- The U.S. EPA plans to establish national recycling goals "early next year," Administrator Andrew Wheeler told Waste Dive on Thursday. The targets will be voluntary, similar to the agency's existing goal to reduce food waste 50% by 2030.
- "We've got to look at the whole value chain. We don't want to just pick one aspect, which just part of the recycling segment participates in. It's probably going to be multiple goals or something so that everybody involved in the recycling issue can help us solve the problem," Wheeler said, on the sidelines of the America Recycles Innovation Fair.
- According to the newly released "National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System," these goals will be developed with "underlying indicators that describe the performance of different components of the recycling system, to inspire action and drive participation, innovation, and progress across the entire value chain, including consumers."
This new level of attention to recycling from the Trump administration began with an inaugural EPA Recycling Summit in November 2018. As described by EPA officials in a recent interview, the idea was spurred by numerous calls for the agency to re-engage with the national dialogue amid mounting market issues. EPA and 44 other entities signed a voluntary pledge to work together on recycling ahead of a multi-hour summit highlighting the myriad factors stymieing progress in the current system.
Since then, four work groups focused on education, infrastructure, market development and measurement have been meeting to hash out a path forward – often with a challenging number of different opinions – but the agency reports progress is occurring. Per the framework, the groups have now outlined numerous ongoing and recommended actions into 2020. The number of pledge signatories has also increased to more than 170, some of which were among the more than 40 exhibitors at yesterday's innovation fair.
The fair was reportedly Wheeler's idea, driven by a focus on the economic benefits of recycling, and he spent more than an hour visiting many of the tables after opening remarks. On Wednesday morning, Wheeler also toured a recycling facility in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Compared to prior years, when the Trump administration proposed dramatically reducing the EPA's budget and eliminating its recycling program, this about face is notable. When asked why recycling had suddenly become a priority, Wheeler cited changes caused in part by Chinese import restrictions.
"I think it's a big priority because it's a problem that we have to solve. And it's really going to take some federal attention to solve it," he told Waste Dive, going on to mention a need to improve the quality and quantity of recycled feedstock for new products.
Without prompting, Wheeler clarified that this would specifically entail supporting the existing national open market system.
"I'm not talking about new regulations," he said. "We don't have to come up with all the answers. But if we can create an atmosphere where people are coming together to help us solve the problems, if we can be a convener, I think that helps the recycling crisis and recycling problem in the country."
While any national goals will be just as non-binding as the EPA's pledge or workgroup recommendations, the agency's framework report describes them as benchmarks for measuring the progress of ongoing work. As has become apparent with existing 2030 food waste goals (both for the United States and the U.N.) these targets may not carry as much weight without adequate ways to measure progress.
At the same time, food waste goals have inspired increased private sector activity and partnerships with key groups. Whether recycling goals can spur similar attention, at the same time as members of Congress are pushing bigger regulatory changes, will be a test case of the open market's ability to adjust. According to EPA, goals are powerful enough to do that as they "inspire others to significantly improve the nation’s recycling system so that the United States is able and prepared to address existing and future recycling challenges."