Reshaping the US solid waste paradigm in the era of infrastructure legislation

In 2017, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB) President Steve Simmons penned a Waste Today article—“Is the U.S. ready for a paradigm shift in solid waste management?”— that started a national conversation on ways the U.S. can pivot to a more sustainable and localized solid waste system by integrating circular economy and zero-waste management principles. Five years later, is the U.S. ready to shift its solid waste paradigm to reach the new national recycling goal of 50 percent by 2030? The Biden administration hopes the answer is “yes” and has established a new national plan to improve domestic recycling systems, facilitate a collective focus on reducing contamination of recyclables and strengthen domestic recycling markets.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Recycling Strategy calls for significant investments in local government educational outreach programs and solid waste infrastructure. This emphasis on investments provides a road map for funding that the Biden administration included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed November 2021. In terms of projects, the legislative package includes four funding sources, most of which are projected to be allocated from 2022 to 2026, that will support the redevelopment of the country’s solid waste management system in the coming years. Those funding sources will remain available until expended and include solid waste infrastructure for recycling grants ($275 million); reduce, reuse and recycle education outreach grants ($75 million); funding to encourage battery collection best practices ($15 million); and voluntary battery labeling guidelines ($10 million).

Grant funding will be available for state and local governments and is allotted for municipal solid waste (MSW) facilities, such as material recovery facilities, and programmatic improvements to the municipal recycling systems. Additionally, the White House published the Guidebook to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Governments and Other Partners, which breaks down the infrastructural funding available through the legislation. The guidebook also offers a preliminary list of ideas that state and local governments might consider when deciding whether to apply for grant funding. One is for cities to prioritize infrastructure needs, delaying some projects because of a lack of funding.

At the local level, GBB encourages government leaders to holistically evaluate their current local and regional systems to see what can be done to expand infrastructure by partnering with public and private entities throughout the state.

Municipalities can begin by asking the following questions:

  • How would this change help meet or exceed targets outlined in our MSW management plan or any additional strategic planning documents?
  • Is there a document that provides a breakdown of our solid waste program’s services and financial costs?
  • Does this project consider the waste supply and composition in our region?
  • Does this plan consider the efficiency of our MSW collection system?
  • What are the regional marketing opportunities for hard-to-recycle items?
  • What available assets owned by private and public entities (e.g. solid waste facilities, drop-off areas, donation centers) are nearby that we might partner with to expand waste diversion offerings?
  • How would this infrastructure or programmatic change impact our solid waste management system fees?

Municipalities also can benefit from EPA’s Managing and Transforming Waste Streams: A Tool for Communities, which includes waste diversion and reduction guidance useful when evaluating additional methods to reach the 2030 recycling target.

The nation and industry know recycling enhancements are one step toward embracing a new solid waste paradigm. Further considerations that address waste along the supply chain are vital to reduce the quantity of waste produced and to build a circular economy. However, the public discourse and policies provided have created another moment for us to collectively reach the shared vision of a circular economy for all and change the nation’s solid waste management system, one pivot at a time.

April 2022
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