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Recycling: We need circular waste management

Recycling: We need circular waste management
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Today, just 13 percent of plastic packaging in the U.S. gets recycled. That means too much plastic is getting into nature and more valuable material is being wasted. Though beverage bottles are collected at higher rates than other plastics, we must do better across products and materials to ensure that all recyclable items are being recycled and, ultimately, remade into new products. This must be done while also phasing out those plastic products and other materials that we can live without. This would reduce our need for new materials sourced from fossil fuels and keep existing materials where they belong: in our economy and out of our ecosystems. 

How do we fix a broken system that the U.S. has relied on for decades? Our two organizations, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the American Beverage Association (ABA), approach this question from different perspectives, yet our shared goals and sense of urgency have led us to the same answer. We believe that answer is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a comprehensive policy that would help create a more efficient, circular waste management system, operated and funded by the very companies that produce recyclable materials. 

Therefore, we urge Congress and the administration to help transform our system by doing something that has never been done before: Implement a properly constructed EPR system for packaging in the United States that emphasizes both reduction in problematic materials generated and circularity for the rest.

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Creating a circular economy for recyclable materials is a national issue that requires a national response. We find communities with good recycling programs, but there are many places in America where recycling is inconvenient and ineffective or worse, does not even exist. That is because most recycling in the U.S. is managed and financed by local governments that struggle to handle the costs and logistics of collecting and sorting plastic waste in a patchwork of programs scattered across 20,000 jurisdictions

Outdated infrastructure, inadequate access and public confusion over what is recyclable are why we have low recycling rates. Under our current system, it’s simply not economical to recover plastic and many other materials from the waste stream. In the case of plastic, the cheapest — and thus the most enticing — option for most producers remains virgin plastic, which is new plastic created from oil or natural gas rather than recycled content. 

These producers, including fast-moving consumer goods companies, have the most power to effect transformative change in the products and packaging millions of Americans rely on daily. Many in the beverage industry has already transitioned to 100 percent recyclable plastic bottles. And the intention is to get those bottles back so they can be turned into new ones, reducing reliance on virgin plastic. Still, large-scale recycling requires transformative change in our waste management system.

Environmentalists and industry are aligned on this issue and a solid 68 percent of the American public supports the idea of producers helping to fund a more modern and efficient recycling system. Now we need government action to make that happen. 

Our proposed EPR program would ideally be established at the federal level, yet sensitive to state and regional differences. This framework would make it simpler for jurisdictions to adapt EPR to their existing collection systems. 

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WWF and the beverage industry have jointly developed principles for funding the modern EPR recycling infrastructure and collection systems needed to close the loop on recyclables. The principles outline essential requirements for an EPR system to be effective and sustainable.

These principles lay the groundwork for a national recycling system that creates incentives for producers to reduce their use of new plastic and less-recyclable materials. They also transition us towards a model that emphasizes the remaking of recyclable materials into new products. 

The private sector producers of these materials would be responsible for operating and funding the system through a nonprofit Producer Responsibility Organization, or PRO, which meets standards set by the government and is held accountable for performance. The PRO will help ensure that the resources producers pay into the system stay in the system to sustain its long-term operations and are not shifted to other government programs. A flexible EPR framework can work with new or existing recycling systems to ensure companies meet recycling targets for bottles and cans.

Government leaders determine what materials should be covered by this system. In addition, they will set recycling targets, establish mechanisms for transparency and accountability and ensure program objectives align with the nation’s broader goals of environmental justice. 

At a time when consumer demand for sustainable brands is rising, a national EPR program would help producers include more high-quality recycled content in their packaging. It would also help companies meet their broader sustainability goals and the expectations of increasingly eco-conscious consumers.  

Consumers would benefit as well. EPR makes it easier for people to recycle conveniently and more effectively whether it’s plastic, aluminum, steel, glass or paper. People will likely have more confidence in recycling if they know their efforts are conserving resources and keeping the environment clean.

The creation of a federal EPR program would constitute a giant step toward a system in which communities, businesses and nature thrive. It’s time for business, government and consumers to rally around a solution that gets us to the shared goal of ending reliance on waste.

Sheila Bonini is senior vice president of Private Sector Engagement at World Wildlife Fund. Follow the organization on Twitter @World_Wildlife. 

Katherine Lugar is president and chief executive officer of American Beverage, the national trade organization representing the broad spectrum of companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic beverages in the United States.