Investment, Policy Key to Improving Residential Recycling in the United States

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by | Jan 15, 2024

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Delving into the state of recycling in the United States in 2024, it becomes clear that the process stands at a pivotal moment. The landscape of residential recycling is rife with complexities, and the need for sweeping reform has never been more pressing.

The Recycling Partnership has released a new report on residential recycling, and illustrates how residential recycling and the process overall is marked by five prerequisites for its success. Those, according to the Recycling Partnership, are:

  • All packaging should be recyclable
  • All U.S. households need access to recycling; Households need to engage in recycling
  • Households need to engage in recycling
  • Recycling facilities should be able to process 95% of the recyclable material they receive into saleable commodities
  • End markets for recyclable material should be sufficient so that recycling facilities can sell their commodities

There’s a critical need for recyclable packaging, given that less than 50% of plastic packaging meets recyclability standards, emphasizing the importance of sustainable packaging designs. The universal access to recycling services also remains a challenge, as only 73% of U.S. households have access, leaving many communities underserved. Household engagement in recycling is low, with just 43% of households actively participating, highlighting the necessity for robust communication and outreach efforts.

Additionally, processing efficiency in recycling facilities currently stands at 87%, falling short of the desired 95%, and resilient end markets are essential, as most local governments bear the financial burden of processing recyclables due to inadequate demand. Prioritizing these prerequisites is the linchpin for establishing a thriving residential recycling system, according to the report.

The Promise of Extended Producer Responsibility Adoption

The adoption of extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies also holds the potential to revolutionize residential recycling.

These policies shift the responsibility to companies that produce materials, incentivizing them to create recyclable packaging. Currently adopted in California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon, EPR offers a range of benefits, including mitigating disparities in recycling services, driving local economic growth, aligning with supply chain demands and regulatory mandates, promoting recyclable packaging design by companies, and easing the financial burden on local governments in supporting recycling services.

While the momentum behind EPR is growing, its full impact is yet to be fully realized.

Proactive Regional Investment

As the commitment to sustainability grows within the private industry, companies are faced with the challenge of meeting these commitments by investing more in recycling systems than what is mandated by legislation.

Legislation alone cannot guarantee the necessary materials to fulfill these commitments, nor can it ensure the reliability of claims regarding packaging recyclability across all regions of the country. The existing community-financed collection infrastructure imposes tangible limitations on the availability of recyclable materials. While efforts such as setting recycled content goals, transitioning to post-consumer materials, and innovating recycling facilities are positive steps, without substantial investments in collection, companies may find themselves lacking the recyclable materials required to meet internal and regulatory targets.

The risks of neglecting such investments are not hypothetical.

Where should private industry direct its investments? Companies stand to benefit significantly by directing private funding toward bolstering recycling efforts in regions where substantial quantities of recyclable materials are currently being lost, representing a valuable supply source.

Private Industry Benefits

Private industry has strong motivations to invest in recycling, driven by three compelling factors.

Firstly, to meet customer expectations, companies must respond to the growing demand for sustainable packaging choices, as 84% of consumers now anticipate packages to be recyclable and composed of recycled materials. A significant 71% of consumers are even willing to actively support businesses that prioritize sustainability, underscoring the importance of addressing environmental concerns related to product packaging to secure customer loyalty. Secondly, many companies have made commitments to incorporate recycled content and ensure the recyclability of their packaging. Fulfilling these commitments necessitates a steady supply of recycled materials, a requirement that can only be fulfilled through the efficient operation of a residential recycling system. Lastly, private industry faces the imperative of regulatory compliance, with current and emerging recycled content regulations mandating corporate adherence.

Non-compliance with these regulations poses substantial business risks.

Given the increasing reliance of companies engaged in interstate commerce on recycling to function effectively across all states, irrespective of the presence of EPR policies, investment in regions where policy adoption may lag, particularly in areas where significant quantities of recyclable materials are discarded without recycling, can substantially contribute to bolstering material recovery rates.

Thus, aligning with public commitments, meeting consumer expectations, and fulfilling legal requirements constitute potent incentives for investing in the development of collection capacity, end-use processing, and manufacturing capabilities.

Striving for the Ideal Recycling System

In an ideal recycling system, every piece of packaging brought into homes would find a new life through reuse or recycling. However, the reality falls short, as not all packaging is designed for recyclability. Tools like the circular packaging assessment tool and industry design guides play a pivotal role in identifying recyclable packaging. Currently, only a fraction of packaging is recyclable, emphasizing the need for swift progress in this domain.

The Power of Resourceful Recycling

Improving accessibility to recycling services is exemplified by case studies in Omaha, Orlando, and Alleghany County, showcasing how strategic investments in recycling infrastructure have led to substantial growth in recycling tonnage.

Standardizing the acceptance criteria for recyclable materials is crucial, given the diversity in community recycling programs. EPR policies can provide much-needed consistency by establishing comprehensive lists of accepted materials.

The industry’s dedication to enhancing material access is exemplified by The Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, which serves as a model for industry-led initiatives aimed at increasing material acceptance. Industry investments in this regard can wield a profound impact on material recovery rates.

Boosting Program Participation

Fostering positive changes in behavior is essential for boosting program participation, and this largely depends on individual actions. It is crucial to grasp the underlying factors that influence recycling behavior, and research studies have demonstrated that empathetic messaging can lead to substantial increases in recycling rates.

To confront the challenges that lie ahead, a range of strategies can be employed to stimulate market demand and alleviate economic hurdles. These include the implementation of EPR policies that transfer processing fees to private enterprises, the enactment of state laws encouraging the use of recycled content in packaging, proactive initiatives by corporations to promote market stability, and the establishment of development programs aimed at strengthening regional markets.

Recycling in the U.S. presents a complex landscape filled with both challenges and opportunities. By addressing the prerequisites outlined in the report for an effective residential recycling system, embracing EPR policies, improving packaging recyclability, and investing in recycling infrastructure, there is a roadmap to make improvements and advance sustainable initiatives and strategies.



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