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Recycling program offers an opportunity for environmental consensus


A few weeks from now, Americans will be casting their ballot in the 2022 congressional midterm elections. While inflation predictably dominates the headlines, other issues are on voters’ minds, too. 

Take climate change for example. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC shows that around half of voters consider climate change important in the midterms, which shows the increasing salience of the environment as an electoral issue, especially for young people across party lines. With Republicans looking likely to retake control of Congress, both parties would do well to respond to voters and pursue common-sense environmental policies that can actually get things done. 

President Biden has certainly made tackling climate change a defining feature of his presidency. Although his Build Back Better agenda eventually fell apart, he expended significant political capital to pass the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which he routinely markets to voters as the largest climate investment in U.S. history. He wants to be seen as the president who can actually get things done. 

Yet, while the IRA passed, we must not forget that it only passed along strict party lines. As opposed to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into law last November with significant bipartisan support, Democrats failed to garner a single Republican vote for the IRA. Ultimately, this partisan effort shot itself in the foot, as the push for a subsequent permitting reform bill failed dramatically. As some have argued, reforming our arduous permitting process is one of the crucial jigsaw pieces to unlocking a clean energy infrastructure buildout, without which the money spent under the IRA might as well be toothless. Up to 80 percent of the potential emissions reductions could be lost.  

This is a cautionary tale for environmental policy. Despite its clear necessity, permitting reform was scuppered by intra- and cross-partisan bickering, due to the mindset of many activists and politicians on Capitol Hill. There is a tendency in the climate debate to focus solely on sweeping, one-size-fits-all climate proposals that spend trillions of dollars. Often, these kinds of proposals unfold along partisan lines with lots of bickering, leading to political inaction on other crucial issues — in this case, permitting reform. 

Yet, more specific policy areas might actually offer a real blueprint for durable, long-term action on the environment. By focusing solely on sweeping climate packages, we risk losing sight of smaller issues that can actually move the ball forward in a meaningful, bipartisan way.

One such example is the renewed drive to fix recycling in the United States. Recently, a group of consumer advocates and environmental organizations joined the Can Manufacturers’ Institute and the Aluminum Association to advocate for a bipartisan, nationwide deposit on cans, bottles and other types of beverage containers. 

While the environmental conversation tends to singularly focus on carbon emissions and energy usage, issues such as recycling offer a case study for real policy opportunity. Consider the deposit program advocated by these organizations, which would establish deposit refunds for beverage containers in order to incentivize consumers to return cans and bottles rather than throwing them in the trash. According to a recent poll, 81 percent of Americans support this kind of recycling program, including 76 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats. 

The program isn’t just popular, it also works. In the 10 U.S. states where so-called bottle bills have been introduced, recycling redemption rates are nearly 70 percent, as opposed to 28 percent for the rest of the country. Of the two U.S. states with 10 cents deposits, Oregon and Massachusetts, recycling redemption is as high as 85 percent. Furthermore, estimates show that a national deposit system would save up to 11.2 million tons of CO2, or 2.4 million cars, thanks to the recycling process. 

At the crux of this policy approach to recycling is the fact that it’s a win-win all around, focusing on carrots rather than sticks. There is a temptation to view climate action as a necessary sacrifice, while some environmentalists even argue that we should shrink the economy to minimize our ecological footprint. What the recycling deposit program shows is that environmental sustainability and economic success can go hand in hand. Offering an incentive to consumers to recycle their containers, while making the program easy and transparent, not only benefits the environment, but also makes economic sense. That’s a recipe for bipartisan buy-in and popular support.

As the midterms and a potential Republican majority in Congress loom, these kinds of bipartisan solutions will be more important than ever. After all, despite all the issues around inflation and the economy, the American public still expresses deep concern over climate change. While sweeping, trillion-dollar proposals tend to dominate Capitol Hill, there is a real opportunity to recalibrate our mindset. From recycling deposit programs to other kinds of policy avenues such as planting trees, we can rally around common-sense solutions that build bipartisan bridges and offer a meaningful way forward on the environment. 

Chris Barnard is the national policy director of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisBarnardDL

Tags Biden envrionment Plastic Pollution Recycling

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