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State Recycling Policy Playbook to Achieve Environmental and Economic Benefits

Have you read articles recently calling into question whether recycling really works?  Spoiler alert – it does. It also turns out that with strong policy and sustainable funding it could work even better. There is indeed room for improvement, which could bring with it significant local economic development, job creation, reduction in greenhouse gasses, and restoration of trust in the long-standing environmental cornerstone that each of us can do our part through recycling. 

How? Read on. 

A circular economy is an economy in which materials remain in use and are not wasted. This relies on a fully functioning U.S. residential recycling system. Time is of the essence to bring a solution that matches the size of the problem. A strong, efficient recycling system is an invaluable public service that delivers waste reduction, jobs, money into the economy, and greenhouse gas reductions. Leading the charge to improve the U.S. residential recycling system is The Recycling Partnership (The Partnership), a mission-driven NGO (nongovernmental organization) whose goal is to unlock the environmental and economic benefits of recycling and a circular economy. The Partnership’s Paying it Forward report detailed the significant public-private investment needed to level up the U.S. residential recycling system and the positive impacts it will bring, including an economic benefit of $30.8 billion over 10 years. That includes wages, taxes, landfill savings, and the value of recyclables. Additionally, this investment will help more than double the current U.S. curbside recycling rate of 32% to 70%.   

The concept of recycling has been around for decades, but the system still faces many challenges. Here are three of the challenges that directly impact policy. For one, the current U.S. recycling system is a disjointed network of 9,000 separate, local recycling programs with varying protocols and guidance to residents. Two, recycling programs are chronically underfunded which leads to fewer recycling options for residents, aging processing equipment, and fears of program cuts due to tight budgets. Three, some of the packaging and items in stores are not currently designed to be recyclable or aren’t clearly labeled as recyclable.   

Smart, well-designed policy is at the center of unlocking this public-private investment. Fortunately, states, regardless of political affiliation, are embracing recycling collection policy to improve recycling in big ways.   

Convene Leaders and Take Action  

Since 2014, The Partnership has collaborated with stakeholders across the recycling value chain, working with communities, companies, and government to tackle these challenges through smart, well-designed policy. For example, when effectively designed and implemented, extended producer responsibility policy (EPR) programs engage brands and manufacturers to fund recycling education and infrastructure, shifting the financial responsibility from local recycling programs and taxpayers to the brands making the actual products. It also encourages innovation to reduce the amount of packaging, increase package recyclability, and increase reuse, or use of post-consumer recycled content.  

To achieve change and fulfill the potential of local recycling programs, robust cross-sector collaboration on policies that create sustainable funding is critically needed. The Partnership looks to support any state considering statewide policy to improve recycling, offering guidance, resources, and expertise and by bringing together diverse stakeholders in constructive dialogue in this space. 

Lean into Data-driven Approaches 

Strong data is the foundation for all smart policy solutions. Thankfully, recycling data is becoming increasingly available in many areas of the country. One example of powerful recycling data is the results of a Partnership survey in 2019 of Denver, Colorado residents. That survey showed 89% feel recycling is personally important. Additionally, there was a strong belief that recycling has positive economic and environmental impacts in Denver. Even so, the state’s current recycling rate is only 16%. That’s why it is critical to pursue policy to close these gaps. 

Recently, the state of Colorado did just that—passing a data-driven policy to pave the way for the first fully producer-funded and operated statewide recycling system for all consumer-facing packaging and printed paper, according to Recycle Colorado. The legislation which had support from The Partnership and a broad set of industry and environmental stakeholders, was signed into law June 2022 and showcased a promising roadmap for other states. 

Meet Communities Where They Are 

Recycling is a non-partisan and people-focused issue. Recycling is critical for our environment, allowing for cleaner, healthier communities. Constituents want access to recycling, and the recycling industry supports jobs and an important value chain. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 1.17 jobs are created for every 1,000 tons of material recycled. And according to The Recycling Partnership research, solving today’s recycling system challenges will deliver close to 200,000 new jobs. 

Even so, each state’s relationship with recycling varies. In Indiana, recyclable materials are currently shipped out of state. A recent study on the state’s recycling infrastructure by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found that if more recyclables were collected in Indiana, the system would generate 922 direct jobs and 927 indirect jobs on the supply side collection and processing infrastructure. That’s a $376 million economic impact.  The Partnership helped facilitate educational initiatives with legislative partners and brought key local packaging leaders to the table so that companies could share their perspectives on recycling and put the issue in context. The state’s existing recycling rate is 16.8% and only 40% of residents have access to recycling at home and can’t be fully addressed without policy. When pursuing recycling policies, it’s important to meet communities where they are and tailor strategies to meet the needs of residents. Recycling is an individual action, but it is one that has ripple effects for the greater good. People pay for trash collection, just as they do for other utilities like electricity, in a local utility bill, within their local tax bill, or to a private company. Investing in recycling should be a similar or a higher priority – since it keeps items out of landfills and those recyclables are resources for the local economy. As an individual household generates almost 800 pounds of recyclable material per year, there’s a big opportunity to do good for the economy and the environment.   

We need bipartisan, smart, sensible state policy that sets a sustainable funding source to level up and unify the residential recycling system and get it working efficiently. The Partnership knows the importance of convening stakeholders, leaning into data, and meeting communities where they are to get things done. Want to learn more about recycling policy? Looking for tools to help move recycling policy in your state? Visit recyclingpartnership.org/accelerator to learn more about our policy work, or download The Recycling Partnership’s NEW State Policy Toolkit for Extended Producer Responsibility, which contains educational resources for building the case to improve recycling in your state through policy solutions.