February 15, 2012

3 Min Read
Circular File: Legislative Lethargy

For the second year in a row, state and federal legislators showed little interest in solid waste and recycling issues. When they did act, most of the bills they passed tinkered with existing laws. For the most part, this was due to the pressure to resolve higher priority budget and redistricting issues.

On the Hill, the biggest waste news was the decision to end the composting program in Capitol office buildings.

Officials cited high costs as their reason. Recyclers cheered, however, when the Senate unanimously passed a resolution endorsing recycling. Nonetheless, neither the House nor the Senate held hearings on legislation to restrict exports of used electronics for recycling.

At the state level, fewer waste and recycling bills were introduced in 2011 than in 2010, although more (a total of 265) were signed into law. No one issue dominated state legislative attention. Perhaps the highest profile issues were product stewardship, organics and bottle deposits.

In previous years, a rash of states passed product stewardship legislation. However in 2011, only two states, Connecticut and Vermont, subjected new products to stewardship requirements (paint and fluorescent lamps, respectively). Three states expanded their electronics recovery laws while Utah joined the 24 states with stewardship laws. Attempts by Maine’s governor to undo the state’s existing product stewardship laws were easily rebuffed. At the same time, legislation to extend product stewardship to packaging and printed materials went nowhere.

Organics recovery received a mixed reception at the state level. Several years ago, a number of advocacy groups declared a goal of no compostable organics in landfills in 2012. We’re not there yet. Nonetheless, Connecticut mandated food waste recovery for some large-scale generators and Massachusetts vigorously moved forward to increase its organics recovery infrastructure. Michigan and Missouri rebuffed attempts to lift bans on land disposal of yard waste while Georgia lifted its ban. The Peach State now requires that any landfilled yard waste be placed in a facility with an energy recovery system while outlawing the landfilling of yard waste in unlined landfills.

Only Oregon passed beverage deposit legislation, extending its existing deposit to water bottles and creating a new redemption center system that is intended to displace retail establishments for bottle returns. This new system could be a model for other states.

Other notable laws included California’s increase in its “diversion” goal to 75 percent. The Golden State also extended “mandatory” recycling to multi-family housing and businesses, requiring most of them to have recycling services. Those legislators did not say how they would force apartment renters to recycle, but at least renters lost the excuse that they don’t have anywhere to put their recyclables.

Privatization moved forward as Fresno, Toledo, Chicago and a host of smaller towns privatized part or all of their solid waste services. Alas, Dallas declared war on its businesses and residents by passing a flow control ordinance.

What is in store for 2012? Plastic bag bans and recycling programs will be hot items at the state and local level. Privatization will see increased emphasis as local governments look to lower their costs without sacrificing environmental protections. Product stewardship will see serious attempts to enact packaging and printed material laws in Rhode Island and perhaps Vermont.

As in 2011, recycling and solid waste will again be overshadowed by legislative redistricting and budget issues. Nobody said it’s easy legislating green, but it’s not impossible.

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