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A Quick Look at EPA’s 2021 National Recycling Strategy

recycling

Reduce, reuse, recycle is a catchphrase that we all grew up with and may suffer from a form of semantic satiation – that is, losing its meaning through overuse. But when presented as a strategy to fight climate change and reduce ocean plastics - as a cog in the machinery that will take redesigned sustainable packaging and use it as input for make new products, thus closing the circle - it becomes topical and trendy.

Even better, recycling is like mom and apple pie, something everyone supports. And when recycling started struggling in 2018, everyone jumped in to work on solutions. Hence, last year EPA announced a new National Recycling Goal to increase the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030.

And this year, it was no surprise that on America Recycles Day, EPA released The National Recycling Strategy, Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All. The strategy focuses on the residential and commercial recycling system enumerating a number of strategic objectives designed to make recycling more resilient and cost-effective. EPA has thrown down the gauntlet and declared that it is time to transform the United States recycling system. But how?

EPA identifies five objectives in their recycling strategy: improving markets; increasing collection and improving materials management infrastructure; reducing contamination; enhancing policies and programs to support circularity; and standardizing measurement and increasing data collection.

Improving markets

EPA has identified several ways that they can improve markets such as connecting entities through market development workshops; analyzing opportunities for rural areas; analyzing various end markets for a variety of metrics including resilience and environmental impact; informing manufacturers of feedstock availability; and addressing barriers to recycling.

Ultimately, however, the markets rely on buyers and sellers to come together to agree on a fair exchange for materials. With recycling, sellers need buyers more than buyers need sellers because buyers have the option to resort to sellers of virgin materials. Therefore, improving markets for recyclables must be supported by demand. Just like EPA established a 50% recycling goal, a similar recycled content goal for products should be established. This balance of supply and demand is recognized by members of the U.S. Plastics Pact when they established as one of their four targets a 30% average recycled content goal by 2025. The recycled content goal recognizes that the circular economy needs cannot just push materials to end markets. End markets need to pull the materials through. EPA acknowledges the need for recycled content throughout the strategy as well as in the measurement and data section where they plan to create recycled content measures but has not yet done so.

Contamination

One way that EPA can take a true leadership role is in tackling contamination through standardized messaging. Massachusetts established its Recycle Smart MA that includes statewide information on what can and cannot be recycled. This assists their communities in reducing contamination by being able to point to a single resource for recycling rather than have each community present different information. Developing common recycling messages effectively will reduce confusion over larger geographic areas ensures that the public does not receive differing messages as they move between their home and work. Luckily, this is an integral part of EPA’s strategy. They specifically plan on developing common messages to ensure a more consistent stream.

Another way EPA can assist in reducing contamination is by identifying roadblocks to recycling and making recommendations for how to manage those materials. For example, plastic sleeves on cans and bottles can cause contamination. EPA could evaluate such products and recommend what should be done by manufacturers, consumers and recyclers to make it easier to recycle the cans and bottles. Even more importantly, EPA can bang the drum loudly and often on the dire repercussion of mishandling lithium batteries at MRFs. This contamination is an ongoing and increasing problem that requires coordinated effort to address.

Measurement & data

Increasing data collection and standardizing measurement is important to level set recycling. It allows comparisons across jurisdictions. But further, it provides communities with information on what materials can be targeted for recycling. Establishing a goal is one thing, achieving it is another. Without tracking data and utilizing it to improve recycling, EPA’s ambitious 50% recycling goal can too easily be missed.

To that end, as EPA analyzes data it receives, it can see trends based on historical data. It may be able to connect those trends to cultural shifts – such as the Amazon effect or the decrease in newspapers. Retrospectively this information is clear. Prospective analysis may be more challenging – but building a MRF to be able to handle tomorrow’s recycling requires some predictions on future packaging and market demands.

Tracking data also provides clarity on what types materials are increasingly generated such as clothing and footwear which has increased by nearly ten-fold since 1960 or food waste which has increased a little more than five-fold since 1960.

While these are some of the major priorities to move towards a fully circular economy, EPA recognizes that this strategy is just the beginning of what it will take. They note it in the subtitle: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All. While recycling is a large issue, as noted earlier, recycling is just a single cog in the greater machinery of the circular economy. A true circular economy acknowledges that effort needs to also be made to address the supply chain and all stakeholders rather than focusing only at the end of the pipe.

EPA will consider this in the future as they specifically note that they will develop strategies that go beyond recycling municipal solid waste by considering sustainable product design, waste reduction and reuse. They will also focus on specific materials including electronics, industrial wastes, concrete and food waste.

EPA also plans on developing a new goal to reduce climate impacts from material use and consumption that will complement the recycling goal. Ideally, that goal will consider life cycle impacts of various materials in order to promote responsible material use.

As EPA has noted, we are taking our first steps on moving forward on this national strategy. EPA has laid out an ambitious set of tasks that will require steadfast and coordinated efforts of all stakeholders.

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