UPDATE: April 7, 2022: The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted favorably to report out the Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act (S.3742) and the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act (S.3743) on Thursday. The first bill in particular has seen widespread recycling industry support.
“I think they’re a product of the best of our committee's tradition of working together on conservation and sustainability issues," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the committee.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she hopes the legislation could help make recycling "more effective," as, in her opinion, "the opportunities for recycling kind of ebb and flow because, economically, it hasn't been a winner for our counties or our states or our cities."
- Feb. 3: The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works previewed two bills meant to expand on broad national recycling and waste reduction goals at a hearing Wednesday.
- The draft Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., would direct the U.S. EPA to provide grants between $1 million and $15 million each for projects that make recycling programs more accessible to rural and disadvantaged communities, specifically hub-and-spoke recycling systems featuring transfer stations, and those that leverage public-private partnerships.
- The draft Recycling and Composting Accountability Act, led by Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and John Boozman, R-Ark., would direct EPA to collect a wide array of recycling and composting data, including inventories of MRFs and curbside collection programs, and “explore opportunities” for implementing a national composting strategy.
Although the bills have not yet been introduced, the hearing was a notable moment in the federal government's efforts to ramp up momentum on recycling-related action in recent years. These bills are both bipartisan and backed by the top members of the EPW, all elements supporters see as essential to moving the efforts through Congress.
Supporters also see the two bills as working in tandem to build more near-term support for recycling and composting infrastructure projects. Though the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides about $350 million for recycling-related purposes — an amount Carper called “unprecedented levels of funding for recycling infrastructure and educational programs" — supporters say an injection of both additional data and funding are needed to advance more ambitious recycling and composting goals laid out by the EPA in its National Recycling Strategy and elsewhere.
Without this additional support, “we won't realistically be able to advance a national strategy [for] recovering products and packaging in a meaningful way, and we won't be able to realize all the benefits associated with widespread recycling and composting,” said Rhodes Yepsen, the Biodegradable Products Institute's executive director, during the hearing.
Carper and Boozman’s bill calls for gathering and maintaining databases of specific recycling and composting-related data, which the EPA would use to help boost the country’s recycling and composting rate and reduce waste. The information could later be used to help the EPA create best practices for labeling guidance, education campaigns or other efforts, according to a discussion draft of the bill.
The bill directs the EPA to prepare a feasibility report for a possible national residential composting strategy. It would evaluate current composting infrastructure, study how manufacturers and companies use compostable packaging and food service ware, and detail barriers that currently make composting difficult. Anaerobic digestion is not specifically named in the bill.
The bill also calls for the EPA to create a detailed inventory of the country’s public and private MRFs, including the number in each state and what materials each processes. A separate inventory would report how many community curbside or drop-off recycling and composting programs exist, the materials they accept, the inbound contamination and capture rates and the number of residents who face barriers to using such services. The EPA would also need to determine what percentage of recyclable materials are being “diverted from a circular market,” either through disposal or other means, and provide annual reports on dollar-per-ton end market sales for recycled materials processed through MRFs.
Additionally, the bill would require an annual report detailing federal agencies’ total recycling and composting rates and purchases of products that contain recyclable or compostable material.
Its supporters include International Paper, a major pulp and paper producer. The company says that more accessible recycling data would help guide its business decisions and allow it to plan for more products made with recycled content. The American Forest & Paper Association also supports both bills, saying the legislation will help the industry continue to use recycled fiber in products.
“As a data-driven company, we understand that to improve something, you must be able to measure it,” said Levell Hairston, vice president and general manager for recycling and recovered fiber at the company, during the hearing.
Pashon Murray, founder of compost organization Detroit Dirt, added that bipartisan national support is needed to help boost community-focused, innovative programs in both urban and rural areas.
Capito’s bill directs the EPA to develop a pilot program to infuse funding into regions without reliable or nearby recycling access. “Recycling services, particularly curbside recycling, are not offered in many rural communities like those in my home state of West Virginia,” she said, adding that the state has the U.S.'s lowest overall recycling rate of materials other than cardboard.
Her bill calls for funding infrastructure projects in underserved communities, particularly through “hub-and-spoke” model projects wherein small, typically rural communities feed recycling to more centralized processing centers in larger community hubs. Transfer stations are one common feature of the model.
Grants will go to projects that build transfer stations, expand curbside recycling collection programs “where appropriate” or leverage public-private partnerships to reduce collections and transport costs. Local governments, states, Native American tribes or public-private partnerships would be eligible for the funding, and priority would go to projects in communities without a MRF within a 150-mile radius, according to the discussion draft of the bill. The draft does not name a total funding amount to be set aside for grants, but individual grants could be up to $15 million each and would be made available for the fiscal years 2023 through 2027. Funding could not be used for recycling education programs.
The hub-and-spoke systems make rural collection efforts more economically worthwhile for MRFs because they are able to consolidate materials from many smaller areas to produce enough volume to market and sell, while also reducing transport costs, said Ben Harvey, president of Waste Connections subsidiary E.L. Harvey & Sons. He testified in favor of both bills on behalf of the National Waste and Recycling Association, where he is the chair.
The Solid Waste Association of North America was still reviewing the bills, but CEO David Biderman said the organization is encouraged to see recycling discussed on a national scale as recycling markets and municipal programs grapple with infrastructure issues and other hurdles. “Congressional action that supports efforts to expand and improve recycling programs and systems in the United States are welcome,” he said in a news release.
Despite the high-profile rollout of the bills, both face a long road in Congress. Numerous recycling-related bills have been introduced in past years, but only the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act and RECYCLE Act provisions passed in this year’s infrastructure bill have passed since 2020. The content of those bills provide funding for recycling education, local recycling infrastructure and some data collection on plastics recycling. A 2020 GAO report highlighted the need for better recycling data, saying governments and industry “do not have enough information to support decision-making about recycling.”