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By Heather Nortz, PLASTICS Associate, Sustainability and Materials

 

What’s your new year’s resolution? You may be striving for the typical health kick or perhaps revitalizing your long-lost hobby of kazooing. Or maybe you’re tired of everyone asking about resolutions because yours is just to survive the pandemic! Practiced goal-setters will tell you, the best type of resolution is one that is tangible and can be feasibly achieved. And the best time to start acting on that resolution is yesterday; the second-best time is right now.

Just like many people around the world, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) has taken this advice and set our sights upon a list of goals for the new year that, while maybe difficult to achieve, are reasonably within our reach. We hope that you will join us in working to make them a reality in 2021.

Our new year’s goals, which were recently mentioned in Plastics Today, are to continue to support the jobs of over one million plastics industry workers and improve recycling infrastructure in the United States. In doing so, we hope to see several important proposals in Congress become law in the coming session. These include:

  • the RECOVER Act that aims to improve collection and sorting of recyclable materials
  • the RECYCLE Act, working to fund public awareness of recycling options
  • the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act that coordinates the continuous development and improvement of new recycling technologies

Through bipartisan cooperation and hard work, we can develop workable policy solutions that allow us to reach our sustainability goals.

It is an accomplishment in and of itself that these policy proposals are on the table for discussion in this upcoming session. The recycling system in the U.S. is very complex with a lot of moving parts and numerous stakeholders who care about making improvements that benefit the majority of people working within the system. Because of this, it is quite challenging to create, pass and implement changes of any kind.

It is important to note that the work behind this year’s wish stems all the way back to 2018. Three years ago, the Plastics Industry Association, along with thirteen other industry leaders, sent a letter to House majority and minority leaders on Capitol Hill to develop an infrastructure investment package to address the United States’ need for improved recycling efforts and innovation. This was in lieu of China’s then recent refusal to continue handling the world’s recyclable material. The letter listed six focus items required to build a powerfully effective domestic recycling system, many of which are addressed within the bills listed above.

  • Retrofitting MRFs with advanced sorting equipment that can handle flexible film and smaller items that often get discarded in the current systems
  • Quicker permitting of MRFs, plastic recycling facilities and conversion technology facilities
  • Increased use of recycled material in infrastructure products
  • Broadened use of private activity bonds for recycling projects
  • Incentive grants for state and local governments to expand curbside recycling options and the range of materials collected
  • Education and training to improve understanding of what is recyclable and promote manufacturing jobs within the recycling process

Read the entire letter for more details.

This goal of improving the recycling system and ultimately, the rate of recycled material available for reuse, has many far-reaching positive impacts. As stated in the 2018 letter, “We believe strongly that a federal investment targeting recycling and recycled materials is critical to America’s economic success, will create jobs throughout the United States, and yield environmental benefits. Recycling reduces the volume of material that otherwise ends up in U.S. landfills, wasting a valuable feedstock for American manufacturing that supports good-quality jobs here in the U.S. In addition, it helps reduce energy use and reduce our dependence on imported materials.”

Why am I reminding you of this one request the materials industry sent three years ago? To give some perspective of the time, consistency, and most importantly, the cooperation that goes into achieving such system changes as this. Since 2018, we have seen great progress in improving our domestic recycling system at an industry and citizen level. More awareness has been brought to the issue, which was arguably catalyzed by China’s 2018 Blue Sky Initiative. This newfound awareness kicked us into gear. Industry has been challenged to think creatively in finding a solution to processing the influx of waste material; citizens are challenged to make more conscious decisions about consumption as well as take responsibility to dispose of their waste properly. Still, there is much more work to be done to create an efficient and effective domestic recycling system and that is where policy comes in.

Fast forward to 2021. A second letter was written by PLASTICS, this time to President Biden, to both congratulate him and Vice President Harris on their historic victory and to offer the sentiment of cooperation on achieving our shared goals. Including the following three major positive shifts in the recycling industry that we are on the precipice of locking in:

The RECOVER (Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling) Act will fund innovation in the collection and sortation processes of recycling. How do we plan to increase mandated recycled content rates without first having enough recycled material available for reuse? Some highlights of the RECOVER Act are that it opens up opportunities to provide curbside recycling programs to residencies that do not currently have it, to expand collection programs outside of curbside collection where necessary, to build out other landfill avoidance programs, as well as to educate and train recycling operators on what can be recycled for maximum collection rates and minimized contamination. Funding will be doled out through an application process which mandates, among other things, that a recipient of funding track the progress of their program in order to measure impact. This aspect is essential to building effective, long-lasting programs.

The RECYCLE (Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education) Act is all about transparency. Have you ever been uncertain about what can or cannot go in the recycling bin? Have you ever heard the saying “What’s in the bin doesn’t actually get recycled.”? Recycling programs in each locality operate so differently, due to the nonuniformity of recycling infrastructure available, it makes the messaging hard to follow. In many places, an individual’s office building will accept different materials for recycling than that person’s home in the neighboring town. The aim of this bill is to fund education and outreach for citizens to finally understand what and how to recycle in their area. In conjunction, this bill will call on the EPA to develop a model recycling program toolkit as an effort to harmonize recycling programs across the U.S. 

The Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act is aimed at coordinating numerous governmental agencies to develop new recycling technologies as well as a strategic plan for plastic waste reduction, recycling and remediation that will be periodically updated. Advanced recycling is a focus of this bill which, when applied at scale, will be a game-changing improvement in getting plastic material ready for reuse. Due to the mismanagement of used plastic material, plastics have been singled out as a sort of enemy in the materials space. The fact that plastics are essential for our livelihood and well-being is a conversation for another day. However, we can all agree that improving recycling is an essential step in cleaning up our environment and keeping material out of landfills.

Within the Congressional findings of this bill, it is stated that the U.S. has “failed to invest in the development of domestic recycling markets, technology and materials to make the recycling process more available and efficient, and as a result, the United States recycles only 9% of its plastic waste.” We all want to see less manufactured material in the environment and more recycled content in our products. The onus is on our government to provide funding, industry to provide innovation and us as citizens to educate ourselves on how to participate within the system.

These three pieces of legislation are on PLASTICS 2021 list of goals because they are truly products of bipartisan cooperation, which is the biggest component in driving the U.S. forward in making long-lasting system changes. Just as mastering the kazoo, sticking to a healthy lifestyle, or accomplishing any habitual goal requires consistency and dedication, the job of creating and maintaining a circular economy will never be done. It will require continuous improvement and upkeep. Though there is no finish line with sustainability, there are countless achievable milestones ready to be hit and we will be here celebrating every victory along the way. So, cheers to a new year and the victories it will bring. Once these goals are achieved, we will be on to the next… stay tuned!

Read more about PLASTICS Recycling Infrastructure Priorities.

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