I was grabbing coffee at an international zero waste conference a few years ago when three guys from Italy cornered me, eager to talk with an American about our recycling system. They had one big unanswered question: “What is going on with single-stream recycling? What were you thinking?” Like most of Europe, their community programs were source separating materials into 3-5 streams on average and they rattled off all the reasons why they thought this was better than single-stream. I did my best to talk about the convenience of single-stream recycling and how it seemed the best fit for the American culture, but to be honest, none of us felt satisfied with the answers at the end of the conversation.
EPR IN THE EU DOESN’T MANAGE SINGLE-STREAM RECYCLING
Europe has a long history of collecting source-separated recyclables, and they also have several decades of experience with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies for packaging. As several states are currently vying to pass the first U.S. EPR policy for packaging, there has been a lot of talk about how to best transfer the successes of the EU EPR programs over to our side of the pond. However, one really big thing that we don’t talk about enough is that none of the EU EPR models is based on single-stream recycling. In fact, single-stream recycling is largely non-existent outside of the U.S.
EPR for packaging is primarily a funding mechanism to support the recycling system, so some may think it doesn’t really matter if it’s single-stream, dual-stream, or multiple streams of recycling. At face value, this is probably true. However, when we pair EPR with minimum recycled content policies and start to build toward a circular economy, then the future of single-stream becomes pretty murky.
In a circular economy, the main goal of recycling is to capture valuable materials from the waste stream as the primary inputs for making new products, ideally eliminating or significantly reducing the use of virgin natural resources. Recycling is not about avoiding disposal — it is the primary way that manufacturers source their raw materials for production. When creating high value feedstock becomes the goal, then single-stream recycling certainly is not your first choice because of the increased contamination, high sorting costs and lower material quality. For example, even top-notch sorting equipment at some of the cleanest MRFs cannot compete with the quality of the clean bales of PET bottles from deposit return programs. Given this shift to focus on material quality and recycling as part of the supply chain, one could definitely imagine a future where we return to more source separation under EPR programs.
WHAT WILL RECYCLING LOOK LIKE IN 2030?
My point is not so much to ruminate on the future of single-stream as it is to step back and think about how EPR and other factors could dramatically change our recycling system and how to design good policies given those unknowns. Here are three other ways that a stronger focus on material quality and highest and best use of materials under a circular economy could alter recycling as we know it:
- Deposit return systems (DRS), or bottle bills, are the best policy tool to achieve ambitious capture rates on beverage containers. Creating a separate collection system for containers will significantly alter recycling collection and MRF operations in the 40 states that don’t currently have these policies.
- Replacing cardboard boxes with reusable shipping containers and packaging models would be a strong move toward a more circular economy but would also fundamentally change MRF economics. Without the “Amazon effect,” it is questionable how many MRFs would have survived the repercussions of National Sword. Will recyclers stand behind reuse as the preferred approach to manage resources if it means losing the revenue from cardboard?
- More reuse/refill models could mean a reduction in overall packaging. MRFs rely on increased tons to boost revenues so again we see a potential clash between current MRF operations and highest and best use of materials.
FLEXIBILITY MOVING FORWARD WITH EPR AND OTHER CHANGES
Put all these changes together — EPR, circular economy policies, and evolving packaging trends—and the MRF of the future looks like an entirely different operation. From a planning and operational perspective, that can really seem like scary stuff: How do you make 10-year capital improvement plans or calculate the ROI on optical sorting equipment while blindly predicting the future of packaging and recycling policy?
Big policy changes like EPR for packaging need to recognize that these are real operational challenges facing haulers and MRFs in evolving to the system of tomorrow. Effective policies need to help the current recycling system to adapt by creating a transition plan and dedicated funding to help operators make new investments or recoup stranded assets when appropriate. Effective policies will need to focus on outcome-driven goals without being overly prescriptive about how to meet these standards given the unknowns about what the material stream and policy landscape will look like by 2030.
However daunting they may sometimes seem, we cannot let logistical challenges overshadow the importance and significance of the sweeping policy changes being proposed today in U.S. recycling. While we may not know what the journey to 2030 looks like, we do know where we are going: We are building a more equitable, harmonized and financially sustainable recycling system that provide companies with high quality recycled feedstocks and is the backbone of our emerging circular economy. One reason I enjoy working in recycling is that there is never a shortage of interesting challenges to solve, and as we near the launch of the first US state policy for EPR for packaging, we are going to need this optimism to creatively problem solve and adapt to evolve into the better recycling system of tomorrow.
Kate Bailey is the Policy & Research Director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest recycling organizations in the U.S., and a founding member of the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers (AMBR).