Federal momentum will push us closer to standards that can save American recycling

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Thursday, the House is holding a hearing on a series of recycling bills titled, “No Time to Waste: Solutions for America’s Broken Recycling System.”   

Even before the hearing, there are two important takeaways: 

  1. The title of the hearing acknowledges that America’s recycling system is, in fact, broken.  
  1. The hearing’s existence shows momentum at the federal level, moving us closer to the standardization that is the gateway to real progress on recycling.  

Right now, recycling is in retreat. Cities and counties are reducing or even eliminating their recycling programs. The national recycling rate is declining. Consumers are confused and frustrated. We cannot accept this disarray as our fate. Establishing uniformity is the change we need now to unlock recycling’s potential. 

That potential is mired in confusion created by nearly 10,000 local systems across the country, all with their own rules and none with consistent data reporting requirements. Even 10,000 systems could be a low-end estimate of how inconsistent recycling rules are. In Fairfax County, Va., for example, there are 13 private companies that handle residential pickup in addition to the county itself, which collects from only about 10 percent of residents. To determine what can be recycled, the county can only offer general guidelines, telling residents with private collection to ask the company responsible for their pickup for specifics. That leaves 14 possibilities within one county. 

Even at the federal level, there isn’t consistency. A report from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation found that there are at least 18 distinct ways that recycling is defined at the federal level alone, and that 49 of the 50 states each have their own definition of recycling, the only exception being North Dakota, which the study was unable to find a definition for at all. 

There is recognition that uniformity is critical to reducing confusion and boosting recycling rates. Near the end of 2020, the EPA announced its National Recycling Goal, which includes establishing “standardized definitions for the recycling industry to keep pace with today’s diverse and changing waste system.” Without uniformity, “We know most people want to recycle, but there’s confusion about what can be put in the bin,” EPA says. 

In a recent report, the Consumer Brands Association found that 71 percent of Americans say having various systems creates confusion. The report also found that 65 percent of Americans believe recycling rules should be the same nationwide. 

We need to move beyond goals and toward action. Clear and meaningful standards from EPA, action in Congress that supports the infrastructure needed to reduce waste and boost recycling, and continued smart policy and momentum will reverse recycling’s downward trend. There is no single solution to solving America’s waste crisis — and there doesn’t have to be. Many solutions may be needed to allow us to realize recycling’s full potential.  

That full potential is only realized by starting with standardization. Establishing uniform standards and definitions allow packaging to be designed for greater recyclability. They would create the ability to measure and manage recycling to boost recovered material. They would enable better decisions on where to make infrastructure and technology improvements to recycling facilities. They would provide for consistent and broad consumer education that will reduce contamination. And, perhaps most importantly, they will help determine where to target funding to ensure the money has the most meaningful impact — an impact that consumer packaged goods companies are willing and ready to invest in. 

Recycling will have a greater environmental impact if we allow it to. Right now, we are allowing failure. But dedication to fixing recycling like we are seeing with today’s hearing sets us on a better path. 

Real and lasting improvements are possible if we admit to and address the fundamental failures plaguing recycling in America today. There is no greater failure than a fragmented, confusing system. And no clearer remedy than uniform standards. 

John Hewitt is vice president of packaging sustainability for the Consumer Brands Association, which represents nearly 2,000 brands.  


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