Recycling Takes New Direction

A nationwide revamp of the recycling infrastructure led by the U.S. EPA moves downstream to facilities.

Compiled from U.S. EPA
From the February 2022 Issue

This past November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the 2021 National Recycling Strategy to tackle major recycling challenges and to create a stronger, more resilient, and cost-effective municipal solid waste recycling system. The 2021 strategy is also the first time EPA’s recycling strategy will address the climate impacts of producing, using, and disposing of materials and focus on the human health and environmental impacts of waste and waste-related facilities in overburdened communities.

“Our nation’s recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people. EPA’s National Recycling Strategy provides a roadmap to address system challenges and pave the way for the future of recycling,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

(Photo: Adobe Stock / Monticellllo)

“The full impact of waste materials is connected to a broad range of issues, and having a strategy that promotes better materials management can help lead us to solutions for these larger issues,” said Dr. Sacoby Wilson, EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member and University of Maryland Associate Professor/Director, Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Initiative, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “We have to work with industries that are significant sources of single use products. And, when we address recycling, we must address where these waste products come from, where they go, and how they’re impacting the health, sustainability, and quality of life in communities of color.”

Challenges For Recycling

The U.S. recycling system faces many challenges, including reduced markets for materials, recycling infrastructure that has not kept pace with a diverse and changing waste stream, confusion about what materials can be recycled, and varying methodologies to measure recycling system performance. The 2021 National Recycling Strategy identifies actions to address these challenges that build on collaborative efforts by stakeholders from across the recycling system that began under the 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System.

The National Recycling Strategy includes five strategic objectives with specific actions to strengthen the U.S. recycling system:

  • Improve markets for recycled commodities through market development, analysis, manufacturing, and research.
  • Increase collection of recyclable materials and improve recycling infrastructure through analysis, funding, product design, and processing efficiencies.
  • Reduce contamination in recycled materials stream through outreach and education on the value of proper recycling.
  • Enhance policies and programs to support recyclability and recycling through strengthened federal and international coordination, analysis, research on product pricing, and sharing of best practices.
  • Standardize measurement and increase data collection through coordinated recycling definitions, measures, targets, and performance indicators.

In addition, the Strategy focuses on how the Agency will move forward toward:

Increasing Equitable Access for Overburdened Communities: EPA recognizes the burden that living near waste and waste-related facilities has on communities when waste is not properly managed, which can lead to higher levels of chronic health issues. The 2021 Strategy will increase equitable access to recycling services, reduce environmental impacts in communities, stimulate economic development, and ensure overburdened communities meaningfully participate during the strategy’s implementation.

Reducing Climate Impacts of Materials Management: The 2021 Strategy includes a commitment by EPA to create a new national goal to reduce the climate impacts from the production, consumption, use, and disposal of materials, which make up approximately 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’ s International Resource Panel. This goal will help achieve President Biden’s commitment to achieve a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Managing Materials for a Circular Economy: While this initial 2021 Strategy focuses on the recycling of municipal solid waste, additional work is necessary to create a “circular economy” where materials (e.g., plastics, food waste, electronics, and industrial materials) are sustainably managed throughout their lifecycle. EPA, in coordination with other federal agencies and interested stakeholders, intends to release subsequent strategies that will encompass other activities beyond the recycling of MSW, reflecting the need for sustainable product design, reducing waste generation, and materials reuse activities critical to realizing circularity. Subsequent strategies will address other key materials, such as plastics, food, cement and concrete, as well as electronics.

Over the next few years, EPA will move forward to support a circular economy approach to materials management, which represents an important change in how the nation currently mines resources, makes them into products, and then disposes of them. A circular economy approach reduces material use, redesigns materials and products to be less resource intensive, and recaptures “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and products. It is defined by the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act as “a systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative to the environment by design, enable resources used in such processes and activities to maintain their highest values for as long as possible, and aim for the elimination of waste through superior design of materials, products and systems (including business models).”

EPA WasteWise Program Retired

With the new National Recycling Strategy taking shape in 2022, the long-running WasteWise program by EPA had its final group of awards in 2021. The efforts undertaken by that program will continue within the new strategy. (The winners of the 2021 awards are featured on the EPA site.) In that group, Central Michigan University (CMU) was recognized as a leader for Sustainability Public Education, and their award is described by EPA:

In 2020, outreach and education defined sustainability at Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mt. Pleasant, MI. Most notably, it marked the beginning of Central Sustainability, CMU’s unofficial office of sustainability. Through this platform, the office has centralized sustainability initiatives and focused on education. It has directly engaged with students through presentations with various student organizations, data-collecting resources, and interactive opportunities such as campus sustainability walking tours. These activities allowed the campus community to become aware of and engage with EPA sustainable materials management topics, including food, packaging, electronics, and the built environment.

Thanks to these strides in education, CMU has seen quantifiable impacts in its waste diversion numbers and an overall shift in campus outlook on sustainability. In 2020, CMU diverted 207.64 tons of organics from landfills, and later, placed second in the 2021 Campus Race to Zero Waste composting category. A 2020 survey, taken by 572 on-campus students, highlighted increased interest in sustainability. The Sustainability Pledge took that one step further, as 500 respondents have committed to reducing their footprint and engaging with sustainable best practices. Because this work is never-ending, CMU constantly introduces and revamps initiatives to have the widest reach and most inclusive domain. Although this can be challenging, it has enabled CMU to progress as a community and share a common goal of sustainability, on-campus and beyond.

Said Jay Kahn, CMU’s director of facilities operations, “We’re out here using every tool in the toolbox—that’s what makes us a success. We realize we belong to a greater community and work diligently to expand to that community in everything we do, because of CMU’s student-driven culture of sustainability.”

Learn more about the U.S. EPA National Recycling Strategy here.

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