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EPA Shows How America will Recycle with National Recycling Strategy

Peter Cade/Getty Images recycling

"We need a transformative vision for our waste management system – one that is inclusive, more equitable, and reflects the urgency of the climate crisis," writes Michael S. Regan administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the agency's National Recycling Strategy.

The document was released on November 15 on America Recycles Day following months of anticipation about how the Biden administration plans to bolster the nation's municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling system.

In the Executive Summary, the EPA acknowledges the "number of challenges" facing America's current infrastructure, specifically referencing the "confusion about what materials can be recycled, recycling infrastructure that has not kept pace with today’s diverse and changing waste stream, reduced markets for recycled materials and varying methodologies to measure recycling system performance."

The National Recycling Strategy builds on the 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System and is step forward to achieving a circular economy for the United States.

"Advancing MSW recycling alone will not achieve a circular economy for the United States; recycling is only one action in the toolkit. Work is necessary to broadly encompass areas not addressed here, including product redesign, source reduction and reuse," states the Executive Summary.

Also referenced is the processing of materials such as electronics, textiles and food waste and future strategies that will address them specifically to achieve a more sustainable waste management system in the country. The document states that EPA and other federal agencies have been addressing methods to embrace circularity since 2009 including reducing life-cycle impacts of materials, including climate impacts; reducing the use of harmful materials; and decoupling materials use from economic growth.

“This National Recycling Strategy incorporates all the components required for a successful recycling ecosystem, championing initiatives that ISRI has implemented for many years,” said Robin Wiener, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) president, in a statement.  “It notes that recycling is a part – or one of the tools – of a successful material management infrastructure, and it prioritizes both market demand for recycled commodities and the critical importance of designing products for recyclability. ISRI celebrates the direction of the EPA’s Strategy and looks forward to working with the agency.”

National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) President and CEO Darrell Smith said, “We believe the EPA has identified the right objectives to support making recycling resilient and strong. NWRA supports policies that strengthen recycling markets and reduce contamination. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with the EPA on these issues.”

David Biderman, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) executive director and CEO, said that "SWANA is very pleased that EPA has broadened the draft National Recycling Strategy to encompass Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and other topics,” stated David Biderman, SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO. “We look forward to working closely with EPA and other stakeholders to educate Americans about the strategy and helping to implement it.”

The EPA stated that the new strategy runs parallel with the previously-announced National Recycling Goal to achieve a 50 percent recycling nationwide recycling rate by 2030. The rate has hovered in the mid-30 percent range since the 1990s and was last measured at 35% in 2019.

Regan alluded to some of the issues plaguing the current system, saying, "Some [Americans] are confused about what materials can be recycled. In many areas of the country, our recycling infrastructure is antiquated. Markets for recyclables vary greatly, and we have no standardized way to measure system performance. Living near recycling facilities also takes a toll on already overburdened communities when materials are not properly managed. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by higher pollution levels, which result in adverse health and overall quality of life impacts. And, to top it off, according to eminent scientists on the International Resource Panel, natural resource extraction and processing make up half of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive the climate crisis."

A focus on five key objectives will assist the EPA and its stakeholders with building a more resilent system and achieving the National Recycling Goal.

1. Improve markets for recycled commodities

A robust recycling market has been a core element of the EPA's recycling initiatives in the past. The agency plans to analyze end markets based on resilience, environmental benefits and "other relevant factors" for decision makers. Bolstering the market for recyclables includes increasing manufacturing use of recycled feedstocks in domestic manufacturing, increased demand through policy and supporting the development of tech and products to expand opportunities. The agency also alludes to the possible ratification of the Basel Convention to "encourage environmentally sound management of scrap and recyclables traded with other countries."

2. Increase collection and improve materials management infrastructure

The next objective involves reinforcing the available recourses that are available through generating awareness of current public and private funding. The EPA plans to fund additional research and development of recycling process and technologies. In addition, new avenues in the avenue of product design and recoverability will create a more sustainable system. Finally, the agency will work to optimize processing at MRFs and increase collection.

3. Reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream

Contamination in a single-stream system continues to be a deterrent to improving America's recycling rate. The EPA alludes to enhancements in education and outreach to the public about proper recycling as well as improving the availability of resources for education and outreach.

4. Enhance policies and programs to support circularity

In order to increase circularity, the National Recycling Strategy will aim to increase the "coordination, availability and accessibility" of the information currently available on policies at local, state, tribal and federal levels. The EPA plans to conduct a study on product pricing with an emphasis on the environmental and social costs. The strategy contains calls to increase awareness of voluntary public-private partnerships as well as sharing best practices via a free, publicly-accessible online clearinghouse and the coordination of domestic and international interests.

5. Standardize measurement and increase data collection

The standardization of America's recycling system will provide consistency with any definitions, measures, targets and performance indicators. The document states that the EPA will create a tracking and reporting plan, identify recycled content measures, coordinate both domestic and international measurements efforts and improve data availability and transparency about recyclable materials generated and the materials manufacturers need.

The next steps to putting the National Recycling Strategy in place involves the collaboration with various stakeholders about how to achieve these goals and successfully implement the National Recycling Strategy.

"EPA will ensure communities have a seat at the table and are involved in both developing the implementation plan and executing the actions in this strategy," the agency states. "EPA is also committing to develop a new goal to reduce the climate impacts from materials use and consumption, which will complement existing national goals on recycling and the reduction of food loss and waste. EPA plans to collaborate across all levels of government, including tribal nations, and with public and private stakeholders to achieve these ambitious goals."

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