How the Waste Industry Can Accelerate Recycling to Meet the EPA's National Recycling Goal

Stefanie Valentic, Editorial Director

January 28, 2021

13 Min Read
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The second day of virtual WASTECON closed with a keynote session about the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) strategy to increase the nation's recycling rate.

Tim Flanagan, SWANA board vice president and Monterey Regional Waste Management District general manager, led a team of panelists during the panel discussion titled, "How to Successfully Achieve EPA’s New 50% Recycling Goal."

"The work continues through a network of stakeholders including SWANA to build a sustainable framework to get to this goal by 2030," Flanagan said. "The EPA's latest facts show that recycling and composting rate is presently around 32% down from 35%  three years ago. There are slightly more materials recycled in 2018. Generation outpaced it. It's clear that there are challenges to get to 50%."

The EPA's three-tiered method to boost the nation's recycling rate includes targeting a reduction in contamination, increasing processing efficiency and strengthening domestic markets. The following panelists provided insight:

  • Bridget Anderson, Deputy Commissioner of Recycling and Sustainability, NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY)

  • Scott Mouw, Senior Director of Technical Assistance, The Recycling Partnership

  • Brent Bell - Vice President of Recycling, Waste Management

  • Zoe Heller, Deputy Director Policy Development, CalRecycle

Here are highlights from the session:

On what the 50% goal means....

Bridget Anderson:  I think our goal is that we divert 50% of our waste. The EPA measures the recycling rate based on diversion from disposal, but as we're discussing and thinking about it, 50% is also about capturing the recyclables that are in the waste stream. We do an okay job now of capturing recyclables in the recycling trucks and getting them to MRF and processed, but there's a lot of good material that's still going to landfills. Part of this is capturing more, which helps us get to 50%. But I think from EPA's perspective, it's ultimately that 50% diversion.

Zoe Heller: From a measurement perspective, I think that's the easiest way for us to be able to measure especially if we're thinking about nationwide. I think it's very important that we have consistency and what sort of measurement methodology that we're using, whether it's state reporting, whether it's industry reporting, but to ensure that 50% means the same thing for submitting data so we can get a better picture of what's really happening nationwide. When we talk about 50% recycling, I think diversity is important. But ultimately, we really want to ensure that those materials are getting recycled, they're getting into new products, and that's really hard to measure. But it's critically important because right now, there's a great variety nationwide as to what goes in recycling bins, and then what actually happens to that material. And measurement in California - we measure all recyclables that we export, as recycled. As we know, these past several years with different international policies and now with the Basel Convention amendments on mixed plastics, there's a lot of questions as to what actually happens to those materials. So  thinking more broadly, not only diversion, but how can we get to that next step and ensuring that those materials are turned into new packaging, products or other higher and better uses?

Brent Bell: I think you could have the debate on you should you measure on what can be recycled, and what that percentage looks like. But ultimately, I think the important point is there are so many valuable materials that are getting put into the landfill today that we can extract value out of it if they were diverted and recycled. We did a study probably about 10 years ago, this is when values were a little bit different. Just the Waste management landfills, we had about $12 billion of value that was going into landfills that could have been recycled. At that time, 10 years ago, Waste Management's higher revenues, were only $12 billion. Essentially we're saying, hey, you could double the company if you could extract the valuable materials out of the landfills that are going in there. We should probably refresh that and look at that and see what that's worth today. But there are tens of billions of dollars of valuable material that's getting landfilled that could and should be recycled today.

Scott Mouw: In terms of what's being measured - so it's 50% of what you know -  that's the question that has to be at the very beginning of this. We kind of already know that die is cast and respect that this is an EPA goal. So, EPA is going to benchmark against its facts and figures report. The good parts of that facts and figures report is we know the limitations of it doesn't really give us line of sight on that some of the things that Zoe was talking about - the true fate of materials - and doesn't give us a sense of really, in a granular sense, the sources of generation. But that's really gonna matter. We're gonna really need to know. You look at that report and look at all different materials in there. They all have different infrastructure, different programs, different financing, different pathways to recovery. Those details are really gonna matter. So, if the EPA or any of us are serious about the 50% goal, we really have to get into those details, then work on connecting those details to the nuances of materials and the specific strategies and actions. I think measuring for measuring sake is only going to get us so far. It really has to connect with the strategy and tactics that get us there. And details will really matter when it comes to certain materials - furniture and furnishings versus electronics versus food versus traditional recyclables - all on a different path. They're all gonna have to carry some of the weight, no pun intended. But twe have to connect the pieces there to really make sense of what that goal means.

On how to get to the 50% rate...

Heller: We're seeing some significant shifts right now in recycling streams, given the pandemic.  We're seeing a shift in California from commercial to residential, so a lot more volume at the residential level, which just inherently includes more contamination, just because of the behavior and what we generate in the household. So, it brings us to the challenge that as we start addressing contamination more aggressively, we're looking at potentially less material that we're actually going to count as diverted. And what that says to me is that there's a need to really look more upstream and to align the materials that we are generating better with our systems to process those. There's complexity in packaging and products right now that does not keep up with the technology to be able to process that material. So, in thinking about product design, how can we align better with what we're generating with that infrastructure so that we're not creating so many things that are contaminated in the stream then pairing that with better education and outreach to ensure that consumers aren't confused by what it is that they need to do to increase the recyclability of the products that they're generating.

Bell: The first thing you do when you look at the EPA report is what is generated in the MSW stream that just is not acceptable and recycling programs and how do we work with those manufacturers to one make sure their using recycled content iand two is that they're using packaging and products that are recycling friendly. That's going to make a world of difference. I'll use a quick example. We have a Waste Management Phoenix Open, which is happening next week. And it's known to be the largest zero waste event in terms of 100,000 spectators a day go there. People often ask us, how do we get to zero waste here. It's real simple - you control what comes in, right? And that's essentially what the EPA and MSW stream looks like. Control what gets in, make sure everything that comes in can either be recycled through organics or through traditional recycling. And if manufacturers or vendors are using materials that cannot be easily recycled, they're acid, they're rejected and said, "hey, go back and find something else that you can bring into this facility." So that's going to be a big opportunity to work with those brains make sure that they're using recycling-friendly materials. I think the next piece, which is kind of obvious, if you look at the stats is you have to dive deeper into the organics piece of it, that's clearly where there's a big opportunity.

Mouw: To pick up on that, I think that's exactly right. If you read the actual facts and figures report and you see the balance of the numbers, it really just jumps out at you. And again, it speaks to this idea that 50% won't apply to all materials. So, it's going to have to be applied in a very nuanced and specific way. And, pushing you to those materials toward higher levels of recovery over time. We see that big food waste number, and I think food waste has gone from like 13% to 22% of that generated stream. Now, EPA changes methodology this year, so it's counting more food waste in the denominator, but that just underscores how food waste has a huge role to play. But think about how much development work, how much work has to be done around programs and financing and infrastructure to get organics to the level of where PET is or even corrugated cardboard. While that's happening and while we look at other streams that are going to be consequential, the durables stream - in particular durables are a huge part of the denominator - have a complicated path. They have to be addressed. And they have to be addressed within their nuances. But while we do that, then we have to look back at these traditional materials that will probably be the ones that have to lead us toward the 50% goal. We did our standard curbside report last year. Ironically, we came up with the same number that curbside recycling is only capturing about 32%. And specifically capturing, minus contamination, capturing 32% of the household recyclables. So, we know there's a lot of infrastructure in place, we know that material in particular could really lead the way toward 50%. Then while we're also then paying attention to the nuances of other materials, we can push those along as wel

On the first steps to 50% diversion...

Anderson: One thing that comes to mind for me is an alignment of knowledge and understanding of what's happening on the ground. So, we make some assumptions that, for example, in New York City, our highest capture rate is for cardboard. It's a very practical thing. Cardboard is too big to slip into a garbage pail or two. So, it ends up being bundled at the curb. It's clearly separated. It's easy to identify, pick up in the right truck, etc.  And there's value in there. So, we have assumptions about where capture rates are really high, and we're doing a pretty good job in areas where we need to do a lot of improvement. Sadly, aluminum cans are less than 50% - that was one of the original iconic recyclables right? It will be very interesting to understand the patterns that we're seeing about capture rates being consistent across the industry, both municipal programs, private sector haulers just to see is there a broader effort that could be managed, or are we really kind of doing it by municipality and county by county. If there are broader patterns that we can capture and leverage, that'll hopefully make our efforts more aligned and coordinated.

Mouw: I think that again it goes to the nuance of some of the materials. As we've looked at capture studies around the country, corrugated cardboard is recycled at high levels. This really is apparent that citizens understand according to their recycling, unlike for some reason, they don't understand aluminum can recycling. We definitely see those 50% capture rates. So, again, that nuance is going to matter. From the starting partnerships perspective, on the residential stream is the leading part of how we get to 50%. We're focused on access to recycling as a key issue. We know 6%, according to SPC a study years ago, we know that about 15 million multifamily households don't have access on property to recycling. We know that there are like 17 million households that have access to subscription recycling that don't take that service up. So, we have an enormous amount of access to build first in residential areas, and then while we do that, of course we work on contamination, participation and actual recycling behavior.

I think we're seeing some real progress there. The paper industry just in the past three years has spent I think $4 billion, maybe a little bit more on developing domestic paper mills. There are about 20 or 25 that have opened or in the process of opening in that clinic. We kind of see that now in corrugated and mixed paper prices stabilizing. We're definitely gonna see this demand for recycled plastics driven by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation goals, other things really drive that domestic market. The Recycling Partnership started with the polypropylene coalition this past year. We've already had, 27 MRFs apply for grant funding to have polypropylene processing capacity in their MRF and to be able to tap into the markets that are developing domestically. We haven't finished the job yet, of course on domestic markets, but I think we are seeing some positive reaction to the Chinese national sword issue. And as we reach the 50% goal, obviously, we'll need more demand. But some of it is developing. And that's been positive.

Heller: There's a lot that we can continue to work with each other. And there's a lot of regionalization that can happen, particularly as we're interested in, investing in developed domestic markets for a number of materials, ensuring that that's happening, every time we have a conversation like this, all right back to our neighboring states, or even the states. We learn from each other as far as what's working, what isn't working, what we're saying, as far as the best return is for infrastructure development and those sorts of things. Keeping that dialogue. It's really easy to get siloed about what's happening in your state or your jurisdiction or your intersection of industry. 

Bell: If you just do the math, there could be 50 million new tons, somewhere around that ballpark, that gets introduced into the marketplace. And so, how do we make sure there are sustainable homes for those new volumes that we can put into whether it's a paper mill or organic type of facility, making sure that they're there is really critical. If you look at the demand side, we push for minimum content requirements, which I think are great. You're seeing manufacturers do that and adapt to that today. Those of you may not follow high-density natural prices as much as I do, but for the first time in my career, high-density natural plastics has surpassed aluminum in terms of price per ton, which is just remarkable. And folks always ask, Well, how did that happen? And it's really driven by these manufacturers committing to using recycled content, and try and get their hands on as much natural high density as they can right now. Som I think you'll see as we go through this process on pushing more than to use recycled content, prices will be higher and inherently what that means is we can go back to municipalities and customers saying hey, we can't get enough of it. What can we do with education programs, or whatever it may be to drive more those types of volumes through the recycling facilities?


About the Author(s)

Stefanie Valentic

Editorial Director, Waste360

Stefanie Valentic is the editorial director of Waste360. She can be reached at [email protected].


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