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EPA finalizes its first national recycling strategy

Released on National Recycling Day, the plan emphasizes environmental justice and climate impacts. But some point to flaws.

Workers sort recycling material at a waste management recovery facility in Elkridge, Md., in 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized America’s first “national recycling strategy,” which aims to support the agency’s goal of achieving a 50 percent recycling rate by the end of the decade.

“Our nation’s recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “Together with the historic investments in recycling from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the strategy will help transform recycling and solid waste management across the country while creating jobs and bolstering our economy.”

The move comes on National Recycling Day, and the same day President Biden is signing an infrastructure bill that included $350 million for solid waste and recycling grants. It also comes amid growing concerns about global plastics pollution.

The vast majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and some can take hundreds of years to decompose. According to the United Nations Environment Program, the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste annually. A recent study found that the coronavirus pandemic led to more than 8 million tons of excess plastic waste.

The new strategy includes five main objectives — including improving the collection of recyclables and recycling data and reducing contamination in the recycling stream. The EPA also takes a “circular economy” approach, in which a product is sustainably managed throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal or reuse.

The new plan places a priority on addressing the impacts of recycling on poor and minority communities, such as incinerators and scrapyards.

While the new initiative does not provide extensive policy details, it identifies a number of studies the EPA will conduct — including an assessment of the needs in the recycling infrastructure system and an analysis of policies that could make recycling easier. It also commits the EPA to creating a new goal for reducing the climate impacts of the production, consumption and disposal of waste items; a system that is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council trade association also welcomed the new strategy. “We look forward to working closely with EPA and Congress to accelerate the expansion and modernization of U.S. recycling,” said Joshua Baca, the organization’s vice president of plastics.

“In our efforts to combat the existential threat of climate change, recycling is an important tool to move us toward a more circular economy and truly sustainable future,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), co-chair of the Senate Recycling Caucus, said in a statement. “I’m glad that the Biden administration is taking steps to seize this opportunity by launching the EPA’s first-ever national recycling strategy.”

But achieving the goal of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste by 2030 will be a steep climb. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, less than a quarter of waste generated in the United States is collected for recycling. And the EPA estimates that in 2018, the plastic recycling rate was only about 9 percent.

The GAO has been recommending federal recycling reforms since at least 2006, when the EPA was aiming for a 35 percent recycling rate by 2008. That target wasn’t met. But the issue took on more urgency in 2018 when the Chinese government limited recycling imports into the country, which had been a primary end point for much of the world’s recyclables and waste — including from the United States.

The change upended the global recycling system and, in 2019, Congress mandated the EPA to develop a national recycling strategy. That year, the agency released a national recycling framework, and last fall, it put out a draft of the strategy.

“We’re really building on past efforts around recycling,” said Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. “We are focusing it around our administration’s priorities.”

However, some say the final version, released Monday, remains lacking in key areas.

“There needs to be a more robust commitment to waste reduction,” said Judith Enck, a former senior EPA official during the Obama administration who now heads the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. “The problem is that there’s just too much plastic packaging foisted on American consumers.”

Center for International Environmental Law President Carroll Muffett agreed, saying that even if the United States moves toward higher recycling rates, it won’t matter if consumption isn’t curbed.

“We’re racing a moving target,” he said. “Recycling is not really the solution to the plastics crisis. Until we have national policies that are actually addressing the expansion of single-use disposable plastics that are driving that crisis, I think it’s likely to continue to mask the true source of the problem.”

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Dating back decades, the plastics industry has indeed used the possibility of recycling to keep its products on the market. For instance, a 1989 account from the industry-supported Council for Solid Waste Solutions noted of its efforts in Iowa that “outright bans on polystyrene packaging were dropped with a promise of recycling by industry.”

Muffett also noted that it matters what type of recycling the EPA includes in its national strategy. The agency mentions a much-debated technique called chemical recycling — or advanced recycling — which uses heat or chemicals to convert plastics into either fuel or plastic resin for reuse in manufacturing new products.

“Today’s versatile advanced recycling technologies can convert post-use plastics into a range of useful outputs,” reads a pamphlet on the process from the American Chemistry Council, a trade association. “These technologies also offer important environmental benefits, such as diverting valuable materials from landfill, transforming waste into an abundant source of alternative energy, and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Critics, however, see the framing as misleading.

“Chemical recycling is being held up by the industry as a cure-all,” said Neil Tangri, science and policy director for the advocacy organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. But, he said, the technology often doesn’t work if the recycling stream is dirty. It can be energy-intensive and doesn’t necessarily result in high enough quality plastic resin for repurposing, he added.

“You’re calling it recycling,” said Tangri, “but mostly you’re turning plastic into carbon dioxide and waste.”

The October 2020 draft of the national recycling strategy did not include any mention of chemical or advanced recycling. But the final version states that “chemical recycling is part of the scope of this strategy and further discussion is welcome.”

“Trump didn’t put it in, why would Biden?” Enck said. “That is an embarrassment to the Biden administration and should be removed from the plan.”

Waterhouse said the agency included chemical recycling in response to comments the agency received about its draft, but did not represent an endorsement of it.

“It’s really a matter of not taking it off the table,” he said. “We should be discussing it.”

Overall, Waterhouse called Monday’s announcement a “valuable first step” that will involve further consultation and more detailed policies down the line to address plastics and food waste.

Enck, however, said she remains skeptical that the EPA’s current blueprint can move the needle on the world’s waste problems.

“I think it’s good they did the plan,” she said. “I just wish it was a better plan.”


A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Carlton Waterhouse. The article has been corrected.