Efforts to fold a recycling infrastructure bill into a potential "phase four" coronavirus relief package from Congress are meeting with resistance from environmental groups, as well as skepticism from some in the industry. An April 16 letter from a number of trade groups has been slammed by opponents as a "plastics bailout" that would see pandemic aid funneled into recycling infrastructure efforts.
But supporters of the bill's inclusion span well beyond plastics, including groups with broader or different interests such as the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), The Recycling Partnership (TRP), and Glass Packaging Institute (GPI). Scott DeFife, president of GPI, told Waste Dive "addressing contamination in the system improves the quality of the material for many materials."
Recycling legislation was in the midst of a major surge on Capitol Hill before the pandemic, for the first time in over a decade. A number of bills are before Congress that address the sector, but now that the pandemic has largely derailed momentum some players have argued the path forward could come hand-in-hand with relief aid.
That push has largely involved the RECOVER Act — a bill introduced last fall with significant backing from groups representing broader recycling interests, along with glass and plastics.
"The crisis has shown some additional challenges that the nation's recycling system has," said DeFife, who played a role in crafting federal legislation in his prior job at the Plastics Industry Association. "And so we thought it was particularly timely to reiterate our belief that waste management and recycling are as much an infrastructure priority as roads, bridges, and other traditional infrastructure needs."
Under RECOVER, the federal government would allocate $500 million in matching funds to municipalities, tribes and states for infrastructure improvements like upgrading MRFs and drop-off sites. Still, despite fanfare from industry groups around its introduction, the bill has largely stalled since being referred to a House subcommittee in November 2019.
But some proponents feel aid efforts around the pandemic offer an opportunity to revive RECOVER. That push has gained attention largely because of its support from the plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, the Association of Plastics Recyclers, and the Plastics Industry Association were among the signatories on the April letter sent to leading members of Congress asking for the bill's inclusion in a future infrastructure package. The letter also included a significantly larger funding request over the original bill.
"While the current language in the RECOVER Act calls for $500 million over five years, we feel the time and need is right to seek a program of $1 billion," the letter states. "This immediate investment would start to reverse the current trend of landfilling recyclable materials, which has only been exacerbated by this pandemic."
Outside of plastics groups, other industry stakeholders also supported the request, including TRP, SWANA, and GPI. TRP receives funding from a diverse group of backers including plastics and oil companies, along with brands and both glass and fiber organizations. The increased dollar amount in the letter to Congress for RECOVER is attributed in the letter to TRP's 2020 "State of Curbside Recycling" report, which found an investment of $9.8 billion is likely needed to overhaul recycling infrastructure nationwide, an estimate that came prior to the onslaught of the pandemic. While funds associated with RECOVER would be far shy of that total, proponents see the increased amount as a critical starting point.
"The aim of the RECOVER Act is to help strengthen the circular economy through investing in the infrastructure that makes all of this possible," said Elizabeth Biser, vice president of public policy and affairs for TRP, via email. Biser also noted her organization is part of an effort calling for Congress to invest $100 million in recycling infrastructure.
The nonprofit argues the upgrades are necessary to protect frontline workers and guarantee feedstock for items like toilet paper and healthcare products. "Protecting the health and safety of our solid waste and recycling workers by investing in innovative technologies will ensure America’s manufacturing industry has the feedstock of materials customers need," Biser said.
SWANA has similarly pushed for congressional action on recycling and CEO David Biderman told Waste Dive in late April the organization has been in touch with federal lawmakers to ensure the sector's inclusion in future relief legislation. "This could incorporate recent legislative efforts such as the RECOVER Act which have already been introduced and received bipartisan support," Biderman said.
Some groups that have historically been wary of the bill, however, remain skeptical about its inclusion in any aid effort, while other notable players have been quiet. The American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) did not comment about its stance on the RECOVER Act or the legislation's possible inclusion in any future relief package. And Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), meanwhile argued against drawing potentially negative attention to recycling, a sector that otherwise enjoys rare bipartisan and public backing.
"The last thing I'd like to see is to see recycling being singled out," he told Waste Dive, noting the scrutiny some companies and industries have drawn during the pandemic due to the funds and prioritization they have received.
ISRI has previously expressed qualms with RECOVER, arguing for an approach to recycling that prioritizes education and outreach before investing in infrastructure. "If you don't put the wrong thing in the bin, you won't contaminate the bin," Johnson asserted.
Still, ISRI is not completely opposed to funding in an aid bill. While Johnson indicated the organization prefers to work through the congressional appropriations process, he noted lawmakers have reached out to ISRI about potentially including recycling funding in relief packages. Of all the pre-existing bills addressing recycling, Johnson argued the one best-suited for inclusion is the RECYCLE Act, which calls for a $75 million investment in education and outreach over the course of five years. That bill has among the most diverse support of any of the current recycling bills, with backing from glass, plastics, fiber, environmental organizations and other trade groups.
And some of those groups feel RECYCLE would be a good fit for pandemic aid relief. AF&PA is encouraging Congress to pass the bill, arguing it would improve community and residential recycling programs during a challenging time. Vice President of Government and Industry Affairs Elizabeth Bartheld told Waste Dive the organization is also supportive of including funding for recycling more broadly in relief legislation.
"Policymakers should consider ways to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on community recycling systems as Congress works on upcoming legislative packages," she said, emphasizing items like funding personal protective equipment for workers.
While ISRI has been reluctant to endorse that viewpoint, Johnson said the organization sees RECYCLE as a better fit than others. "If someone wants to... we think this bill is in good shape," he said, arguing RECYCLE offers a superior model to RECOVER, which he feels is a "spending bill."
Environmental groups have objected to RECOVER for other reasons, arguing improvements in recycling infrastructure don't address underlying supply chain issues.
Many, like Beyond Plastics, have been more supportive of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which has a focus on extended producer responsibility and addressing plastic production. Judith Enck, the group's founder and a former EPA regional administrator, recently told The Intercept the government should focus on "testing, contact tracing, [and] investments in clean energy" over "attempts to prop up the feeble plastics recycling infrastructure."
But DeFife of GPI asserted the bill is "material neutral" and comes at an important time for glass specifically. In many areas, the cost for municipalities to recycle glass has been increasing in recent years, and some in the industry are concerned about the long-term effects the pandemic could have on the material. "Single stream systems in the United States are only going to perform as well as the facilities that [they are] going to. Those facilities on the whole are behind," said DeFife.
He also offered that a number of bills could fit into a relief package, including almost any of the recycling bills currently being considered by Congress, striking an optimistic note about the potential for reviving momentum.
"Congressional involvement in waste and recycling has not been particularly strong in the last few decades," said DeFife. "Any attention is important."