October 24, 2019
Some will argue that the birthday of recycling is Earth Day, but in reality, recycling has always been happening to some level, especially since World War II, so it’s hard to pin it to a specific start day. Not a big deal, really, except without a birthday, there is no cake, and without the cake, there is no chance to make a wish, and this happens to be one of those years when we could really use that magical wish.
While China’s National Sword policy has caused a series of near-disaster circumstances for all of us in the recycling industry, it has also brought with it what could be a significant and long-term silver lining. Thanks to the resulting unprecedented media attention on recycling, we have equally unprecedented attention from policy makers at every level. They are asking what we need to do to fix recycling, including what policy changes need to be made. This has created a pivotal point in recycling’s history—an opportunity to come together to turn our wishful thinking into a productive big ask that fixes the underlying challenges that have plagued recycling long before China’s policies rocked the boat.
First, let’s address why policy is needed. In a nutshell, we use public policy to address market failures, when the natural activities in the free market undermine overall social welfare. In reality, the free market has always been stacked against recycling, and that’s only increasingly clear these days with record low prices. Without intervention, the free market does not optimize recycling, or more importantly, waste reduction or reuse, and it will not drive us toward a circular economy on its own. This isn’t a concession that recycling doesn’t work; it’s a concession that the free market isn’t fair and balanced because of current subsidies on resource extraction and the lack of accounting for environmental and social externalities.
Next, let’s talk about the scope of our policy wish. The Los Angeles Times recently penned a provocative op-ed to the California legislature asking them to think bigger on plastics reduction policies. The article was in response to recent legislation that banned small single-use plastics at hotels. The Times basically asked, "is that the best you can do?" It's time to go big, because there is no going back to a home that doesn't have plastics in our oceans, in the food we eat and in the water we drink.
So, here we are, with the power to make a big wish and have a good chance of success, only we have never spent time as an industry in outlining this ask, and as a consortium of stakeholders, we are often hard-pressed to all agree. But times have changed, and out of this recycling crisis has come a massive opportunity to right the ship. Here are a few big ideas for our big ask. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Maybe it's some or all of them, and maybe some are missing. I’ve been asking experts around the country and here's what I’ve heard. I'd love to hear from you, too.
Remove All Subsidies on Virgin Material Extraction
If we start from the position that recycling doesn’t function correctly because economics are broken, then the logical answer is to fix the economics. This could mean two things. First, remove the subsidies to virgin production that make it cheaper to produce virgin materials so recycled feedstocks can compete in a fair game. Second, put a tax on the harms caused by virgin extraction, like a carbon tax (see next). These harms are well-known in economics as externalities, and it's long overdue that we include them in the product costs. Together, these economic corrections move us toward a system of full cost accounting, where we make more informed decisions based on actual impacts. Provided we can do the accounting fairly, products with the lowest overall impacts would be cheaper, so it would be easier for consumers to make sustainable purchasing decisions.
If we have only 11 years to dramatically curb carbon emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then this should be on the top of the list. It’s been promoted by leading world economists as one of the best and most needed solutions to reduce emissions. It would base recycling and materials decisions on their carbon impact, not just on the diversion rate, so it would drive more environmental benefits. It also would strongly encourage waste reduction and reuse, since these activities keep materials in use and store the embodied carbon, and it would stimulate more composting as a tremendous solution to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
EPR legislation has exploded in the U.S. in recent years with 118 policies across 33 states. While progress so far has focused on products like paint and electronics, there is ballooning interest in EPR policies on packaging and how to translate the systems in the Europen Union and Canada to the U.S. market. Studies are underway in Maine, Oregon and Washington, and it's safe to say many states are waiting in the wings to follow suit.
This push for EPR closely aligns with a national trend of cities actively pushing back against big business for transferring the costs of their products onto local communities. We see lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for the opioid crisis and against fossil fuel companies for the climate crisis. Cities don’t have the funds to continue underwriting recycling programs, and they shouldn’t be the ones to foot the bill. EPR is the best proven strategy to shift the costs away from cities and general taxpayers and onto the direct producers and consumers. It’s not perfect—there are issues to resolve around which models work best, how to truly drive product redesign or waste reduction, how to maintain the integrity of local recycling operations, the role of waste-to-energy, etc.—but it’s time we agree to move forward and start tackling those issues in reality rather than just debating them in the abstract.
Minimum Content Standards
Brands are almost tripping over themselves to make promises to buy more recycled materials, a response to seeing their products littering our beaches and waterways. By increasing or requiring more recycled content in products and packaging, we ensure there is a market to sell recycled materials and directly stimulate more domestic reprocessing in the U.S. Stronger demand for recycled materials is a key solution for improving the economics of recycling, yet we need to ensure those goals are met, as we have heard those promises before and they have fallen far short. And, with news that virgin polyethylene terephthalate plastics are now cheaper than recycled plastic feedstocks, we are again facing an economic barrier to improving recycling that may undermine some of the promises we’re hearing. While some states have adopted minimum content standards in the past, there are lots of questions about implementation. California recently vetoed a bill to increase recycled content in plastics, citing administrative burdens. This suggests national policy may be the best option for this policy rather than creating cumbersome, overlapping systems in each state.
National Bottle Bill
The bottle bill may be the singularly most effective policy to increase recycling rates for beverage containers, yet it also holds the title as one of the most divisive policy issues. But bold times call for bold measures, and bottle bills are having a resurgence around the world with systems underway in Scotland, Australia, India, Romania and elsewhere. There’s talk of a U.S. bottle bill for glass containers as a possible starting point or going for the whole shebang to cover all beverage containers, while also revitalizing and creating incentives for reuse and refill systems. While this policy only covers some packaging types, it is an effective tool in conjunction with other policy levers that address the economics of the larger recycling system and all packaging types.
Leading investment firms are warning about the risks of investing in plastics given the current backlash and are also promoting the opportunities to invest in alternative solutions. This demonstrates that the market is responding to social and environmental pressures, at least in a small way, but countries are still looking to drive change faster. The U.K. is developing a plan to tax all single-use plastics that contain less than 30 percent recycled content, and a voluntary tax on plastics made without recycled content has been proposed in Australia.
Both solutions aim to create economic incentives for more sustainable packaging, encourage greater use of recycled plastic and help reduce plastic waste. While they only address part of the waste stream, it’s a welcome idea to use market forces to address one of the largest problems and could be complementary to several other solutions above.
This is our “chopportuntity,” the chance to shift our mindset from challenge to opportunity. None of these solutions are going to materialize overnight, so while no single one may be perfect, it’s time we set aside our fears about the details and get moving on a transition. Birthday wishes only come once a year, so let’s make the most of ours so we’re in a better place this time next year.
Kate Bailey is the policy and research director for Eco-Cycle and helps citizens, government staff and elected officials implement zero waste solutions.