It’s interesting as we deal with this topic of recycling, what you can and can’t, and could and no longer can recycle — and what we should in the future. We have a shared …
It’s interesting as we deal with this topic of recycling, what you can and can’t, and could and no longer can recycle — and what we should in the future. We have a shared responsibility to keep recyclable materials and other waste out of the environment.
In the United States, state and local laws — not federal laws — govern recycling. That means towns, cities, counties manage recycling programs. Local recycling programs can consist of “curbside recycling,” which takes place alongside weekly trash collections. These programs can also include “drop-off recycling,” which is what we have in Casper, Wyoming, which involves Americans taking their recyclable goods to one or more collection sites. Local governments typically fund recycling programs through the sale of recyclable materials and user fees.
While we’re opening our recycling centers again in Wyoming, what we know is it’s now a cost to do it. It doesn’t pay for itself, especially with the distances we are from other communities.
For decades, communities in the U.S. sold much — if not most — of their recyclable materials for export to China. Chinese manufacturers were hungry for raw materials. And large cargo ships — which would otherwise return empty to China — often made it less expensive to export recyclable materials than transport the materials locally.
In 2018, China all but ended imports of mixed paper and mixed plastic. As a result, the value of these materials collapsed. In response, local governments have had to decide whether to raise user fees or end, suspend, or scale back their recycling programs.
What we’re seeing in Wyoming today is there’s been a debate at city council: Should we end this program? It’s an important program.
What other public services will not be granted because of the money that’s going to be used for the cost to recycle — a program that used to pay for itself? When local governments end or suspend recycling, recyclables often end up in landfills. This is something no one wants to see.
Another challenge facing recycling programs is the issue of contamination. Contamination occurs when consumers mix recyclable material with material that can’t be recycled or material that can’t be recycled locally. Contamination lowers the value of recyclable materials and can drain revenue from local recycling programs.
When China imported much of our recyclable waste, we didn’t have to worry as much about contamination; China and other countries sorted our waste for us. Now that these countries have imposed import restrictions, we have been forced to confront contamination head on. State and local governments believe that if they can reduce contamination, they can find or develop new markets for their recyclable materials.
Local recycling programs are responding in several ways. Some have launched campaigns to educate consumers about what can and cannot be recycled. Others have switched from single-stream recycling to dual or multi-stream recycling. Others have invested in new technologies that can sort materials with greater sophistication.
The private sector has also taken additional steps to boost recycling capacity here in the U.S. Consumer product companies have pledged to use more recyclable materials in their products and packaging.
Companies are making investments in what is known as “advanced recycling.” Advanced recycling is a group of technologies that use heat or chemicals to break down certain plastics and other materials.
With traditional or mechanical recycling, plastics can only be recycled a few times and generally for lower-quality goods. Advanced recycling allows plastics to be reused indefinitely. They also allow plastics to be used for other high-quality products. Advanced recycling won’t replace traditional or mechanical recycling, but it can reduce the need to produce new materials.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new set of challenges. It has disrupted curbside recycling in many communities.
Nine of the 10 states that have bottle and can redemption programs have suspended these programs because of the pandemic. It has also contributed to the collapse in crude oil prices, which reduces the value of many recyclable materials.
Finally, COVID-19 has called into question taxes and bans on single use plastics. In its reopening guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged restaurants to “use disposal food service items [such as] utensils [and] dishes.”
California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon as well as a number of municipalities have delayed or suspended their bans and taxes on single-use plastic shopping bags. Some state and city governments — along with nationwide retail chains — have even prohibited reusable bags.
The pandemic has reminded us of the critical role that single use plastics play in protecting public health.
(U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. This column was adapted from remarks he made at a Wednesday committee hearing titled, “Responding to the Challenges Facing Recycling in the United States.”)