The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new national recycling strategy today, the agency’s first such commitment ever, according to Washington Post.
It is a roadmap for the United States to achieve a goal of recycling at least half of its municipal waste by the end of the decade. That’s a steep increase considering that the U.S. recycling rate has actually dropped since 2015 and was only at about 32 percent of all municipal waste in 2018 (the most recent year of EPA data).
The recycling plans announced by the EPA today are just the first in a series of forthcoming documents that the Agency plans to publish to work towards a “circular economy”, or an economy in which resources are recycled and reused to manufacture new products instead of being allowed to end up in landfills. It’s a kind of tacit acknowledgment that recycling alone does not make a big dent in the world’s waste problems.
Inadequacies with the U.S. recycling system were exposed after China stopped accepting much of our so-called recyclable waste in 2018, including post-consumer plastics. Some municipal recycling programs were forced to shut down or cut back on their programs, which eventually sent more things to landfills and incinerators. Programs that got stuck are still recovering from the global shock, in addition to having to adapt to new consumer habits accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A lack of federal recycling policy has so far hampered efforts to address the issue. There are several key tactics that the EPA plans to use to meet its new recycling target. First, the United States will have to do a better job of collecting recyclable materials. The rise in e-commerce has changed where packaging waste ends up. For example, there is less cardboard coming from malls and grocery stores due to the popularity of home deliveries. It has caused problems for recycling companies because cardboard coming from people’s homes tends to be dirtier than retail waste, experts say. The edge. Often, cardboard or plastic that is too contaminated with food or other items can not be recycled. So the EPA intends to do more public dissemination and education to ensure that more of the things people throw away are actually recycled.
The EPA also wants to develop new markets for recycled materials so that it is worth it for companies to recycle. This means that there may be new policies or economic incentives on the way to increase the demand for recycled materials. The strategy paper mentions, for example, a “Demand Challenge partnership program” that will recognize companies for using more recycled materials in their products. In particular, the EPA says it can finally “explore” the ratification of the Basel Convention, an international treaty from 1989 aimed at reducing the flow of e-waste and other hazardous waste from wealthy to lower-income countries.
The new strategy also marks the first time, the EPA says, that the agency’s recycling plans will connect the dots between waste, environmental injustice and the climate crisis. The modern environmental justice movement, which fights to stop pollution from disproportionately burdening low-income neighborhoods and colored communities, has its roots in protests against a landfill built in a predominantly black community in North Carolina in the 1980s.
Recently, plastic pollution has been in the spotlight as a growing amount of research finds that plastic builds up in the oceans, marine life and also humans. Plastic is also linked to another environmental crisis: climate change. They are made from fossil fuels, and oil and gas companies are looking to lean more into their plastics business as renewable energy erodes their profits.
The plastics industry has a history of promoting recycling as the solution to its waste problem. But in reality, only about nine percent of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. Some environmental experts and activists are also concerned that the development of the recycled plastics market may actually increase the demand for new plastics. This is because the quality of materials typically deteriorates every time they are re-hashed, which is why products made with recycled plastic are often reinforced with new plastic.
Preventing heaps of plastic and other debris from accumulating requires systemic changes in how we use materials, not just how we handle them at the end of their lives. This is why the EPA says it is working towards a circular economy that addresses the entire life cycle of a commodity that is produced. Ultimately, achieving a circular economy will involve using fewer raw materials, designing products that last longer and using fewer resources, and having policies and infrastructure in place to efficiently collect goods for recycling.
Basically, there must be a concerted effort to stop producing junk in the first place.