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A Call to Corporate Leadership – Join Together for Bold, Smart, Swift Action to Improve the US Recycling System

By Keefe Harrison

(first published on LinkedIn)

As I head into the 2020 Plastics Recycling Conference, the pressing need to protect our environment from plastic waste by activating a truly circular economy is top of mind.  This is an important point in time to pivot our society’s current make-to-waste approach to a more circular economy – one that focuses on everything from smart chemistry and design, production, all the way through to reuse and recycling.

While companies begin to align around activating the circular economy in the U.S., the reality of delivering those goals shines a bright light on the need to first overhaul the U.S. recycling system.  A challenge in its own right, it is magnified when put against the burden of inexpensive waste disposal, growing costs for communities, and the pricing disparity between virgin and recycled content plastics.

Now is the time for action. 

 It is clear that unless stakeholders from across the value chain align and step up, we will not be able to drive the change necessary to move recycling in the U.S. to the next level. Every day we hear from citizens, communities, policymakers, corporate leaders, and other NGOs who all want the same thing – a stronger recycling system. It will take bold public-private partnership and leadership to make lasting improvements.

Bold goals are just the first step.

As the lead NGO managing the US Plastics Pact, partnering with the Ellen McArthur Foundation, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and World Wildlife Fund, I’m cognizant that we CAN use corporate plastics commitments as the impetus for game-changing solutions.  But we CANNOT stop there. Just as the systemic issues are neither specific to plastics, nor will they be solved through plastic-only interventions. Addressing only short-term targets, or concentrating on plastics alone, will not create a viable platform for a truly circular economy.  As outlined in the Bridge to Circularity Report, the momentum around plastics waste should address the broader question of how to build a circular economy for all consumer packaging in the U.S.—one of the largest markets for plastics production and waste in the world.

Recycling needs critical interventions.

The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report addresses a system that faces serious headwinds that are causing many communities to adjust their programs, but the overwhelming majority of communities across the U.S. remain committed to providing household recycling services, just as Americans also continue to value and demand recycling as an essential public service according to The Recycling Partnership’s 2019 Earth Day survey.

It is time to transform the way we think about and manage waste in the U.S. So, what does that mean?

  1. More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.
  2. Only half of Americans have access to curbside recycling. Before we can implore a public to recycle, they need to be guaranteed the ability to do so.
  3. Many communities are increasingly paying more to recycle, sometimes double the cost of landfilling – and many more programs lack critical operating funds. Policy could and should help community recycling programs to improve by addressing challenging market conditions, providing substantial funding support, and resolving cheap landfill tipping fees that make disposal options significantly less expensive than recycling.
  4. The ultimate fate of current and not-yet-recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of private-sector stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.

If these strategies are fully implemented, a fully-realized next generation of recycling could reap enormous benefits, including:

  • Generating 370,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs
  • Conserving an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil
  • And achieving the equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.

The state of the planet’s health demands dedicated and swift action to protect natural resources and abate climate change.

The Recycling Partnership stands ready to take on this challenge and calls on the many public and private sector stakeholders to join in building a circular economy. Together.