Congress can improve the recycling system by building on its strengths
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There rightly is a lot of attention on addressing the plastic pollution crisis in recent waste management bills, such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S 984, BFFPA). However, legislators have failed to recognize that the best way to fortify the recycling system economically and fight climate change via recycling is by building on its strengths.

Congress should remember that certain recyclables have higher relative economic value than others. If infrastructure is put in place to capture more of these high value commodities, then a consistent stream of desperately needed revenue would be added into the recycling system.

Aluminum beverage cans, for example, are one of the most valuable commodities in the recycling stream. This is how used beverage cans, while only 3 percent by weight of all single stream recyclables at U.S. single-family households, represent nearly half of the revenue. In fact, a 2020 study concluded that without the revenue from used beverage cans, most material recovery facilities (MRF) that do the important job of sorting single stream recyclables would not be able to operate.

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Policymakers should prioritize capturing more valuable materials, which would provide ongoing, additional revenue for MRFs to operate and collect less valuable materials like flexible packaging and many plastics. Imagine how healthy our recycling system would be economically if the current 46 percent aluminum beverage can recycling rate were to increase by 20 percent or even 30 percent.

Further, for the infinitely recyclable aluminum beverage can there is also a significant environmental impact from increased recycling rates. Considering 95 percent of all aluminum beverage cans collected are made into new cans and making an aluminum beverage can from recycled material means more than 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than making a can from primary aluminum, recycling additional cans will have a significantly higher environmental impact than recycling more of other materials.

Congress should discard the approach of the RECOVER Act (HR 2357), which authorizes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to prop up the recycling infrastructure of materials that have little economic value. No wonder the media labeled the RECOVER Act last year a $1 billion big plastic bailout.

The industries pumping out packaging that is not profitable for MRFs should pay their own way or not be considered “recyclable.” Congress should not prop up hard to recycle materials.

Instead, lawmakers should target recycling infrastructure funds towards recyclables that already work in today’s system and deliver the best environmental and economic bang for the buck. For example, funding could go toward the kind of can capture equipment in MRFs that can makers Ardagh Group and Crown Holdings successfully supported with a can capture grant program. Additional federal funding could bring this effective can capture technology to recycling facilities around the country.

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In addition to infrastructure, education efforts should also go beyond informing consumers about problematic behaviors and motivate them to buy and recycle materials that are readily recyclable and generate the most positive effects. The Recycle Act (S 923) provides important funding for consumer education and allows for projects that “increase collection rates.” Ideally, those projects will focus on increasing collection rates for the most valuable materials.

For instance, campaigns could emphasize that aluminum cans are the textbook example of the circular economy or highlight that metal recycles forever as part of an effort to get additional valuable cans flowing through the recycling system. Research shows emphasizing the transformational nature of the material leads to higher recycling rates. Therefore, informing consumers these cans go from the recycling bin back to the store shelf as a new can in typically 60 days would likely lead to more cans recycled.

One additional avenue Congress should consider is establishing a smart national deposit system. This will lead to significantly more collection of beverage containers including the high-value aluminum beverage can. A national deposit system is part of BFFPA and the CLEAN Future Act (HR 1512), and was the focus of a bill last year, Original Recycling Bottle Act, that hopefully will be re-introduced this year.

The data show a stark contrast between recycling rates in deposit states versus the country as a whole. According to the Container Recycling Institute, in 2018, in the 10 states with a deposit system the recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans was 77 percent. If that 77 percent rate were the national average, it would mean more than 30 billion additional aluminum beverage cans recycled. That would deliver $486 million to the recycling system and would avoid carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to driving 7.5 billion miles in a passenger car.

Proposed federal legislation tries to fix the recycling system generally and shore up problem materials while neglecting opportunities to recycle what works best. Recyclables like the aluminum beverage can that deliver the most significant environmental and economic impact should be prioritized in recycling policy rather than forgotten.

Robert Budway is President of Can Manufacturers Institute.