Congress can improve recycling system by building on its strengths
Rightly, much attention is being paid to tackling the plastic pollution crisis in recent waste management bills, such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S 984, BFFPA). However, lawmakers failed to recognize that the best way to economically strengthen the recycling system and tackle climate change through recycling is to build on its strengths.
Congress should remember that some recyclable materials have a higher relative economic value than others. If an infrastructure is put in place to capture more of these high-value products, then a constant stream of desperately needed income would be added to the recycling system.
Aluminum beverage cans, for example, are one of the most valuable products in the recycling stream. This is how used beverage cans, while only 3 percent by weight of all single-stream recyclable materials in US single-family households, accounts for almost half of income. In fact, a 2020 study concluded that without the revenue generated from used beverage cans, most material recovery facilities (FRMs) that do the important work of sorting single-stream recyclables would not be able to operate.
Policymakers should prioritize the capture of more valuable materials, which would provide continued additional income for MRFs to operate and collect less valuable materials like flexible packaging and many plastics. Imagine how economically healthy our recycling system would be if the current recycling rate of 46% of aluminum beverage cans increased by 20% or even 30%.
In addition, for the infinitely recyclable aluminum can, the increase in recycling rates also has a significant environmental impact. Whereas 95 percent of all collected aluminum beverage cans are made into new cans and making an aluminum beverage can from recycled materials means more than 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than making a can from primary aluminum, recycling additional cans will have a significantly higher environmental impact than recycling more of other materials.
Congress should reject the approach of the RECOVER Act (RH 2357), which authorizes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to support infrastructure for recycling low-value materials. No wonder the media called the RECOVER Act last year a A close-up of a billion dollar plastic bailout.
Industries that pump packaging that is not profitable for FRMs should pay themselves or not be considered “recyclable”. Congress should not support hard-to-recycle materials.
Instead, lawmakers should target recycling infrastructure funds towards recyclable materials that already work in the current system and offer the best environmental and economic value for money. For example, funding could go to the type of can capture equipment in MRFs that manufacturers Ardagh Group and Crown Holdings can successfully support with a can enter the grant program. Additional federal funding could bring this efficient can-capture technology to recycling facilities across the country.
In addition to infrastructure, education efforts should also go beyond informing consumers about problematic behaviors and encouraging them to buy and recycle materials that are easily recyclable and generate the most positive effects. The recycling law (S 923) provides significant funding for consumer education and enables projects that “increase collection rates”. Ideally, these projects will focus on increasing the collection rates of the most valuable materials.
For example, campaigns might point out that aluminum cans are the prime example of the circular economy or point out that metal is recycled forever as part of an effort to circulate additional valuable cans through the recycling system. Studies show the emphasis on the transformational nature of the material leads to higher recycling rates. Therefore, inform consumers that these cans go from the recycling bin to the store shelf as a new can in usually 60 days would likely lead to more recycled cans.
Another avenue that Congress should consider is the establishment of a clever national deposit system. This will lead to a much larger collection of beverage containers including the high value aluminum beverage can. A national deposit system is part of the BFFPA and the CLEAN Future Act (HR 1512), and was the subject of a bill last year, Original Recycling Bottle Act, which will hopefully be reintroduced this year.
The data show a stark contrast between recycling rates in depository states compared to the country as a whole. According to Container Recycling Institute, in 2018, in the 10 states with a deposit system, the recycling rate for aluminum cans was 77%. If that 77% rate were the national average, that would mean more than 30 billion additional aluminum beverage cans would be recycled. This would provide the recycling system with $ 486 million and avoid carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to traveling 7.5 billion kilometers in a passenger car.
The proposed federal legislation attempts to fix the recycling system in general and consolidate problematic materials while neglecting opportunities to recycle what works best. Recyclable materials like the aluminum can that have the greatest environmental and economic impact should be a priority in the recycling policy rather than being forgotten.
Robert Budway is president of the Can Manufacturers Institute.