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Blog: Accelerate Recycling through Policy and Partnership

By Keefe Harrison, CEO

Partnership is part of our name for a reason. From the start, The Recycling Partnership has believed that public-private partnerships are critical to our mission—and to our mutual success in building a resilient and responsive recycling system.  This approach is at the heart of a new policy proposal developed by our Circular Economy Accelerator initiative.  Only together can we transform the U.S. recycling system.

Just released, our Accelerating Recycling Report builds on that partnership approach by outlining an innovative but very doable approach to unlock the U.S circular economy. Embedded in collaboration across government, non-profits, and for-profits, this uniquely American approach outlines how brands are key to supporting expanded infrastructure and innovation while communities gain much-needed funding to operate programs.  This policy approach has the opportunity to advance our nation’s recycling system into one that is dramatically more efficient and effective, benefiting every part of the value chain in the circular economy.

This is what the American public wants and this is what our nation needs.

The time for action is now and urgency will deliver the quickest results.  As captured in our 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, the U.S.’s current recycling system is delivering vital supply to manufacturers but needs serious work. Our country has thousands of communities involved in starting the recycling process, each making independent decisions on what can be accepted for recycling and how that message is shared with the public.  Community recycling budgets have always been tight, but in a post-COVID environment, we’ll see local governments squeezing tight budgets to juggle how and if recycling fits into their offering of critical public services. This holds challenges for not only meeting the material demands of today but also the ability of the system to respond to increased demand.  More than 20 million tons of household recyclables, as much as two-thirds of all possible residential recyclables, suffer the fate of disposal when they could be part of an effort to grow business investment and job creation.

Changing that picture is the purpose and the impetus of our policy approach.

What if instead of accepting the status quo, we could build a better, bolder, and broader sustainable system of recycling and, as a result, a stronger, more resilient economy?  One that creates jobs, protects natural resources, and one that reimagines how we design and deliver goods to the public.  The public is ready for this shift, major companies are pledging to support the shift, and the bridge for how we get to this new future has been detailed.  But it can’t happen without bold new steps in recycling policy.

Over the past year, our Circular Economy Accelerator has brought together diverse industry leaders to test, refine, and rally around solutions. They developed the vision for a new kind of public-private partnership to bolster U.S. recycling, create jobs, maximize economic opportunity, and protect the environment.  One that delivers the much-needed capital to create a robust and nimble system.  And one that would create ongoing, dedicated sources of funding for recycling, which are sorely needed by local governments that currently fund the majority of the recycling system – to the tune of approximately $4 billion annually.

This partnership centers on a dual-policy approach designed to increase investment in recycling infrastructure, develop recycling education and outreach programs for the public, and support community recycling operations by addressing the imbalance between disposal and recycling. It includes two critical and connected components.  First, a packaging and printed paper fee, paid by brands, that would prioritize recycling-friendly design and provide funding to improve and expand recycling access, infrastructure, and consumer education.  And second, a disposal surcharge fee, paid by waste generators, that would create a new source of funding to help offset recycling program operational costs.

Let’s be clear that this policy isn’t just about doing something that feels right – it’s about the economy and the environment with real impacts on domestic jobs.


Here’s what’s at stake:  If all 37.4 million tons of household recyclables were successfully recycled, that would support 370,000 full-time equivalent American jobs.  These are supply chain experts, manufacturers, drivers – good jobs for Americans. Further, if our nation reached its full residential recycling potential, the U.S. would conserve 154 million barrels of oil annually, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the same as removing 20 million cars from U.S. highways each year.

We know what is needed to help fix the U.S. residential recycling system and provide much-needed funding to enable its success. We’re excited to continue collaborating with companies, communities, and lawmakers to keep moving forward. Now is not the time to be timid. Instead, it’s time to be transformative. Without a robust U.S. recycling system, our planet and the health of our communities are at risk. In the spirit of partnership, we invite others to join us on this journey to transform recycling for good.