Commentary: Cities and Counties Need Recycling Infrastructure Investment, But Is The “Breaking Free From Plastic” Bill The Answer?

Date: 10 May 2021 | posted in: waste - recycling, waste - zero waste | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Waste Advantage Magazine first published this article on March 8, 2021

By Neil Seldman

Cities, counties and recycling businesses are still trying to recover from the challenges of China’s National Sword ruling. The import bans imposed on our recyclables by China and other Asian economies have exposed the weakness of entities with huge sunk costs in collection and processing machinery that cannot meet market specifications. Recycling rates are falling and facilities closing in some places. As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, some operators also shut down, while others successfully stayed open due to them being deemed an Essential Businesses.

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act that will be reintroduced in Congress in 2021 proposes federal intervention and funding to provide capital for infrastructure improvements. This support of counties and cities, and the hardworking parts of the recycling industry itself, is long overdue.

Ongoing Efforts

Since the 1960s, billions of federal dollars have been invested in municipal wastewater and sewage treatment infrastructure to protect public health. However, relatively little funding was made available to cities and counties to maintain and improve their landfills and transfer stations. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, RCRA, 1976, required dramatic environmental upgrades to landfills. Many publicly owned landfills could not keep up with the capital needed. As a result, Browning-Ferris Industries, Waste Management International were created and later versions with similar business models, which included hauling, landfilling and, eventually, recycling processing facilities (Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs).

Yet even with dwindling Asian markets, we see clearly that local resource businesses are often thriving. Expanding clean composting for food and plant debris; banning unrecyclable products from commerce by local ordinances; banning organics from wasting at landfills; passing minimum content laws and regulations; hosting new and more aggressive reuse trading businesses; implementing dual-stream collection; fostering in-town processing through mini MRFS; creating unit pricing schemes; writing right to repair laws; rapid expansion of distributed composting; service fees for recycling companies; repair cafes and curb swaps; and regional ‘ReUse Corridors’—all of these remedies and more complete this expanding locally-driven landscape of ongoing efforts to end the age of waste for good.1

 At the same time state minimum content laws are being readied that require the use of recycled materials in products and packages. Similarly, state Right to Repair laws have overwhelming support from the public. 2

Below are some examples of what we are seeing, as well as the estimated multiplier effects expressed here as increased jobs from handling refined resources:

 

Case Study Chart

Waste to Wealth Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC August 2020

Company Location Type Materials Local/Regional Tons/Year Range in Miles Jobs on Site Jobs in Region*
Steamboat Springs, CO Mini MRF Glass, metal, paper, plastic 15,000 500 16 2,000
Tulsa, OK MRF Glass, metal, paper, plastic 30,000 250 32 2,500
Philadelphia, PA Construction and Demolition Wood, plastic, aggregates, metals 400,000 900 1,200
Twin Cities, MN Collection & Processing Glass, metal, paper, plastic 120,000 1,300 60 2,500
Wilson, NC Manufactured Glass Products Bottles/jars, auto & window 100,000 750 50 2,300
* Estimates are based on national averages for manufacturing plants using recovered materials from the case study facility. End use companies have supply chains that include the five surveyed companies plus other suppliers. Companies were not asked to identify the actual end use market they ship materials to in order to protect proprietary information.

Investment in domestic end use capacity is soaring in the paper, plastic and electronic scrap sectors as problems with collection and processing are solved. China is investing in U.S. plants to enable them to process materials here and then send back clean and predictable resources to their homeland industries.

Some in American industry have accepted surcharges and packaging taxes, which are longtime policy goals of grass roots recycling and Zero Waste advocates. Industry and governments have introduced “Buy Recycle Champion” programs. Leading product and packaging giants have pledged to have Zero Waste packaging that is reusable, compostable, or recyclable, by 2030, as Americans focus their combined voting power as citizens and purchasing power as consumers for true Zero Waste solutions.

Proposed EPR

Based on claims that ‘recycling has failed’, Fortune 500 companies propose to take over the entire sector from cities and counties, which do not know how to recycle and even if they did, they do not have the funds to implement. They propose ‘EPR for Packaging Paper and Products’, or PPP. As in British Columbia, a stewardship organization controlled by major brands dictates all the rules. Their policies have the ‘force of law’, which can undermine businesses, stop public criticism and gathers large slush funds to lobby inadequate government oversight bureaucrats. Despite claims of high levels of recycling and efficiency, research and analysis by Zero Waste Canada, The British Columbia Bottle Recycling and Depot Association and York University academics point out discrepancies that proponent of EPR PPP in the US are unwilling to address.3

EPR PPP is presented as a solution for the problems caused by collection and processing mistakes brought on by technophiles. They dreamed that disparate materials can be collected in one bin and then crushed by packer trucks and unscrambled by machinery. However, this proved to be false as the world markets refused to accept contaminated materials.

EPR does not have to be such a threat. At first, EPR in Europe was conceived as a “polluter pays” policy concept based on container deposit laws and take-back programs for hard to recycle and hazardous materials. Now, at least here in the U.S. and in parts of Canada, this has been transformed into a campaign for producers to control, tax, and manage all recycling of traditional feedstocks like paper and containers: glass, some plastics, and metals.

In Europe, container deposits are the foundation of a recovery system that establishes quotas for refillables, and incentives for companies to use refillable containers.  Reuse is by far the best way to deal with containers.  But reuse is labor-intensive, and anathema to many technophiles. Nevertheless, in the U.S. and Canada, EPR for PPP is designed to stop more container deposit legislation and undermine existing laws that require container reuse as in British Columbia, Canada.

EPR for PPP is not the right approach as it takes away the infrastructure that grass roots recyclers and organized citizens and small businesses have created since the late 1969 that now include a vibrant decentralized network of over 50,000 businesses, one million workers who earn more than $330 billion annually. The system is based on citizen access to decision-making at the local level. It is the constant agitation for more recycling and Zero Waste that drives the EPR PPP movement. It has weaponized Extended Producer responsibility’s polluter pays principal into a battle against local initiatives. Big Soda for examples lobbies state governments to preempt local authority. EPR for PPP is a national scale preemption against citizen action.

Building Local Infrastructure

U.S. recycling has stagnated for two decades at 32 to 35% recycling, even as some cities have reached twice this level of recycling with strategies applicable throughout the nation. What is needed is a cash infusion to build local infrastructure for recycling, reuse and composting. This investment can be accomplished without undermining local control. Such a program, which could replace the current iteration, is a reimbursement system that we are calling “Municipal Stewardship EPR”: producing companies pay for the impact of their products and packages through fees, surcharges and taxes that fund local investment under the control of local governments. Thus, freeing citizens to pursue product redesign, which EPR for PPP has not even tried to do as it threatens their profitability.

Municipal Stewardship EPR

Municipal Stewardship EPR would put governments in charge of funding and oversight. This would protect the rights of organized citizens and small business to influence local decisions. It honors the constant agitation for more recycling and ultimately for Zero Waste that built the recycling, anti incineration and Zero Waste movements.

Municipal Stewardship EPR requires manufacturers—not producers4—to provide financial support to cover the cost of managing their packaging materials and products. Funds for Municipal Stewardship EPR go directly to states, cities and towns to help cover the costs of recycling and expand their programs rapidly with infrastructure investments.

This approach retains the right and ability of organized citizens and small businesses to oversee and control local decision-making. The Municipal Stewardship EPR idea is contained in bills proposed for Maryland and Maine, which will be introduced in 2021 (when?). Municipal Stewardship nurtures the organic growth of recycling by keeping it close to the people who have to live and work under the hometown recycling system.

The engine of U.S. recycling grassroots agitation for circularity and Zero Waste will be limited, but never silenced. Municipal Stewardship EPR can be one among many remedies for US recycling, but it must be done right, with public and community oversight.

Neil Seldman is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in 1974 and director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative. Prior to 1974 he was a production manager for consumer products in Brooklyn, NY and professor of Political Science at The George Washington University in Washington. Neil can be reached at (202) 898-1610, ext. 5210 or e-mail nseldman@ilsr.org 

Notes

  1. For a compendium of local policies and programs prepared for the US EPA by Portia Sinnott, Zero Waste USA; see, Zero Waste USA, Inspiring Communities to Embrace and Achieve Zero Waste at https://www.epa.gov/transforming-waste-tool.
  2. Nana Technologies has raised over $10 million in new investments to complete the build-out of its online training capacity for thousands of new technical repair jobs that will be needed in the immediate future.3This is exciting news as repair and reuse should be priorities as we transition to a zero waste future. Also, see, John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight, The Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throw Away Culture, 2020; and, Right to RepairWaste Fact-sheet and Talking Points, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Erh0YiNKGNp4-s-wpJRB7517g5IZnc59FDRulgb4eW8/edit.
  3. See Calvin Lakhan, “The Whole Package? https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2020/10/26/the-whole-package/; and, https://ilsr.org/york-universitys-studies-of-extended-producer-responsibility-reveal-evidence-of-failures/; and https://ilsr.org/british-columbia-recycling-ends-pilot-program-beer-containers/
  4. See, https://todays-top-newss.blogspot.com/2020/11/h1-ahover-background-color888colorfff_629.html, and, https://ilsr.org/right-to-repair-movement-gaining-traction/
Photos courtesy of iStock.
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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.