Fueled by international policy decisions, growing pressure on already-strained municipal budgets, and subsequent media coverage, recycling has inspired serious scrutiny and concern in recent years. While prominent members of the industry have pushed back against claims the sector has failed, many in the regulation-averse space have nonetheless called for assistance from the government. This year, they may get their wish — or regret asking to begin with.
Four notable bills are migrating through Congress, with at least one more set to be introduced in coming weeks. That legislation targets the root problems facing recycling, from education to infrastructure to the supply chain. Some bills have strong industry support, while others have drawn ongoing opposition.
It’s unclear how this wave of federal legislation will fare as the year progresses. Not all of the bills will even make it out of their respective committees. But they mark a historic moment for the space, one that could potentially lead to real long-term changes.
A longtime problem, finally drawing attention
Recycling has faced hurdles for years, but industry players are largely in agreement on why the sector is drawing fresh scrutiny from federal legislators.
“Recycling is in the news,” explained Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for The Recycling Partnership (TRP). “Whenever something's in the news... [that’s] naturally going to translate to political responses in some way.”
Throughout 2019, federal recycling legislation grew from a one-off occurrence to a major trend, with some emphasis on environmental issues. The “Zero Waste Act of 2019,” introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) last summer, revived a prior bill backed by her predecessor Keith Ellison. The “Save Our Seas 2.0” Act (SOS 2.0) meanwhile followed a 2018 law.
An outline of a yet-to-be introduced bill, from Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), circulated soon after, addressing growing concern over plastic pollution and marine debris. In November, two bills shaped largely by the recycling industry, the RECOVER Act and the RECYCLE Act, also joined the fray.
“Politicians are in tune with what the public wants,” said Chaz Miller, a columnist for Waste360 who served as director of policy and advocacy with the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) prior to his retirement. “This is normal when markets are bad, and then you throw in all the anti-plastics stuff and it ramps it up.”
Miller noted the last “big run” at federal recycling legislation came during the 1990s amid increasing attention to packaging and regulations. That included efforts by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who pushed for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) bill, and interest from the Clinton administration in recycled content standards for fiber. But in the more than 20 years since, interest has waned — until now.
China's 2017 scrap import restrictions compounded long-running problems facing U.S. recycling and initiated a market shift that is still ongoing. Contamination and outdated infrastructure were issues prior to the collapse of some international end markets, but taken together those realities have hit the sector hard.
Nearly 70 local governments have canceled or suspended curbside recycling programs in the time since, with only a handful resuming service. Of the majority still maintaining their programs, many have seen heavy material restrictions along with price hikes.
The resulting media attention and constituent concern has drawn interest from lawmakers, as have growing appeals from the industry. During last year’s U.S. EPA America Recycles Day summit, a diverse coalition of groups indicated they would welcome some non-regulatory direction from the federal government.
Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who has overseen an agenda largely friendly to the industry, pledged at the time to set new national recycling goals in 2020. EPA has notably avoided seeking to promulgate new rules in this area and has largely passed the buck to Congress, arguing the agency can only do so much without new regulatory authority.
The private sector appears to agree, to an extent. Industry support for both the RECYCLE and RECOVER bills runs deep among major players. Both bills would pour money into the sector without imposing regulations. Other bills, like Udall-Lowenthal, have met with a chillier reception in an industry that largely opposes a “kitchen sink” approach and favors smaller-scale efforts.
“People read articles about how recycling is broken…[and] think they can fix this whole system with a piece of legislation,” said Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), who expressed strong skepticism regarding that approach.
That sentiment is largely shared by other trade groups as much as it is rejected by environmental organizations. But even where players agree, there remains debate — namely, over what to prioritize.
Infrastructure, education, or a focus on supply chain?
The recycling industry is virtually unanimous in agreement the sector needs help. But they differ on how best to approach the problem.
RECOVER would see $500 million in matching grants used largely to bolster infrastructure projects by states, municipalities, and tribal governments. Those projects are centered on improvements to curbside collection and processing, along with MRF upgrades and drop-off sites. The bill would also establish a recycling infrastructure program within EPA.
By contrast, RECYCLE’s main focus is education and outreach. Sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the bipartisan bill would create a program within EPA to boost recycling education. It would authorize up to $15 million per year in grants for states and local governments, along with tribes, public-private partnerships, and nonprofits. That money would play out over a constrained five-year span. RECYCLE would also instruct EPA to update its guidelines for products containing recycled content on a more frequent basis.
NWRA and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) have endorsed both bills, as have a number of prominent commodities groups, namely those representing glass and plastics. RECYCLE’s support is notably broad, also garnering approval from ISRI and both groups representing both fiber and aluminum.
RECOVER has met with more mixed reactions. Fiber groups have notably been absent from the bill’s prominent endorsements, and ISRI confirmed to Waste Dive the organization has qualms with focusing on infrastructure before addressing education issues.
“RECOVER doesn’t really focus on education first, it focuses on equipment first,” said Johnson. “You’re going to ruin all your new equipment.”
From Johnson’s perspective, the bill comes with a hefty price tag without accounting for current contamination issues. “It’s a very expensive way of coming up with low-grade material,” he argued.
By contrast, Johnson pointed to RECYCLE as legislation focused on driving the marketplace and creating a pipeline for commodities. “People understand that they can trade in a car and there's money behind it. They know it is going to be recycled… That's really the difference between the municipal side and the commercial industrial side,” he said.
That “education first” emphasis is key for some in the industry concerned about developing resilient end markets and countering ongoing contamination issues. But proponents of infrastructure funding argue both elements are important. SWANA Executive Director and CEO David Biderman said his organization is a “strong supporter” of both RECYCLE and RECOVER, along with the pollution-focused SOS 2.0.
“[We believe] that the combination of federal action, continued reduction in contamination rates, and the opening of new mills and other facilities in the United States, will lead to better markets for recovered material,” Biderman asserted.
Both the Udall-Lowenthal bill and Omar’s Zero Waste Act take a different approach. Beth Porter, a program director with Green America and author of "Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine," lauded those bills as offering “systemic changes to how we manage materials” and addressing the supply chain.
“It's notable that …[those] proposals are not just focused on end-of-life disposal, but also have provisions on the use of recycled materials in production,” she wrote in an email. “For years, virgin materials have benefited from subsidies and have not had related environmental externalities applied to their cost, arguably creating an uneven playing field between virgin and recycled materials.”
Those bills would include market development for recycled materials, with Udall-Lowenthal in particular calling for a new minimum on recycled content in packaging, plastic bottles, and other assorted items.
Omar’s bill meanwhile has a strong environmental justice slant. Billed as “a key part” of the proposed Green New Deal, that legislation would funnel up to $250 million for “zero waste” initiatives through EPA grants. While other bills frame problems with waste and recycling in largely economic terms, the Zero Waste Act has a heavy climate emphasis.
“Waste is a climate issue. Landfills were responsible for 103 million metric tons of carbon emitted in 2011, or nearly 20 percent of all methane emissions,” said Omar in a statement to Waste Dive, going on to argue that “we must see [the] climate crisis and the waste crisis as linked.”
Denise Patel, a program director with the group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), praised both bills. She argued legislation broadly should focus on source reduction and pursuing “more effective upstream solutions” while prioritizing the environment and climate resilience. “What we've been watching out for is industry's attempts to sneak in incentives for harmful waste management approaches like plastic-to-fuel under the guise of ‘recycling’ or ‘recovery,’” Patel said.
Those divergent priorities will continue dividing players in the space, although some points of agreement are likely to unite industry members specifically. De Thomas of TRP offered that industry backing can come hand-in-hand with smaller-level efforts, rather than wide-scale regulations.
“It’s easier to build a coalition of support around [individual issues],” he said, with a nod towards areas like education and infrastructure.
Plastics and extended producer responsibility remain flash points
Heightened anti-plastics sentiment and concerns over recycling have made a number of bills especially contentious.
RECYCLE has largely escaped unscathed for now, but RECOVER has drawn ire from Beyond Plastics and other groups over the bill’s emphasis on recycling plastics rather than eliminating them. The Udall-Lowenthal bill has seen the opposite reaction, with an outpouring of support from EPR advocates and backlash from industry.
That bill would establish a national container deposit system, or “bottle bill,” in addition to enshrining EPR for certain single-use products. Carryout plastic bags and straws, expanded polystyrene food containers, and cotton buds would all be banned under the bill. Retailers would meanwhile refund customers 10 cents for bringing their own reusable carryout bags.
“I’m very excited about the discussion [the bill] will bring,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council. Like other circular economy proponents, Sanborn sees the legislation as critical to fixing a problem at its origins. “I do worry that we're focusing on government fixing infrastructure,” she said, referencing bills that prioritize that element of the process. “To me, the producers need to be responsible for the whole circular loop.”
But waste and recycling industry representatives have been skeptical of the legislation.
While industry groups have pointed to their support for SOS 2.0 as environmentally-motivated, several have resisted legislation that would introduce sweeping regulations. NWRA notably came out against Udall-Lowenthal last fall.
“[It would] disrupt the recycling business model that we have here,” argued Jim Riley, NWRA’s vice president for federal affairs. Anne Germain, the group’s vice president of technical and regulatory affairs, similarly criticized the bill as “almost overwhelming” in its scope.
“Having a mandate does nothing without an end market,” she said.
Others have been more measured. Biderman said SWANA has not taken a formal stance on Udall-Lowenthal or the Zero Waste Act. SWANA provided feedback on Udall-Lowenthal to the lawmakers, and Biderman indicated the group will reassess when the bill is introduced.
Some disputes over legislation have split environmental advocates themselves. SOS 2.0 comes with backing from climate hawk Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and endorsements from groups like the Ocean Conservancy. But anti-plastics groups have argued the legislation has an end-of-cycle focus, rather than addressing virgin plastics in the supply chain.
“[It] fails to address the root cause of the problem,” said Patel of GAIA.
Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration, shared similar sentiments. She pointed to the plastics bans gaining traction at the state and local level, drawing a contrast with Congress. “[SOS 2.0] will do little to reduce the proliferation of plastic pollution,” she said.
Opposition hasn’t halted the bill’s momentum — it passed the Senate unanimously in mid-January and now awaits debate in the House of Representatives. Changes around waste reduction language eventually won the support of Sen. Udall, the hold-out, although did little to sway the bill’s skeptics.
“It’s less bad than it was,” said Sanborn.
A year filled with action?
Even among industry experts, there is little consensus on what the future holds. With impeachment proceedings happening in the Senate, election season looming, and the Summer Olympics set to disrupt the calendar, many have been hesitant to speculate what might happen to any of the bills.
“If stars align, any one of them could pass,” said Riley, of NWRA. But he caveated that bills lacking bipartisan support could falter, as well as any deemed overly complex.
Others shared that sentiment. “The narrower the focus of a given bill, the greater support you can get for it,” said TRP's de Thomas.
One likely winner is SOS 2.0. “If any one of them has legs, that’s the one,” said Johnson of ISRI, noting the bill’s current momentum. “They’re addressing a problem that people understand.” Biderman of SWANA similarly endorsed SOS 2.0 as “the most likely recycling bill” to make it out of Congress in 2020. President Donald Trump moreover signed off on the bill’s predecessor in 2018.
For RECYCLE and RECOVER, prospects range. The former’s diverse bench of support could help push it over the finish line, some experts speculated, while the latter’s price tag might cause concerns.
Miller (formerly of NWRA) offered that success for any bill largely hinges on a combination of factors, including whether sponsors hold key positions on certain committees. Bipartisan support is also critical, something that could doom some bills widely opposed by industry. While a number of environmental groups expressed support for Omar’s bill, few gave it strong odds of making it through the GOP-controlled Senate even if it were to pass the House.
That reality could similarly hinder Udall-Lowenthal, which sources indicated could be introduced in a matter of weeks. Even were that legislation to gain traction, Sanborn and other EPR proponents expressed concern it might inspire preemptive “ban the ban” laws.
“That's what we see happen in California all the time… opposition will introduce counter-bills,” she said, pointing to efforts by opposing lawmakers to reign in the rights of states and local governments to impose regulations on things like plastics.
Many in the industry also indicated they don’t take federal EPR bills seriously. “I look at [Udall-Lowenthal] more as an opportunity to start discussion,” said Miller.
In addition to movement in Congress, state legislatures have been introducing their own bills, which similarly range in emphasis from EPR to education. That trend is compounding wider perceptions that this is a rare opportunity for the sector. Despite their diverse — and in some cases, dramatically opposing — views on different pieces of legislation, recycling advocates and experts largely agree the current influx marks an important moment for the industry.
“I think this is different than in years past, when you'd get a bubble of interest and it would pop… because of the extended nature of what is essentially a market's challenge,” said de Thomas, citing the “underlying economics and challenges facing the recycling industry.”
Advocates focused on an environmental and climate angle expressed similar sentiments. “This is the biggest federal push for waste policy that we’ve seen in quite some time,” said Porter, of Green America.
Industry figures broadly indicated they expect to see more federal legislation in the coming year targeting those issues. That could include a bill addressing tax credits for recycling infrastructure, potentially from RECYCLE sponsor Portman. Depending on the outcome of the 2020 election, many also felt prospects for passing certain bills — including those with a circular economy or EPR emphasis — could shift dramatically.
But some remain cautious about the limitations of federal intervention in a sector still experiencing major fluctuations. At the end of the day, they argue, long-term change will come down to consumers and the public.
“Recycling is something where people believe policy solves all problems,” said Miller. “Advocates time and time and time again overlook that it's people that count, not policies. People need to translate policy into results.”