. No other policy has the potential to address so many recycling problems in one fell swoop. When the producers are on the hook for paying for recycling costs instead of taxpayers, a whole lot can change for the better. This policy approach creates a financial incentive for manufacturers to reduce packaging, increase recyclability of packaging, use recycled materials, invest in more uniform collection and processing infrastructure, and educate consumers. Such a policy also ensures that a sustainable funding mechanism would be in place when markets inevitably dip, which protects our residential recycling programs because municipalities would no longer be forced to decide between raising taxes or cutting back on recycling. Five provinces in Canada, the entire European Union, and countries on every continent are already benefitting from this type of policy, some for as long as 30 years.
- Adopt more beverage container deposit laws, like Maine’s. Bottle bills are the gold standard of recycling programs because they work. The redemption system leads to a high rate of return of clean, sorted plastic, glass, and aluminum that fetch a high price because they can be more easily recycled into new products and packages. Forty percent of recycled cans come from the 10 U.S. states with beverage container deposit laws; and glass containers, which primarily are used for food and beverages, get 60 percent of their material from the bottle bill programs. We need to protect and expand Maine’s beverage container law and support adoption of laws across the country, or nationally.