Recycling: Not your father’s environmental issue
To raise recycling with today’s environmentally-minded younger generations might solicit an “OK, Boomer” type of response; they are focused on the seemingly more existential challenges of climate change, environmental justice or imperiled oceans. And well they should be. But the centrality of recycling to the environmental challenges of today is underappreciated.
The U.S. recycling market is broken and the impacts of its failure are increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), floating plastic detritus and the exposure of underprivileged communities to harmful pollutants. We can revive the recycling industry and mitigate these problems, but we need a policy fix.
Prior to 2018, our recycling market functioned in large part because China bought one-third of U.S. plastic waste. That demand helped keep plastics out of our waste stream, maintained U.S. jobs and diverted waste materials from polluting incineration facilities that quickly convert plastic into GHG and other harmful air emissions and disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities. In 2018, China enacted a U.S. waste import ban and we have not replaced that demand.
The best way to reduce plastic waste is to reduce plastic consumption, but we must also ensure that the plastic we do use and put in our blue bins is actually recycled. Without adequate market demand at the other end of the recycling truck’s trip, our efforts are often for naught as plastics nevertheless end up in waste streams. And market demand for recycled plastic from manufacturers of plastic products is inhibited by the low cost of virgin plastics (thanks in part to inexpensive natural gas).
Self-styled market purists might say, “well, that’s the market at work,” but as energy futurist Amory Lovins once said, “markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.” Addressing market failures to optimize societal outcomes is at the heart of modern environmental policy. Markets work when prices reflect costs. We get the wrong outcomes when the atmosphere is a free landfill for carbon dioxide or the oceans readily take our waste without charging a fee. Directly imposing such fees via policy is politically challenging and the “lost price” problem of emissions and pollution from plastic remains.
To date, public policy has overwhelmingly focused on supply-side solutions such as mandating recycling. But supply is not our problem. We need demand-side solutions and we have good examples. By 2022, the United Kingdom will require plastic products sold in the country to have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content. Such a “minimum content” standard was recently adopted by California. Other states like New Jersey and New York are considering similar legislation. Policymakers are no doubt buoyed by polls showing that large bipartisan majorities of voters support laws to increase recycling and reduce plastic pollution. Such policies can be designed to help manufacturers integrate recycled materials into their products with support for infrastructure upgrades and clear recycled content quality standards. Mandating demand will rescale our diminished recycling industry, improve efficiencies and drive innovation in material and manufacturing processes.
And there may be other benefits to companies that embrace the challenge. Commitments to reducing GHG from operations have become table stakes for leading U.S. companies and such commitments are now being extended to supply chains and products. Some leading companies are also embracing goals toward a more “circular” economy, where waste is reduced and products and packaging are repurposed for continued economic value. Corporate sustainability leaders are finding ways to create value through circular innovation, which is projected to be a $4.5 trillion global growth opportunity by 2030. These industry leaders will have a competitive edge as governments and consumers demand ever more bold action. Further, with the rapid rise of investors using environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to evaluate their portfolios, shareholder pressure for better disclosure of and performance on sustainability metrics like net zero carbon emissions and waste avoidance is intensifying. We are beginning to see results: Dozens of companies recently pledged to increase the recycled content in their packaging to an average of 25 percent by 2025 — a more than 12-fold increase in seven years.
But these signs of progress are not a reason to hold back on meaningful policy measures. The problems are too great and the pace of change is too slow. Recycling markets are a tool we need; smart policies like recycled content mandates can unleash their full potential.
Roger Ballentine is the president of Green Strategies, Inc. He served as chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.