The EPA will set voluntary national recycling goals early next year, agency chief Andrew Wheeler said Nov. 15.
The goals will aim to “measure success across the entire value chain,” Wheeler said at a summit meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters. The agency published its national framework the same day, detailing its plan in broad terms.
The EPA also said it finalized a rule Nov. 15 that streamlines the recycling of hazardous waste aerosol cans, as part of broader efforts to increase recycling. The new system will save at least $5.3 million per year in regulatory costs, Wheeler said.
More broadly, the EPA in 2020 will support workshops across the country to build markets for recycled materials, kick off a pilot education campaign to increase public awareness of how to recycle, establish a set of national definitions, and create a national map of existing recycling infrastructure to identify gaps, said Peter Wright, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
Public ‘Incredibly Confused’
The EPA’s work on promoting education is important because, although consumers want to recycle, they are “incredibly confused about what to do,” said Meghan Stasz, vice president of packaging and sustainability at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The nation’s recycling system is a patchwork of fractured local systems that each have different rules. That brings contamination into the recycling stream, and causes Americans to “think doing their taxes is easier than recycling,” Stasz said. “And assembling IKEA furniture.”
EPA’s focus on recycling comes at a challenging time for the U.S. recycling industry. Until the beginning of last year, China was the biggest market for mix paper. But it has since essentially stopped taking U.S. recycling, leading to a dramatic drop in prices for recycled paper in the U.S., and challenges from some municipalities to find markets for recycled cans, bottles, paper, and other products.
Only about half of American households have access to curbside recycling, said Keefe Harrison, chief executive of The Recycling Partnership.
“What year is it that that is the truth?” Harrison said.
The EPA and its many partners in local government and private industry will also try to expand the market for recycled materials, Wheeler said.
“If there isn’t market demand on the other side, recycling’s not going to happen,” said Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.
Stakeholders at the Nov. 15 meeting broadly applauded the EPA’s move to prioritize recycling.
A national mandate from the federal government, even if it’s only voluntary, “focuses attention on recycling in a way that a goal coming out of Sacramento or Richmond, Va., simply doesn’t,” said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
The issue areas EPA has identified for future work “are sensible ones, but only time will tell if this summit leads to actual implementation of programs and measures that do in fact enhance recycling over the next year,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The EPA under President Donald Trump has made significant strides in boosting recycling, Wheeler said. Since the agency’s first recycling summit in November 2018, the number of signatories signing the EPA’s recycling pledge has more than tripled from 45 to 170, according to Wheeler.
Recycling and reuse supports 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages, and $6.7 billion in tax revenues per year, according to the EPA.