In a series of recent articles, multiple stakeholder groups discussed some of the factors hindering needed improvements to the US recycling system as well as recent efforts to move forward towards a circular economy.

In an article written by news provider Waste Dive on November 18, 2020, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reported to have recently announced a goal to achieve a national recycling rate of 50% by 2030. This target has been set alongside a new national recycling strategy that the EPA has opened for public comment until December 4, 2020 (FPF reported). However, with the current US recycling rate found to have recently dropped to near 32% and following the failure of previous federal efforts to implement a national recycling improvement strategy in the 1990s, this could prove to be a challenge. The US was also recently identified by a study as a global leader in contributing to ocean plastic pollution (FPF reported).

In an article published on November 18, 2020, the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) points to the lack of accurate recycling data as a key stumbling block in improving the existing system. The organization explains that this stems from recycling in the US being based on a fragmented system with thousands of municipalities and private waste management operators, each with its own standards and processes. “Bottom line: you can’t manage what you can’t measure and today, the United States can’t reliably measure our recycling rate.” CBA is calling for lawmakers to create legislation “that will standardize recycling reporting, giving each system uniform tools and guidelines.”

Industry association the American Chemistry Council (ACC) also announced that the US plastics industry has proposed a set of guiding principles to create a more circular system in the country. In addition to national recycling standards, it is calling for higher multi-material and packaging fees to fund collection programs, legislation requiring the use of recycled content, and more official recognition of new recycling technologies. It reports progress made towards a circular economy through a range of new recycling projects across the US. However, recycling based on chemical and plastic-to-fuel technologies have come under increasing scrutiny from other stakeholders for their economic viability and potentially limited circularity (FPF reported).

In a report published by investment firm Closed Loop Partners, the organization points to what it sees as a recent shift towards a better recycling system, specifically with “four key drivers – market forces, recent innovations, changing policy and groundbreaking partnerships – push[ing] circularity forward.” It argues that “in North America and around the world, supply chain disruptions, growing amounts of waste, and health and safety risks have called attention to the flaws of business-as-usual” and thanks to “growing investments and interest in less wasteful systems, the circular economy in North America is in the midst of a sea change.”

The changing political landscape is also being seen as having an important effect. Following the recent elections, voters in the state of Georgia approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state government to use fees or taxes collected for a specific purpose to later be spent only on financing that same purpose. News provider Waste Dive reports that this could have large implications for improving waste management in the state, especially given that less than a third of collected waste fees were previously spent to operate and improve the waste system.

Discussions are also ongoing about a number of draft national recycling bills, many of which specifically target the reduction of plastic pollution. With a shift in federal and state-level administrations set to take place in January 2021, it is still to be seen, however, how all of these initiatives will play out, and whether or not they really can help bring up the country’s recycling rate and meet existing targets set by governments and other stakeholders.

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Cole Rosengren (November 18, 2020). “EPA sets 2030 national recycling goal, stakeholders call for more federal action.” Waste Dive

Meghan Stasz (November 13, 2020). “Standardized Data is the First Step to Saving American Recycling.” CBA

ACC (November 17, 2020). “America’s Plastic Makers Invite Collaboration with Congress to Help Create More Circular and Sustainable Systems for Plastics Collection and Recovery.”

ACC (November 20, 2020). “America’s Plastic Makers Applaud EPA’s First-Ever National Recycling Goal, Call on Congress to Support.”

Closed Loop Partners (September 23, 2020). “Closed Loop Partners Launches Report on Unprecedented Shifts in the Circular Economy in North America.”

Cole Rosengren (November 19, 2020). “Urgency around climate change, plastics ramps up circular economy interest in US.” Waste Dive

Leslie Nemo (November 13, 2020). “Georgia voters approve ballot measure that could direct millions to new recycling efforts.” Waste Dive

As You Sow (December 2, 2020). “Republic Services Issues Recycling Report Requested by Investors.”

American Chemistry Council (December 3, 2020). “ACC Comments on EPA National Recycling Strategy.”

American Chemistry Council (December 8, 2020). “Plastics Industry Emphasizes Solutions to Eliminate Plastic Waste and Drive the Circular Economy Forward.”