America's Recycling System Is Broken – AND Repairable

America's Recycling System Is Broken – AND Repairable
(Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
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Our recycling system in the U.S. is broken. Developed at the municipal level during the 1950s and 1960s, it was never designed for the overwhelming landfill of single-use materials, and we are buckling under the weight of all this waste we’ve produced through our “take-make-waste consumption model.” The good news is that there are solutions if we are willing to recapitalize an antiquated recycling system by taking a fresh look at the way we create incentives, invest in adequate infrastructure and change behaviors – to drive real recycling.

Several pieces of federal legislation, including The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, and certain recycling provisions of the CLEAN Future Act, are a good place to start. These offer a comprehensive approach to reforming U.S. collection and recycling that would put us squarely on the path to a more sustainable future.

The facts of recycling in America are sobering. Today, only 25% of all U.S. waste is actually recycled. Less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has ever been recycled, and most of this is actually downcycled into other polymers due to the breakdown of its chemical structures during recycling. 

In contrast, 46% of all beverage cans are recycled due to the economic value of the scrap metal and the very high recycling yields of aluminum, a natural element of the Earth’s crust.  This is one of the reasons that every aluminum beverage container in the U.S. has, on average, 73% of recycled content, but at the same time, the primary reason we do not have 100% recycled content is that we don’t have adequate infrastructure to achieve this.

In contrast, the recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans in the EU is 76% and 97% in Brazil due to more structured federal recycling systems with better infrastructure. The pandemic has made matters worse by shrinking the U.S. recycling industry by 60% due in part to the lack of resources available to invest in such systems.

For decades, the American public has been misled about the recyclability of many forms of packaging, particularly plastics. Most people assume that what is collected in recycling bins ends up recycled into new products. Unfortunately, the majority of such material that we think is being recycled actually ends up in landfills, burned for energy or is polluting our environment including the air we breathe and the water we drink.  In short, our existing recycling policies and practices encourage our “take-make-waste” behaviors that make it cheaper to pollute the planet than other alternatives.

While the status quo is bleak, there are solutions to solve this in a more holistic and circular way.

First, we need to prioritize federal investment in the recycling infrastructure.  Our municipalities currently face economic constraints and do not have the resources to adequately invest in modernizing our recycling infrastructure without federal support.

Second, we must seriously improve our collection capabilities by establishing a nationwide deposit return system. Deposit return systems have proven to be the most effective and efficient means for achieving high collection. According to a recent in-depth study, The 50 States of Recycling, the top six recycling states -- Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut and New York -- all have deposit return systems, also known as “bottle bills,” demonstrating that smart collection policy combined with investment in infrastructure produces sustainable results.

Third, we need to incentivize greater producer responsibility. Currently, the cost of recycling low- or no-value-added materials is passed on to citizens through higher local taxes.  We need to develop a system whereby the producers become responsible for the costs of collecting and recycling materials through responsibility fees.

Lastly, we need legislation that phases out and reduces those materials that quite simply cannot be recycled and pollute our environment.

As Congress begins to turn its attention to legislation to fight climate change and invest in American infrastructure, bipartisan efforts to boost recycling should be a part of its legislative efforts to fight the climate crisis. Recycling may not be the only solution to the climate crisis, but it is certainly part of the solution.

The nation desperately needs leadership from Washington on recycling. This is truly our best chance to lead in the creation of a truly circular economy--one in which materials are not just used and thrown away but are reused and recycled again and again. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize and upgrade recycling. Let’s seize this opportunity to turn the corner and support policies to bring us to a more circular and sustainable future.

John Hayes is Chairman & CEO of Ball Corporation. 

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