As a former Mayor of Kansas City, Mo., a fiscal hawk, and a recycling proponent, it’s become clear that our current approach to managing waste and recycling is failing our nation and citizens. While most Americans do their part to recycle and support sustainable and circular economy approaches, they may not realize that most post-consumer recycling waste is winding up in landfills and incinerators, and that taxpayers are footing the bill for these increasingly expensive efforts.
What was once a promising and cost-effective (and for a time, even profitable) approach to municipal recycling, is no longer working. And while this problem is not new, it has been hugely heightened by the global pandemic and its aftermath. Policy changes are needed. We need to create market demand for post-consumer recycled content that supports true circularity and reallocates the current financial burden away from municipalities and communities to product and packaging manufacturers and producers. The urgency has never been greater. One critical, foundational piece of the policy solution is minimum recycled content standards.
The shift in recycling market dynamics stems from multiple inter-related factors. American consumers are producing more waste than ever before, in part due to a significant increase in packaging materials related to e-commerce, further exacerbated by COVID-19 this past year as people shopped online more than ever before. This is the new normal. Then consider that bans on exporting waste, most notably from China, have left our country’s municipalities with more waste than ever before but without the capacity, budgets, or end markets needed to effectively recycle. Layer on top of that the proliferation of plastic waste and the fact manufacturers continue to use (cheaper) virgin plastic for most products and packaging, contributing to the current plastic pollution crisis. Even prior to the China ban, only 9 percent of plastics were recycled. And then, most importantly, is the fact that there are no sturdy market incentives or demand for manufacturers to use recycled content, particularly recycled plastics, in their packaging and products. Without such incentives or requirements, the current crisis will only continue to spiral. Simply stated: We have an oversupply of recyclable materials and not enough built-in market demand for this commodity.
Continuing down this path will have stark consequences and hinder other efforts underway to combat climate change, reduce plastic waste, and protect vulnerable communities, particularly those located near landfills and incinerators. Also, the disproportionate financial burden on taxpayers and local governments resulting from our current system is not only unfair — it is unsustainable.
People understand in a bipartisan way that climate change matters and it needs to be mitigated. Striving for true circularity with an end goal of zero waste and net-zero emissions is critical to mitigating climate impacts and other negative waste-related outcomes. Circular economy systems rely upon reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling to create a closed-loop system that minimizes the need for carbon-intensive raw materials while cutting down on the creation of waste.
Requiring manufacturers, packagers, and consumer product companies to include minimum levels of recycled content in products and packaging is one obvious way to create needed circularity, mitigate climate change, and get materials back to reuse. Currently, the lack of demand for these waste “commodities” means higher costs for local governments. A circular model with minimum recycled content (MRC) standards will increase this demand and normalize costs, making recycled content more competitive with virgin materials. It also will decrease the financial burdens on municipalities and communities.
Not to be overlooked is also the powerful role that government procurement (at all levels) can play in promoting circularity and climate mitigation through MRC initiatives. Referred to as "buy clean" policies, these approaches are key to supporting end markets for low- and zero-carbon goods that contain recycled content. At a time when corporate environmental, social, governance (ESG) performance is under scrutiny, buy clean policies for government procurement similarly hold agencies accountable for their supply chains by using taxpayer dollars on materials that are climate and carbon friendly and reward suppliers that are manufacturing in an environmentally responsible way.
As is the case for many looming policy issues, leadership must come from state and local governments. The current recycling imperative is no exception. Several states are, in fact, leading on this issue. California became the first state in the U.S. to require a minimum post-consumer recycled resin in plastic bottles. Washington state also recently passed legislation requiring MRC in plastic beverage containers, trash bags, and containers for household and personal care products. New Jersey and New York have also introduced bills with significant MRC provisions.
Replicating minimum recycled content laws throughout the country is critical to ensuring that the demand for recyclable materials remains economically viable to the benefit of taxpayers, municipalities, and the environment. I call on all mayors, local government officials, and state decisionmakers to take the lead on drafting and implementing these policies. Only through a circular approach can we ensure a balance in supply and demand of recyclable materials — at a manageable cost to local governments — while building resilience into a stronger, more sustainable, and financially equitable recycling framework.
Mark Funkhouser is President of Funkhouser & Associates and is an internationally recognized auditing expert, author and teacher in public administration and its fiscal disciplines. He was former publisher of Governing magazine and served as mayor of Kansas City, Mo., from 2007 to 2011. Prior to being elected mayor, he was the city's auditor for 18 years.