National politics have taken the spotlight over the past few months, but impactful decisions are being made at the state level as legislatures convene.
Resource Recycling spoke with a handful of state recycling organization leaders across the country to gauge their experiences during this legislative season. Although specific bills vary widely by state, multiple organizations report feeling uncertainty regarding proposals at the federal level, particularly those that would affect the U.S. EPA.
While there are indications this season will bring similar bills as previous years, some recycling associations may experience new hurdles as their states look to dip into recycling money to balance their budgets.
“I think we’ll all watch budget processes very carefully in this new environment, at the state level,” said Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council, although he noted that with the state funding fairly low for recycling programs in his region, they may not be a target for cost-cutting measures.
That sentiment also rang true in Maine, where state funding for recycling programs has diminished over the years.
“You can’t cut what’s already been cut,” said Shelby Wright, director of communications and development for the Maine Resource Recovery Association.
Deficit drives cutbacks
It’s a different story down in New Mexico, where “the overall climate is related to big budget shortfalls,” said Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition.
The state faces a substantial budget shortfall largely due to declining oil and gas revenues. At the same time, Gov. Susana Martinez has urged lawmakers not to raise taxes, so a series of cuts to programs and services were proposed this session. Among them was a proposal to cut more than 60 percent of the state fund to support recycling infrastructure, Pierpont said. Recipients of the recycling grants issued through the fund were told to stop work while the bill was under consideration.
The final approved cut was at least 20 percent of the fund’s annual expenditures, Pierpont said. She added that recycling projects funded by those grants were able to continue, however, when the state’s environmental department announced it would cut the required amount out of its administrative budget.
This year marks the first time New Mexico lawmakers have sought to take funding out of the recycling fund since its creation in 2006, Pierpont said.
More of the same
Wright said recycling stakeholders in Maine are seeing a fairly standard legislative session so far: As in the past, they’ve found plenty of support for expanding recycling programs, but not as much enthusiasm for funding those programs, Wright said.
“Getting new legislation through the legislative process has been challenging for the past couple years,” she said. “Some of the best ideas die in committee.”
Still, there are some recycling-related bills that are gaining momentum and support for funding, Wright said, such as a proposed ban on thin plastic bags. It would follow several local bans passed recently by municipalities in Maine.
There are “no real cuts,” Wright said, “but no real expansion on funding either.”
Anne Piacentino, executive director of the Washington State Recycling Association, said the climate in the Washington legislature does not feel different this year. As it has in previous years, the Evergreen State’s recycling coalition is supporting paint stewardship legislation. In particular, the coalition is emphasizing to lawmakers the job creation as well as the environmental and economic benefits associated with providing a “sustainable funding mechanism for what is currently a costly paint recycling program,” Piacentino said.
Michigan, meanwhile, is gearing up to push a resurgence in recycling efforts, and it even received some new funding during the past few years.
The state has a 15 percent recycling rate. It has received little funding for recycling in the past two decades. But after a target was set by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 for the state to double its recycling rate, $1 million was dedicated to the cause from the state’s general fund, and a team of industry stakeholders began meeting to come up with proposals to aid in that goal.
That effort is approaching the stage where it will be translated into proposed legislation, although none has been introduced yet, said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC).
Proponents’ goal is to get the legislation passed before Snyder leaves office in 2019, O’Brien said, and the MRC and other stakeholders will advocate on behalf of the bills.
“We have been challenged for many, many years now,” O’Brien said, “and we really don’t expect more challenges, but we do expect the same challenges that have existed over the years.”
Eyes on the national stage
In the southeast, recycling organizations are getting ready for events next week in which they’ll convene to learn about and advocate for recycling measures. In particular, they plan to continue communicating to elected officials the economic impact recycling has in their states, Sagar said.
He said all eyes this year are on activities at the federal level, particularly with several bills proposed that would make considerable cuts to the U.S. EPA. The agency, which is now led by former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, provides substantial support to the recycling industry, Sagar said, and the proposed cuts could have a large impact across the board.
The Maine and Michigan coalitions also cited similar uncertainty among stakeholders.
“There’s a giant question mark that’s just lingering, with no one to really ask,” Wright said.