Energy & Environment

Efforts to rescue recycling complicated by coronavirus

Lawmakers are looking for ways to aid the struggling recycling industry, but the coronavirus is standing in the way of efforts to stamp down on single-use plastics. 

The industry was hit hard by a 2018 decision from China to close its doors to much of the U.S.’s waste, but a coronavirus-related drop in sales tax revenue has left many cities unsure of how to pay for the increasingly expensive programs. 

“When municipalities are no longer able to afford recycling, the collected recyclables are oftentimes incinerated or piled up in landfills, leaking toxins into the air we breathe,” Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said at the start of a Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

“No American should have to debate whether they can afford to recycle, especially amid a pandemic that has caused great economic hardship and whose effects are exacerbated by air pollution,” he added.

The challenges facing the recycling industry are complex and varied.

The market for many recyclable products shrunk considerably once China no longer accepted them. As the value of those products shrank, programs that were once profitable began losing money.

Meanwhile ,many products that claim to be recyclable are either too expensive or undesirable to be reused while trash and other products people assume are recyclable contaminate shipments sent to processors.

Many have argued one needed measure is to severely reduce America’s reliance on single-use plastics, a move that could limit the amount of things like plastic silverware and Keurig cups that end up in landfills, as well as so-called recyclables that are seldom repurposed.

But that effort may face new resistance as many businesses turn to single-use items to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pointed to grocery stores that no longer allow customers to bring their reusable bags while some restaurants have switched to disposable plates and cutlery.

“The pandemic has reminded us of the critical role that single-use plastics play in protecting public health,” he said.

There is a growing call from recycling experts, however, to not only steer away from single-use plastics, but to make more sustainable packaging that companies could reuse time and again, similar to how soda bottles were recollected back in the day.

“It’s clear we have the know how to produce and distribute products, and therefore we surely have the skill sets design, elegant reverse logistics to recapture the product,” said Nina Bellucci Butler, with More Recycling, a research company that deals primarily with plastics. “It’s not a moonshot. it’s an Earth shot.”

She has pushed for a price on carbon, something she believes will incentivize companies to either design packaging that is truly recyclable or reuse their containers. 

Putting the onus on companies to handle disposal of their packaging is an idea that has been pushed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) as well, part of his recycling bill that likewise aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste that lands in oceans.

“Producers need to take responsibility for the collection, recycling, and disposal of the products they create. This will create powerful incentives to design products that are more sustainable and easier to recycle,” he told the committee.

“This is a tried and true, market-proven concept,” he continued. “We already do this for batteries, paint and other items that are dangerous if disposed improperly.”

Industry groups are in the middle of an effort to rethink recycling.

The Consumer Brands Association, which represents wide array of packaged products sold on every grocery store aisle, has been advocating to standardize recycling, bringing harmony to the nation’s more than 10,000 different recycling programs. 

“Every stakeholder is better positioned to educate consumers, reduce confusion and ensure investments pay off when the entire system is aligned on a national scale,” said Meghan Stasz, the association’s vice president of packaging and sustainability.

She wants the federal government to assist by collecting information across all the systems.

“We need consistent and standardized data so we know across the country what the rates are by material, where the success stories are so they can be replicated, where the problem spots are so they can be solved,” she said. “Our ability to succeed in fixing the broken recycling system starts with data.”

Tags Coronavirus John Barrasso Plastic Recycling Single-use plastics Tom Carper Tom Udall Waste management

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