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The Case for Federal Recycling Standards: Risk, Rewards, and Our Green Future

Laura M Berkey-Ames


  • Addresses the lack of understanding about how personal actions combine with infrastructure inefficiencies that arise from mismatched or missing public policies.
  • Discusses corporate commitment and congressional action in focusing on sustainable manufacturing.
  • Explores how Congress should intercede in state legislative and regulatory action to enact comprehensive recycling legislation.
The Case for Federal Recycling Standards: Risk, Rewards, and Our Green Future
Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty Images

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Enacting smart, federal public policies that protect the environment, empower the public, and ensure that businesses can continue to invest and sustainably innovate are the keys to our green future. But how do we get there? Recycling is vital to solving this existential problem—where what is perceived as trash is actually recoverable, reusable treasure. “The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually” and this number is “expected to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050.” World Bank, Trends in Solid Waste Management. In 2018, the United States alone generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste, which equates to 4.9 pounds per person per day. Env’t Prot. Agency, Facts and Figures About Materials, Wastes and Recycling (2022). As a society, we are facing a global waste management crisis stemming from a lack of understanding about how personal actions combine with infrastructure inefficiencies that arise from mismatched or missing public policies. There is no time to lose, and we must work together to overcome this challenge quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Growing the circular economy through sustainable practices like recycling is a shared responsibility. However, meaningful and impactful actions by consumers, communities, and businesses are not enough. Congress must continue to rise to the challenge and play a pivotal role in this story. Unfortunately, to date there is no comprehensive federal law that addresses circularity or harmonizes recycling requirements and programs nationwide. States and localities are seizing this opportunity to move a variety of measures forward that can lead to confusion in communities and impact businesses’ ability to efficiently provide sustainably manufactured goods and services. In response to states’ actions, Congress should work to streamline recycling requirements and performance standards to avoid negative environmental, societal, and economic impacts.

The case for federal recycling standards is clear and the stakes are high. To mitigate potentially long-term consequences, Congress has an opportunity to protect the environment by helping consumers, communities, and businesses efficiently and effectively close the loop. This article evaluates the motivations behind and effectiveness of circular waste management practices among consumers, communities, businesses, and government and explains why Congress should take immediate action to pass comprehensive recycling legislation that streamlines programs nationwide.

Communities and Consumers Strive to Make a Difference

How effective are curbside recycling programs at prompting consumers to stop and think before placing waste in the trash can or the recycling bin? In the United States, “59 percent of . . . households with access to curbside recycling amounts to a total count of around 69.8 million homes.” Recycling P’ship, 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report (Feb. 13, 2020). While consumers might make environmentally conscientious lifestyle choices like purchasing eco-friendly products that are sourced or manufactured sustainably, their actions speak louder than words when these items are disposed. Although recycling and composting rates increased from 6% in 1960 to 35% in 2017, the rate decreased to 32.1% in 2018. Env’t Prot. Agency, Facts and Figures, supra. Since the inception of curbside recycling programs in the 1970s, recycling rates have grown, but clearly not enough despite the efforts of consumers and communities.

To get to the root of why recycling rates are so low, it is important to understand the source of the problem. Currently, waste management operations are overseen at the state or local level, and their degree of financial resources or infrastructure capabilities can vary widely. This disparity can result in a lack of residential access to curbside recycling, local drop-off locations, and materials recovery facilities. Even if consumers wanted to recycle, they may not be able to easily do so because their communities are underserved. At the same time, consumers who do have access may be unaware or confused about what, where, and how to recycle; lack understanding about the environmental benefits; or lack appropriate incentives. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “[i]n 2018, the recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling of municipal solid waste saved over 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking almost 42 million cars off the road in a year.” Id. While these numbers reflect materials from residential, commercial, and institutional sources, imagine if we doubled our recycling efforts and not only met, but exceeded EPA’s National Recycling Goal to increase the U.S. recycling rate to 50% by 2030. Env’t Prot. Agency, U.S. National Recycling Goal (2022).

Minimizing waste and conserving natural resources are critical, but consumers and communities cannot reach these goals by themselves. Recycling accessibility is only one aspect of the systemic problems plaguing our nation’s recycling system. Businesses and government must be equal partners to strengthen recycling access and infrastructure, expand the recycled materials marketplace, increase community engagement, and change consumer behavior.

Corporate Commitments and Actions Are Greener and Bolder Than Ever Before

Companies value sustainability and are holding themselves publicly accountable for their actions. This is evidenced by the exponential growth of sustainability reporting over the past decade, rising from 20% in 2011 to 92% in 2020 among S&P 500 Index companies. Governance & Accountability Inst., Inc., 2021 Sustainability Reporting in Focus (Nov. 30, 2021). There are multiple reasons why businesses are motivated to embrace environmental stewardship. Driven to help solve environmental challenges and strengthen the communities in which they live and serve, companies are ensuring sustainable practices are core components of their business models. To increase their competitiveness in the global marketplace, companies are also driven by customer and consumer demands for products that are sourced or manufactured sustainably. Simply put, achieving corporate sustainability goals like meeting recycling targets is a win-win for the environment, communities worldwide, and a company’s short- and long-term economic success.

Businesses focused on sustainable manufacturing perform better financially due to increased operational efficiency, which reduces production costs, waste, and regulatory compliance fees while improving sales and brand recognition. Env’t Prot. Agency, Sustainable Manufacturing (2022). Additionally, sustainable manufacturing can lead to greater access to financing and capital, and more easily attract and retain employees, given the public support of company-sponsored environmental stewardship. Id. Recycling, which is one aspect of sustainable manufacturing, affects employment levels and economic growth in the United States, producing 681,000 jobs and generating $37.8 billion in wages and $5.5 billion in tax revenue in 2020. Env’t Prot. Agency, Recycling Economic Information Report (Nov. 2020). These numbers reflect the direct and indirect employment impacts of recycling, whereby jobs are “associated with the actual transformation of recyclable materials into marketable products” and “include upstream supply chain economic activity that supports recycling processes.” Id. Throughout the full life cycle of materials, the entire supply chain is involved in circular waste management practices.

BASF is a prime example of industry’s commitment to sustainability and the promotion of the circular economy by setting ambitious goals, implementing innovative manufacturing practices, and establishing supply chain partnerships. As a global leader that drives sustainable solutions, BASF is working to increase the use of recycled and renewable feedstocks, shaping new material cycles, and creating value with new business models. From lithium-ion battery and catalytic converter recycling to making plastics more sustainable through certified compostable products, design for recyclability, and advanced recycling technologies, BASF is prioritizing recovery and reuse of materials for new products. BASF, Circular Economy at BASF (2022). As stated on its website: “By 2025, BASF aims to process 250,000 metric tons globally of recycled and waste-based raw materials annually, replacing fossil raw materials. This initiative will further optimize operations, offer resource-efficient products and support customers’ circularity journeys.” Id.

As a co-founder of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, BASF joined forces with more than 80 companies and supporting organizations worldwide to advance solutions to eliminate plastic waste in the environment. Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Through creativity, corporate commitments, and collaboration, companies like BASF are not only making a difference but proving they are true partners in environmental stewardship. Addressing environmental challenges is not an easy task, and leadership from all sectors is needed to solve these complex problems. Consistent investment from the private and public sectors coupled with utilizing innovative technologies will help minimize waste and pollution and expand end markets for recycled content to meet the growing demand for these materials. Lawmakers must work in concert with businesses to overcome obstacles and ensure that progress is not paused but can successfully move forward.

Congressional Action: Impactful Yet Not Enough

When China enacted its National Sword Policy in January 2018, the resulting ban and stricter contamination limits on imports of plastics, paper, and metals from Western nations, including the United States, revealed the stark reality that America has a waste problem. Prior to 2018, China was the global hub for nearly half the world’s recyclable waste for over 25 years, receiving, for example, 95% of plastics from the European Union and 70% of plastics from the US. China’s policy triggered Western countries to turn to other Asian nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and India for assistance. However, by early 2019, many Southeast Asian countries also started to reject shipments of recyclable materials, which increased their risk of being landfilled or incinerated.

Our nation’s recycling infrastructure—from collection and sortation to processing—is deficient and cannot keep pace with the overwhelming need to recover and reuse materials. China’s actions compounded an already pressing global problem, such that combating plastic waste and pollution from other materials reached a perilous point worldwide. The recent outcome at the United Nations Environment Assembly emphasized the pressing need to act; 175 national governments, including the United States, adopted a resolution to develop a legally binding global treaty by the end of 2024 that will address the full life cycle of plastic pollution. Fifth Session of the UN Env’t Assembly, End Plastic Pollution: Towards an Internationally Legally Binding Instrument (2022).

Over the past four years, Congress has taken incremental, yet meaningful steps forward to reduce waste and pollution, improve recycling, and grow the circular economy. The enactment of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, 23 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq., last year made a historic $1.2 trillion investment in our nation’s infrastructure, which includes circularity and recycling needs. The Department of Energy (DOE) received more than $7 billion to improve batteries and critical minerals refining, processing, manufacturing, and recycling. To strengthen consumer recycling rates and local materials management, $350 million was allocated to the EPA for public education, outreach, and municipal recycling programs. The Save Our Seas Act (46 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq.) and Save Our Seas Act 2.0 (33 U.S.C. §§ 4201 et seq.), which became law in 2018 and 2020 respectively, tackle marine debris and plastic pollution through domestic cleanup, recycling efforts, and international collaboration. Nevertheless, the persistent calls to action from constituents, concerned stakeholders, states, and the global community are motivating Congress to do more.

Federal lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle are continuing to introduce legislation that addresses these pressing issues. Some legislative proposals take a holistic approach, seeking to enhance mechanical, advanced, and organic recycling. Mechanical recycling uses physical processes to break down materials (e.g., crushing, grinding, melting), keeping the molecular structure intact, to manufacture new products. Examples include using recycled glass to manufacture bottles and other containers; transforming recycled paper into greeting cards, magazines, and newspapers; or converting recycled metal into bicycles and electronics. While mechanical recycling is the most widely used form of recycling, it has limitations. Sourced material streams must be homogeneous and free of residue, some materials cannot be recycled indefinitely without risking product degradation, and not all materials can be readily recycled mechanically on a large scale such as mixed material products. Due to contaminants in the waste stream and within materials, mechanically recycled products cannot be used for critical applications like food packaging and pharmaceuticals. For plastics that cannot be recycled mechanically, advanced recycling is the solution. These manufacturing processes convert plastic waste into virgin-grade raw materials to create new products that have the same properties and performance as those manufactured from fossil feedstock. This is not possible with mechanically recycled plastics. With advanced recycling, manufacturers can then “process these products in the same way as conventionally manufactured products and use them in applications with high demands on quality, hygiene and performance” such as “medical applications, food packaging or safety-relevant automotive parts.” BASF, Global Sustainability (2022). Lastly, organic recycling refers to the “aerobic or anaerobic treatment, under controlled conditions and using micro-organisms, of biodegradable matter, which produces stabilised organic residues or methane.” Organic Recycling Definition, Law Insider (2022). Composting, which is a type of organic recycling, breaks down valuable food and yard waste to make compost, a soil amendment that supports healthy soils by adding organic carbon, which reduces erosion and mitigates damage from stormwater runoff.

Embracing all three forms of recycling—which are complimentary to each other—will empower us to use every technology available to reach higher recycled content targets, conserve natural resources and raw material supply, and breathe new life into repurposed waste. As lawmakers attempt to move constructive legislation forward, these bills include provisions that expand recycling and composting access and infrastructure; invest in research and development (R&D) for innovative technologies; and empower the public to be good environmental stewards through community outreach and education. For as many opportunities as there are to move solutions-focused bills forward, there are also legislative proposals that, while seemingly well-intentioned, may hinder the progress being made. These types of bills seek to exclude circular manufacturing practices like advanced recycling, pause production, ban materials, and raise consumer prices—all of which would deter businesses’ ability to help solve environmental challenges, impede the circular economy, and jeopardize the supply chain. Importantly, these off-target approaches ignore the complexities of sustainably manufacturing products and would be detrimental to our waste management system’s ability to effectively close the loop.

Congress has yet to enact comprehensive recycling standards, and, as such, federal agencies have limited authority to address this issue. What little authority they currently have focuses on regulating materials, finished products, and circular manufacturing processes through other statutes like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 6901 et seq.), the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 7401 et seq.), and the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.). These existing authorities are not sufficient to address the scope and scale of the crisis we face. New authority is needed in the form of comprehensive federal recycling standards and performance requirements that help, not hinder, communities’ and businesses’ ability to protect the environment and meet their sustainability goals.

Federal agencies are also leveraging their platform through R&D, public-private partnerships, data collection, and information sharing. This is evidenced by DOE’s $13.4 million investment in next-generation plastics technologies to decrease energy consumption and carbon emissions of single-use plastics. DOE, DOE Invests $13.4 Million to Combat Plastic Waste, Reduce Plastic Industry Emissions (Jan. 11, 2022). In 2019, the agency also launched ReCell, its first lithium-ion battery recycling R&D center at Argonne National Lab. According to DOE, this initiative “will help enable the United States to compete in a global recycling industry and also reduce our reliance on foreign sources for battery materials.” (2022). Additionally, the EPA took steps to reach its National Recycling Goal, unveiling the National Recycling Strategy last year. The strategy “identifies strategic objectives and stakeholder-led actions to create a stronger, more resilient, and cost-effective” recycling system nationwide. Env’t Prot. Agency, National Recycling Strategy (Nov. 15, 2021).

DOE’s and EPA’s ambitious efforts reflect government-wide actions being taken to support circular practices. However, the future success of these initiatives is threatened because they are not accompanied by legally binding federal recycling standards. Consequently, their longevity depends on administration priorities, interagency processes, budgetary constraints, legislative appropriations, and stakeholder engagement.

State Initiatives Are Surpassing Congressional Action

The degree of state activity is dizzying, as lawmakers race against the clock to pass a variety of proposals in time-constrained legislative sessions. In the absence of federal recycling standards, states and localities are leading the charge to implement circularity initiatives. Just last year, approximately 445 recycling and resource recovery proposals were introduced nationwide. Many of these efforts focused on recycled content requirements for packaging and other finished products, expanded recycling access, and infrastructure. Extended producer responsibility programs—whereby producers are physically and/or financially required to manage the recycling or disposal of post-consumer products—also gained considerable momentum, with Maine and Oregon enacting precedent-setting laws. Across the country, some state legislators were focused on microplastics in drinking water and waterways, single-use plastics, and other materials. To date, 20 states have enacted laws that redefine advanced recycling as manufacturing, not waste management. This will ensure that materials that cannot be recycled mechanically are recoverable and can support a circular economy.

State legislative and regulatory activity is expected to increase, creating a more extensive patchwork of recycling requirements that would exacerbate already inconsistent and sometimes conflicting policies across the country. Congress should intercede and use its preemptive power to enact well-designed, comprehensive recycling legislation. Harmonizing recycling definitions, requirements, and programs nationwide would establish a level playing field for consumers, communities, and manufacturers throughout the value chain as they work to achieve their sustainability goals and meet compliance requirements. Streamlined recycling standards could include establishing rates and dates for recycled content requirements, determining what an extended producer responsibility program should look like, and formally recognizing that all types of recycling—mechanical, advanced, and organic—are needed to close the loop. Establishment of an overarching federal policy will simplify state recycling requirements, boost investments, and drive innovation forward, which are essential to minimizing waste and maximizing circular practices at the residential, commercial, and industrial levels.

Despite the vital role that federal legislation would play in establishing an effective national recycling infrastructure system and related standards, the development of an overarching federal policy could prompt negative reactions among policymakers and stakeholders. Every state has different motivations, socioeconomic demographics, and resources available to implement circular initiatives. As such, federal recycling standards must be designed to help communities and businesses if they need assistance with implementing recycling programs or meeting compliance requirements. For example, federal involvement would be most effective in the form of financial, technological, or educational resources. Correspondingly, federally mandated performance requirements must promote innovative freedom to address a state’s desire to exceed federal recycling standards. To accomplish this objective, federal requirements should set progressively ambitious, yet achievable targets that incentivize states to set the same standards. If states wish to set more aggressive recycling requirements, federal legislation could include voluntary incentives to exceed the minimum federal requirements.

Growing the circular economy by closing the loop presents us with significant challenges and endless possibilities. However, the greatest risk we pose is to ourselves and our planet if we do not work together to minimize pressing environmental threats. To accomplish these goals, enacting comprehensive federal recycling legislation that harmonizes recycling standards nationwide is key. This legislation must be crafted with great care and take into consideration states’ diverse communities and needs. These actions will significantly increase community engagement and recycling rates; and businesses will be emboldened to continue harnessing opportunities that ensure used materials are recycled to create valuable products that help build our green future.