The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new national recycling strategy today, the agency’s first ever such commitment, according to the Washington Post.
It’s a roadmap for the US to achieve a goal of recycling at least half of its municipal waste by the end of the decade. That’s a steep rise considering the US’ recycling rate has actually declined since 2015, and was only at about 32 percent of all municipal waste in 2018 (the most recent year for which there’s EPA data).
The recycling plans the EPA announced today are just the first piece in “a series” of forthcoming documents the agency plans to release to work towards a “circular economy,” or an economy where resources are recovered and reused to make new products rather than allowed to wind up in landfills. It’s a sort of tacit acknowledgement that recycling alone doesn’t make a huge dent in the world’s trash problems.
Inadequacies with America’s recycling system were laid bare after China stopped accepting much of our so-called recyclable garbage in 2018, including post-consumer plastic. Some municipal recycling programs were forced by China to close or reduce their programs. This resulted in more material being sent to landfills and incinerators. Programs that remained are still recovering from the global shock and adapting to new consumer habits that were accelerated by COVID-19.
The problem has been hampered by a lack of federal recycling policy. To meet its new recycling goal, the EPA will employ several key tactics. The US will need to do a better job collecting recyclable materials. The way packaging waste is disposed of has changed with the rise in online shopping. There’s less cardboard for instance, coming from shopping malls and grocery stores because of the popularity of home deliveries. That has posed problems for recycling companies because cardboard coming from peoples’ homes tends to be dirtier than retailers’ trash, experts tell The Verge. Often times, cardboard or plastic that’s too contaminated with food or other items can’t be recycled. The EPA plans to increase public education and outreach to ensure that more of the trash people throw away is recycled.
The EPA also wants to develop new markets for recycled materials so that it’s worth it for companies to recycle. There could be financial incentives or new policies to boost the demand for recycled material. The strategy document mentions, for example, a “Demand Challenge partnership program” that would recognize companies for using more recycled materials in their products. Notably, the EPA says it might finally “explore” ratification of the Basel Convention, a 1989 international treaty aimed at reducing the flow of e-waste and other hazardous trash from wealthy to lower income nations.
The new strategy also marks the first time, the EPA says, that the agency’s recycling plans will connect the dots between waste, environmental injustice, and the climate crisis. The modern environmental justice movement, which aims to reduce pollution that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color, is rooted in protests against a landfill constructed in a predominantly Black North Carolina community in the 1980s.
Plastic pollution has been in the spotlight recently as increasing research shows that plastics are also building up in the oceans, sea life, or humans. Plastics are also connected to climate change, another environmental crisis. They’re made from fossil fuels, and oil and gas companies are looking to lean more heavily into their plastics business as renewable energy eats into their profits.
The plastics industry has always promoted recycling as a solution to its waste problem. However, only 9 percent of all plastic trash has been recycled. Environmental activists and experts are concerned that the growth of the market for recycled plastic could actually increase demand for new plastics. That’s because the quality of materials typically degrades each time they’re re-hashed, which is why products made with recycled plastic are often reinforced with new plastic.
To stop garbage and plastic from building up, we need to make systemic changes in the way we use materials. Not just how we treat them at the end. That’s why the EPA says it’s working towards a circular economy, which addresses the entire lifecycle of a good that’s produced. A circular economy will require fewer raw materials, products that last longer, use less resources, and policies and infrastructure to efficiently collect used items.
It is important to make an effort to stop junk being produced.
Source: The Verge