Recycling has never been a hot topic on Capitol Hill. RCRA, also known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, is the federal solid waste law. It barely mentions recycling and says little about resource conservation. Instead, RCRA emphasizes that solid waste is primarily a state and local responsibility.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is directed to regulate hazardous wastes, to develop guidelines for solid waste disposal and to work with the states on their solid waste plans. The Department of Commerce is assigned some recycling market responsibilities.
After the passage of RCRA, Congress pretty much lost interest in solid waste. Love Canal and other instances of serious pollution caused by improper disposal of hazardous waste led to the Superfund law. EPA was under substantial pressure to implement that law and to regulate hazardous wastes both quickly and effectively. In 1981, the newly elected Reagan administration continued to work on Superfund and hazardous waste issues. But that administration also made it clear that solid waste and recycling were state, not federal, responsibilities. EPA activities in both areas were essentially eliminated.
Little was done on either until the voyage of the Garbage Barge in 1987. The sight of 3,000 tons of Long Island, N.Y.’s finest trash floating aimlessly down the East Coast launched a media sensation. Garbage was on the front page, and Americans started asking themselves why we weren’t recycling more. EPA suddenly rediscovered recycling.
So did Congress. Legislation to enact a national beverage container deposit law garnered dozens of cosponsors on both sides of the aisle. The bills didn’t make it out of committee. House and Senate committees held hearings on how to improve recycling. In 1994, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill creating a “multi-options packaging strategy” that was intended to increase package recycling and recyclability. The bill, however, was not voted on by the full committee.
Since then, Congress did essentially nothing on recycling. History repeated itself when the Trump administration attempted to defund EPA’s solid waste and recycling activities. As had happened 36 years previously, the administration argued that waste and recycling were state and local issues. Federal involvement was unnecessary. However, the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by a New Jersey Republican, was not interested in zeroing out these activities. The money remained in the budget, but the question remained, would EPA do anything significant in recycling?
Then, on America Recycles Day last November, EPA’s administrator hosted a recycling “summit.” Along with 44 groups, the agency signed a pledge to do better. The administrator apparently decided that recycling is more than a state function. A follow-up meeting will be held this year on America Recycles Day to present ideas on how to improve recycling, including education, infrastructure, markets and measurement.
In addition, two recycling bills have been introduced and two are on their way. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, with sponsors from both the Senate and the House and from both parties, directs EPA to develop a national strategy on recycling. This bill is a follow-up to last year’s Save Our Seas Act, which extended the Marine Debris Act by five years. Another bill, the Zero Waste Act (Omar, D-Minnesota), would authorize federal grants to local government recycling and waste reduction programs.
In addition, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-California) are preparing legislation to do something about “the plastic waste crisis.” Their outline includes a national bottle deposit, bans on certain plastics, producer responsibility for products and packaging and a fee on carryout bags. The bill has not been introduced.
Recycling advocates are also working hard to getting money to rebuild the recycling infrastructure as part of an infrastructure bill. Strategies are nice. Money is better.
Finally, 45 members of Congress sent a letter to the secretary of commerce reminding him of the recycling market responsibilities assigned to his department by RCRA. They asked, essentially, what, if anything, commerce was doing about them.
Filing bills in Congress and sending letters to cabinet officials asking if they are doing their job does not guarantee anything will happen. The EPA administrator’s embrace of recycling is more indicative of a political appointee trying to look pro-environment on at least one issue. The Save Our Seas 2.0 bill has support from members of the committees necessary to ensure that the legislation moves forward. It may have the best chance of success. Neither of the other two have this depth of support. Whether or not recycling is in an infrastructure bill that passes Congress and is signed into law remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, all of this Hill and EPA activity shows that politicians are listening. They know their constituents are worried about the state of recycling in America and want Congress to take action, whatever that may be. They know that they look good responding to their constituents. They are willing to make recycling something they spend time on. Who knows, maybe this time something significant could happen on the Hill.
Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.