EPA releases National Recycling Strategy

The strategy marks a shift toward a circular economy approach to materials management.

neighborhood with reycling bins

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its “2021 National Recycling Strategy” Nov. 15, which also kicks off America Recycles Week. The strategy is designed to address major recycling challenges, including contamination, to create “a stronger, more resilient and cost-effective municipal solid waste recycling system,” the agency says, with the goal of achieving a 50 percent national recycling rate by 2030. The strategy also addresses the climate impacts of producing, using and disposing of materials and the human health and environmental impacts of waste and waste-related facilities in overburdened communities.

According to the strategy, “The National Recycling Goal and the National Recycling Strategy are integrated and support the ultimate goal of improving recycling and increasing circularity within the United States. The methodology to measure the recycling goal and its key metrics is under development and expected to be finalized later this year. In the development of the implementation plan, EPA will bring the recycling goal and National Recycling Strategy together into a comprehensive plan. As EPA moves beyond recycling to develop additional strategies, EPA also will develop a new goal to reduce the climate impacts from materials production, consumption, use and disposal that will complement the focus on a circular economy approach. This new goal will complement the National Recycling Goal, as well as the U.S. goal to halve food loss and waste by 2030.”

In 2018, in response to recent international policy changes and other challenges, EPA focused on U.S. recycling, hosting the inaugural America Recycles Day Summit in 2018. That was followed by publishing the “National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System,” in 2019, a collaborative effort by stakeholders from across the recycling system that highlighted the need to promote education and outreach, enhance infrastructure, strengthen materials markets and enhance measurement. The "2021 National Recycling Strategy" adds environmental justice and circular economy focuses. 

The EPA says among the challenges the U.S. recycling system faces are reduced markets for recyclables, recycling infrastructure that has not kept pace with today’s changing material stream, confusion about what materials can be recycled and varying methodologies to measure recycling system performance. The “2021 National Recycling Strategy” identifies actions designed to address these challenges under its five strategic objectives:

  1. improve markets for recycled commodities through market development, analysis, manufacturing and research;
  2. increase collection of recyclables and improve recycling infrastructure through analysis, funding, product design and processing efficiencies;
  3. reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream through outreach and education to the public on the value of proper recycling;
  4. enhance policies and programs to support recyclability and recycling through strengthened federal and international coordination, analysis, research on product pricing and sharing of best practices; and
  5. standardize measurement and increase data collection through coordinated recycling definitions, measures, targets and performance indicators.

The strategy also focuses on how the EPA will address environmental justice, climate change and the circular economy:

  • EPA says it recognizes the burden that living near waste and waste-related facilities can have on communities when waste is not properly managed, potentially leading to higher levels of chronic health issues. The strategy is designed to increase equitable access to recycling services, reduce environmental impacts in communities, stimulate economic development and ensure overburdened communities meaningfully participate during the strategy’s implementation.
  • The strategy includes a commitment from the EPA to create a new national goal to reduce the climate impacts from the production, consumption, use and disposal of materials, which make up approximately 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’ s International Resource Panel. This new climate goal will help achieve President Biden’s commitment to achieve a 50 to 52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economywide net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, according to the EPA.
  • While this initial strategy focuses on the recycling of municipal solid waste, additional work is necessary to create a “circular economy” where materials (e.g., plastics, food waste, electronics and industrial materials) are managed sustainably throughout their life cycle. EPA, in coordination with other federal agencies and interested stakeholders, intends to release subsequent strategies that will encompass other activities beyond the recycling of MSW, reflecting the need for sustainable product design, reducing waste generation and materials reuse activities critical to realizing circularity. Subsequent strategies will address other key materials, such as plastics, food, cement and concrete, as well as electronics.

The EPA says it will work with stakeholders, including communities, local, state, federal and Tribal partners, and with public and private stakeholders, to develop a plan to implement the strategy.

The circular economy approach to materials management represents a change in how the nation currently mines resources, makes them into products and then disposes of those products. This approach would reduce material use, redesigns materials and products to be less resource-intensive and recaptures “waste” to use in manufacturing new materials and products, according to the EPA.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan says, “Our nation’s recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people. EPA’s National Recycling Strategy provides a roadmap to address system challenges and pave the way for the future of recycling. As we move forward with this strategy, EPA is committed to ensuring that historically underserved and overburdened communities share in the benefits that our work will deliver. 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 strengthening our economy.”

“The full impact of waste materials is connected to a broad range of issues, and having a strategy that promotes better materials management can help lead us to solutions for these larger issues,” says Sacoby Wilson, EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council member and University of Maryland Associate Professor/Director, Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Initiative, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “We have to work with industries that are significant sources of single-use products. And, when we address recycling, we must address where these waste products come from, where they go and how they’re impacting the health, sustainability and quality of life in communities of color.”

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, took part in an advance briefing by Carlton Waterhouse from the EPA Friday, Nov. 12. ISRI’s Director of Advocacy Adina Renee Adler says that by taking climate change and environmental justice into consideration, the strategy is more expansive than the original draft, which was released in October and focused on contamination, collection and markets.

She says the EPA offered some thinking on how to achieve each of the objectives outlined in the strategy in the briefing, such as extended producer responsibility, or EPR, and recycled-content mandates to enhance circularity and address the challenges associated with recycling. The strategy calls for conducting an analysis of different policies such as these that could address recycling challenges.

Adler adds that ISRI does not support recycled-content mandates. Instead, the association says it supports legislation that expands the use of recycled plastic in applications that are appropriate, noting that these levels vary by application and type of plastic.

ISRI says it supports manufacturers incorporating the principles of Design for Recycling (DfR) to ensure their products are more easily recycled, which Adler says is one of the EPA’s possible suggestions for improving collection and materials management infrastructure, though the agency refers to it as "design for environment."

“That was music to our ears,” she says. “It was good to see that captured in the strategy.”

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Maryland, which also took part in the EPA briefing last Friday, has voiced its support of the strategy. SWANA says it has engaged with EPA throughout the past four years, helping the agency respond to China’s National Sword program, including participating actively on several recycling workgroups and advocating for EPA’s 50 percent waste diversion goal by 2030.

“SWANA is very pleased that EPA has broadened the draft National Recycling Strategy to encompass climate change, environmental justice and other topics,” says David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO. “We look forward to working closely with EPA and other stakeholders to educate Americans about the strategy and helping to implement it.”

The strategy notes that stakeholders submitted comments on whether to include chemical recycling in the scope of the National Recycling Strategy, adding, “All options, including chemical recycling, should be discussed when considering methods for sustainably managing materials. Therefore, chemical recycling is part of the scope of this strategy and further discussion is welcome.”

Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Washington, issued a statement on the strategy that reads in part, “Advanced (or chemical) recycling is critical for achieving a more circular economy for plastics. Since 2017, 65 advanced recycling projects have been announced that have the potential to divert more than 5 million metric tons of waste annually from landfills.

“There is significant alignment in what America’s Plastic Makers are calling for in our 5 Actions for Sustainable Change and what EPA has laid out in its National Recycling Strategy. This is particularly evident in the strategy’s support of increasing domestic markets for recycled material, creating national recycling standards to reduce contamination and measure results more effectively and enhancing recycling infrastructure.

“Congress can further help the EPA implement its strategy and achieve its recycling goals by enacting policies such as a national standard requiring plastic packaging to contain 30 percent recycled plastic by 2030 and an American-designed producer responsibility system to improve recycling access and collection of all materials,” Baca continues.

He concludes, “Consumers want packaging with more recycled plastics material, more than 400 brands have committed to increasing the amount of recycled material in their packaging, and America’s Plastic Makers have set a goal to have 100 percent of plastic packaging to be reused, recycled or recovered in the U.S. by 2040. EPA’s Strategy lays the groundwork to make much of this possible.”

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