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Recycling’s political paradoxes

Published: July 3, 2024


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This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

As the Republican-majority Iowa Senate neared a final vote on controversial changes to Iowa’s beverage container deposit program, including one allowing most grocery and convenience stores to stop accepting cans and bottles from residents seeking their 5-cent refunds, several in the chamber made clear that only one political party was behind it.

“You’re making it harder to recycle, Sen. Schultz, Senate Republicans,” Joe Bolkcom, a now retired Democratic senator from Iowa City, said at the time, referring to his colleague, Sen. Jason Schultz, who shepherded the bill through its Senate votes. “Congratulations.”

Schultz responded that the bill would help grocers and everyday Iowans — “This bill does everything they want,” he said — and would lead to more standalone redemption centers by giving them a greater share of each nickel deposit. The bill passed the Senate with 29 Republicans and one Democrat in favor, 15 Democrats against.

Around a month later, the Democrat-controlled California State Legislature approved that state’s landmark extended producer responsibility law. The bill would mandate plastic waste reductions and heightened recyclability for packaging and other goods for years to come, and all Republican members either voted for it or were absent.

“It was an effort that came as a result of a long, long negotiation between environmental and business community representatives,” bill author State Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, told the local Beverly Press afterward. “It’s an example of people coming together from all sides of the spectrum to help solve a major problem.”

Both examples happened in 2022, and both illustrate the paradoxical politics of recycling in capitols across the country, based on interviews, reports and talks by dozens of advocates, legislators, researchers and others in recent weeks. Call it Schrodinger’s recycling: simultaneously partisan yet bipartisan, divisive yet safe, widely popular yet plainly tied to a state’s political leanings.

“You can talk about recycling and you know you’re not going to get a pitchfork in the back,” said Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist at the Recycled Materials Association, which recently changed its name from Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Johnson pointed to notable, recycling-focused odd couples in Congress, such as New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone and Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus in the House or Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and Democrat Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who co-chair the Senate Recycling Caucus.

“They’ll disagree on 99% of everything else but recycling,” Johnson said. On that, “it’s difficult sometimes to see the light between them.”

Finding shared cause across party lines helped lead to the inclusion of tens of millions of dollars for recycling education and infrastructure grants in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed with mostly — though not only — Democrat support.

On the other hand, there are conspicuous cracks in this bipartisan image. Boozman and Carper’s proposals to enhance federal recycling and composting data and provide more grants, particularly to underserved areas, keep passing the narrowly Democratic Senate but have yet to find a foothold in the narrowly Republican House, for example.

Looking at the party affiliations of governors and U.S. Senators as a proxy for each state’s political makeup, blue states on average recycle more than twice as many of their cans and bottles as red states, based on the December 2023 50 States of Recycling report from Ball Corporation and Eunomia. Among 10 bottle-bill states, all but Iowa are blue or mixed.

Each of the four states with paper and packaging EPR programs at the start of 2024 were blue or mixed when sorted by the same metric; the Minnesota House’s vote to become the fifth EPR state on May 17 was entirely party-line, with Democrats in favor.

“A lot of the mandatory recycling laws that were passed when I was in high school — so that was 30-plus years ago — a lot of those passed with bipartisan support, but it was a total different universe,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of public policy and government affairs at The Recycling Partnership, which has zeroed in on EPR laws as the most impactful way to increase recycling rates. “We just are not in that space anymore.”

De Thomas emphasized that he speaks with legislators of all stripes, no demographic is a monolith, and members of both parties can and do care about recycling as an economic and environmental issue. But today’s polarization and us-versus-them thinking can push bipartisanship aside even when people agree deep down, he said. “It’s not about the policies, it’s about the politics.”

Patterns of difference

Several recent studies and surveys shed light on possible sources for the political gulf in recycling.

Part of the difference is likely everyday politics: Using government to encourage recycling often entails spending and regulation, both of which conservatives tend to resist in some contexts. More right-leaning survey respondents to a 2019 Axios poll were half as willing as their more liberal peers to pay higher taxes to support recycling programs, for example.

Social psychology can also play a role. The feeling that recycling is something that people like you do — or don’t do — could in turn affect how readily you categorize trash as recyclable, a 2020 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggested. An earlier study that analyzed national surveys of recycling behavior found Democrats were more likely to say they recycle most of the time, which the authors attributed to a rise in “lifestyle politics,” or using choices as statements of personal values.

Whatever the reasons, the correlation between politics and recycling behavior and policy seems clear, with higher access to programs and participation in bluer states, broadly speaking, based on data from the Eunomia report and TRP’s 2024 State of Recycling.

In Minnesota, the Senate Republican Caucus said the “hyper-partisan” new EPR law would raise costs for employers and customers.

“Unfortunately, instead of finding balance, Democrats are forcing through controversial environmental restrictions that will crush Minnesotans with more price increases on top of inflation and $10 billion in new taxes passed last year,” Sen. Justin Eichorn, the party’s lead on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Legacy Committee, said in a written statement.

Democratic supporters, meanwhile, hailed the law as an incentive for industry to recycle more.
“Across Minnesota, we are inundated with packaging, from our doorsteps to store shelves,” Rep. Sydney Jordan, Vice Chair of the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, said in a written statement. “Today’s bill takes steps to ensure the producers of this waste are paying their fair share.”

Political dynamics can play out across states and regions. Mark Dancy, president and founder of WasteZero, a waste-reduction consulting business out of South Carolina, said WasteZero does much of its work further north because of its home region’s low landfill costs, political polarization around the topic and a general lack of interest.

“Our company doesn’t spend a lot of time in the South,” he said during a session at the Waste Expo conference in Las Vegas in May. The circular economy is likely to grow in the coming decades, he added, “but there are parts of the country that are still going to be way behind.”

There are exceptions to the pattern. Rural and conservative Alaska cracks the top 15 in the proportion of households with access to residential recycling service, according to the TRP report, while blue Colorado comes in 45th. Republican Florida and Utah are near the top of the pack with a participation rate of around 70% among the same households, almost double that of purple Vermont and West Virginia.

“We’ll see in Florida, a lot of times the economics drive activity you might not see elsewhere,” such as productive end markets for construction and demolition materials, said Jim Marcinko, southern tier recycling director at WM, at Waste Expo. “We do more C&D in Florida than anywhere else in the country.”

Another paradox complicates the pattern as well, several business leaders said: As a state’s interest in and support for recycling rises, so do the regulatory obstacles, and vice versa. Mick Barry, former president of Mid America Recycling in Iowa and past chairman of the National Recycling Coalition, described it as, “One discourages doing anything, the other needs to be encouraged.”

California, for instance, requires extensive recycling of containers, organics and C&D materials. But building a facility to accomplish those goals takes years of jumping through the hoops of stringent environmental impact rules and other regulations, said Richard Ludt, director of environmental affairs at Interior Removal Specialist Inc., a C&D company in the Los Angeles area.

“In Ohio, I could damn near permit a facility like this over the counter,” he quipped. “The bureaucracy kills us.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Rody Taylor said the C&D business he opened last year, KC Dumpster Company, was Missouri’s first of its kind, and state regulators knew next to nothing about his work. He struggles to compete with cheap landfill fees, he told a Waste Expo audience, but he’s also the only game in town.

KC Dumpster benefits when big developers like Facebook carry “West Coast policies” for C&D diversion into their local projects, Taylor said, and he’s also working on Recycling Certification Institute approval — all of which brings more rules for him to follow. But they’re coming from private entities rather than government agencies, which he prefers.

“There’s just a whole lot to overcome in my case, and the fact that I’ve got my feet on the ground is something I’m pretty proud of,” Taylor said. He added with a laugh, “I’d hate to live in California.”

Recycling regulations aren’t automatically a drag, noted Ludt, a past advisory board member for the Solid Waste Association of North America.

“My business model wouldn’t work in any other state,” he said, and he called the recycling industry “notoriously bad at self-policing.” In fact, more regulation could help ensure that diverted materials go where they’re meant to go and companies don’t inflate their numbers. And he said pushing for sustainability is the right thing to do.

“We absolutely have to protect the environment, because it’s the only one we’ve got,” Ludt said. As long as they don’t price supportive companies out of business, “regulations can be phenomenal.”

The case of Iowa

Recycling’s many political contradictions converge on the Hawkeye State. Its bottle bill came in 1978 at the hands of Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray and then-State Rep. Terry Branstad, both icons of the state’s Republican Party, chiefly as a litter-control tool, said Barry, formerly of Mid America.

“The bottle bill created an ethic in every Iowan from, I’m almost 74 now, to my little grandkids that I babysit,” he said. Barry called the bill a cornerstone of the state’s recycling system and the primary reason that Iowa’s bottle and can recycling rate is four times as high as neighboring Nebraska’s, by Ball Corporation’s count.

The program carried on, broadly popular and unchanged, until proposals to repeal it or alter it started cropping up over the past decade or so, said R.G. Schwarm, executive director of a nonprofit association of recycling businesses called Cleaner Iowa. The group was created to educate legislators about the bottle bill’s benefits as a result.

“We appreciate that the bottle bill is a free market system that hasn’t required a penny of government money,” Schwarm said. “After 40 years, some changes were needed, and we wanted to make sure that when these changes were implemented, the consumer was also included.”

Proposed changes included expanding the bottle bill to include more containers, such as water bottles, or directing unredeemed deposits into a state fund rather than letting the producers keep them. What carried the day in 2022 was a package of proposals that in part increased redemption centers’ handling fee, or share of the nickel deposit, from 1 cent to 3 cents, which was lauded across the board as necessary to support existing centers and encourage new ones. Kevin Kinney, the former state senator who was the only Democrat voting for the changes, said in an interview that he voted yes to support a struggling center, and its jobs, in his district.

The bill also exempted hundreds of grocery and convenience stores from having to take back cans and bottles, citing sanitation and food safety concerns. Though Schwarm said the provision had support in both parties, it became the center of a partisan dispute. In the state Senate, Democrats argued Iowans should be able to redeem containers where they bought them and participating would become more difficult, while Republicans argued the higher handling fee, plus a provision allowing mobile redemption centers, would make up the difference in redemption locations.

Two years on, a recent survey by Cleaner Iowa found more than 2,000 stores had stopped accepting containers, including several that weren’t exempt from participating even under the 2022 changes, while redemption centers increased to about 100.

Democrat State Sen. Bill Dotzler, who in 2022 called the changes “the first step of just totally eliminating the bottle bill,” said his views hadn’t changed since.

“It’s going to be a slow death in my view,” he said in May, pointing to the 29 counties Cleaner Iowa found have no redemption centers. “This is kind of a pseudo bottle bill. In rural Iowa, it’s going to be pretty much nonexistent.”

Republican State Rep. Brian Lohse, who has popped up in local media saying the bottle bill might need to be repealed because of its struggles, said in an interview that repeal would be a last resort. He still supports the store exemptions — “These things should not be in those environments” — but conceded shortcomings in 2022’s legislation.

“It’s just not working like we had hoped, or at least like I hoped,” he said, adding the state needs to enforce the new rules.

The Legislature plans to review the changes starting in 2025, and potential tweaks are already up for discussion. Schwarm still argues that places that sell bottles and cans should take them back, and some Republicans introduced bills this year undoing some of the exemptions. Dotzler suggested adding water bottles as redeemable containers, and Lohse said he’s interested in steering unredeemed deposits toward curbside recycling for all households.

Above all, support for the program is widespread, with more than 80% of Iowans in favor, according to Cleaner Iowa polls, and the state boasts one of the highest recycling rates in the country. Dotzler, Kinney, Lohse and another legislative Republican who’s worked on the issue, State Sen. Ken Rozenboom, all said they took part in the redemption program.

“This really is a conversation that I think everyone can have because they’re materials that we all interact with,” said Jane Wilch, recycling coordinator for Iowa City and president of the Iowa Recycling Association. “We really approach them as relatable topics to everyone, no matter the party, no matter where anyone stands politically.”

The power of the nickel deposit gets some of the credit, Barry added.

“For the general public, the bottle bill puts a value on a raw material. That’s education,” he said. “We’re not educating anyone anymore, we’ve got nothing but turmoil in the bill, but people want it.”

Common ground

Researchers at Idaho State University a decade ago found that the framing of the recycling issue affected how people perceived it, particularly if they were more conservative.

The researchers compared responses to two main ways of describing why recycling matters: a duty-based framing that emphasized responsibility, efficiency and dwindling space in landfills, for example, and a civic engagement-based framing that emphasized natural resource and energy savings, impact on the climate and blaming greedy corporations.

Overall, more liberal respondents tended to agree with the value of recycling regardless of the framing, the study found. More conservative respondents typically voiced agreement with the duty-based explanation.

In other words, in the buffet of reasons to want to recycle, liberal people tend to find a wider variety of the dishes appetizing — but everyone can find something to eat.

“That’s one reason I have worked in recycling for nearly 20 years — there is someone for everyone to like,” said Kate Bailey, chief policy officer at the Association of Plastic Recyclers, which owns the publisher of this magazine and supports EPR, mandated recycled content and similar policies. Parties disagree on the proper role of government in the details, Bailey added, but “good policy is about compromise — no one gets everything they want, but everyone is heard and can help shape a workable solution.”

Real-life examples of the Idaho study’s findings have popped up in recent months, as concerns over full or hazardous landfills have prompted calls for better recycling plans both on conservative Long Island and in liberal L.A. County.

In northwest Arkansas, a medium-sized but booming region that’s home to Walmart and other corporate headquarters, neighbors of the region’s primary landfill have been fighting the WM-owned facility’s attempts to expand as its remaining capacity dwindles.

The area’s Republican representatives in the state House, Robin Lundstrum and Steve Unger, have called for air and groundwater testing and the landfill’s potential closure, and they’ve voiced support for gasification, a form of processing MSW en masse into fuel and other usable materials. Unger said the issue stuck with him as he began driving past the landfill to visit a relative and was struck by its finite capacity.

“I think we should all be environmentalists,” he said. “I am a conservative, but I believe in clean water, I believe in clean air.”

Similarly, advocates from Florida to Oregon said the economics of recycling – jobs created, materials put to work, businesses opened – is a skeleton key to unlocking support from across the ideological spectrum.

“That’s the manna from heaven that all politicians want to see,” said de Thomas with TRP, who added that successful policy requires engaging with the full variety of communities, businesses and other stakeholders affected. “Not one stakeholder can plant the seed and till the soil themselves.”

A bipartisan group in Congress has introduced a bill to remove the excise tax on large trucks, which would benefit many industries, as Jim Riley, the National Waste & Recycling Association interim president and CEO, noted during Waste Expo. More narrowly, a national deposit program is getting some traction, too.

“We are on the cusp of getting a national recycling refund introduced to Congress in a bipartisan way,” said Heidi Sanborn, founding director of the National Stewardship Action Council, echoing a similar sentiment from Barry. “I’m very, very hopeful because there’s so much industry hunger for this material.”

In the end, the heart of recycling’s bipartisan appeal seems clear when people of different backgrounds and politics are asked not which policy they favor or which party they belong to but instead simply why they recycle.

“One thing that really resonates with me personally is I kind of hate the idea of using something for a really short finite time and it existing forever in the world,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste and a strong proponent of the state’s industry regulation. Lundstrum, one of the Arkansas Republicans, put it this way: “I hate throwing away something that I know can be reused.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Richard Ludt’s  previous role with the Solid Waste Association of North America.

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First-Person Perspective: Challenging the status quo on food-grade polypropylene

Published: July 3, 2024


Afanasiev Andrii/Shutterstock

This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

In the last half of 2023 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave their “Letter of No Objection” to 14 companies in North America, Asia and Europe to use their recycled resin products for food-contact packaging. Yet to date there is no information or publicity on applications of recycled food-grade polypropylene resin being used in food-contact packaging.

One of the key reasons for this is that PP is at the beginning of its recyclability journey. If we consider the most widely recycled polymers to date, PET and HDPE, their recycling journey was not an immediate overnight success, either. I recall when we were first producing food-grade RPET in the U.K., there was considerable reluctance to using it in food-contact packaging, and it required extensive trialing before it was adopted for standard production. Now this is an everyday occurrence.

PP is currently going through the exact same phase.

PP’s slow recycling journey

Yet PP accounts for more than 20% of global plastics production, with food packaging being one of its primary products. In fact, some 75% of PP rigid packaging in the EU is food-contact, equivalent to around 10% of total PP demand.

One of the key reasons recycled food-grade PP resin is not yet being used in food packaging, even with an LNO, has to do with a reticence towards this new resin’s ensured safety. The hesitation comes from a lack of experience that this food-grade recycled material is safe to use in consumer food-contact packaging.

The challenge with RPP is that up until now it has not been possible to accurately differentiate between PP packaging that once contained non-food products from those that contained food. As a consequence, current food-grade recycled PP has been limited to closed-loop recycling, hand-sorting or advanced recycling technology processes based on mass balance, which is not yet recognized as recycling in the European Union.

Characterizing residual contamination levels in rPP

Progress is rapidly catching up however, thanks to NextLooPP’s ongoing science-driven exploration to close the loop on post-consumer food-grade PP.

Achieving this has meant addressing each and every roadblock along the way and deep-diving into the specific sorting and decontamination requirements for the recycling processes for PP.

This led to NextLooPP’s science-based investigation to determine the residual contamination levels of post-consumer PP packaging, which up until now have never been characterized.

The lack of data showing the misuse/mis-selection rate within PP feedstocks had meant there was no reliable way of defining the residual levels that could potentially migrate into food as well as understanding which molecules to target via decontamination processes.

NextLooPP’s study aimed to identify substances that might cause samples of RPP to be outliers from the expected input stream that could represent challenges to the final safety of the recycled plastics. The key issue was to check whether the substances observed could potentially be genotoxic.

This is a critical criterion for food safety evaluations, given that the substances could be derived from the mis-selection of an item of non-food PP packaging, which is not necessarily a case of misuse.

All in the shape of the pack

Being olefinic, the packaging format of consumer PP packaging reduces the chances of it being in a consumer-misuse scenario. A large proportion of PET packaging is relatively durable with a tight closure, making it a container of choice when used for the storage of hazardous materials. Likewise, HDPE packaging is also in bottle form with a closure, meaning it, too, may be used in such a scenario. PP food containers, on the other hand, are less likely to come in bottle form and much more likely to be pots, tubs, or trays with limited closure capability, making it a less likely candidate for consumer misuse.

Characterizing the residues in post-consumer packaging that have been sorted into mono-polymer fractions was done by analyzing and testing multiple batches of food and non-food samples to see what molecules are present and if there are any areas of concern.

To achieve this our team of scientists worked on 20-ton batches of PP bales sourced from a U.K.-based materials recovery facility. Using automatic optical sorters to separate color fractions of natural, white and colored articles, each color fraction was hand-sorted into articles from food applications and articles from non-food applications.

The analytical study involved 700 tests, representing approximately 17,500 different PP packs based on 25 significantly sized flakes per test. This was estimated to be a cross-sectional representation of 7% of the packs from the combination of batches of 260,000 packs.

Following this contamination study, NextLooPP characterized the contamination levels in PP and concluded that they are in the order of 10 times less than what we expect in HDPE milk bottles and 100 times less than expected in PET. This is not surprising given the applications that select PP as the packaging material.

Food-grade rPP resin confidence

Understanding the sorting and decontamination requirements needed to enhance the recycling processes further validates Nextek’s global multi-participant project, NextLooPP, that launches imminently in the Americas.

This data is essential to allow food-grade PP packaging to be recycled into high-value recyclates that can safely be used in new food-contact packaging, and we are confident the performance standards we have now developed will enable us to help organizations reach a high level of technical performance as well as commercial and legal confidence in the food-grade RPP they can include in food-contact packaging.

By deploying NextLooPP’s expertise and technical backup, NextLooPP aims to license the NextLooPP technology to ensure that the resin standards can be fast-tracked into U.S.-produced RPP food-grade packaging.

Finding validated local solutions for the end of life of post-consumer food-grade PP packaging has been the driving force behind NextLooPP’s 53 participants, who are actively producing and trialing a range of unique grades of high-quality food-grade recycled PP resins produced using Nextek’s patented PPristine decontamination technology.

Proof in the commercialized trials

Eighteen of NextLooPP’s brand and converter participants have now finalized 55 commercialization trials using five PPristine resin grades: natural food-grade IM, natural food-grade, white food-grade, mixed-color food-grade and non-food grade mixed-color INRT, and the results have been outstanding. As an example, trials using 30% of NextLooPP’s PPristine resins in both extrusion and thermoforming trays achieved product quality that is comparable with the virgin products with no changes in processing conditions.

Transforming sorting

While the multi-participant project now fine-tunes the resin quality standards that are poised to become standard for food-grade recycled PP, recent trials conducted by NextLooPP together with Tomra have confirmed a major breakthrough in the automatic sorting of food-grade PP packaging.

These sorting trials held in February, which combined Tomra’s near-infrared, visual spectrometry with the company’s latest deep-learning technology GAINnext, achieved food-grade purity levels exceeding 95% in packaging applications.

This exciting development is an invaluable boost to the NextLooPP project, as GAINnext has the potential to be rolled out to all PP packaging sorting facilities and will help produce valuable food-grade PP PCR streams.

By providing a sorted food-grade PP PCR stream, GAINnext will enable the NextLooPP decontamination process to be carried out in many more recycling operations globally.

Close to the finish line

After close to four years of intense collaboration, the NextLooPP participants are now breaking down the final barriers to producing food-grade recycled PP from post-consumer packaging into new circular economy products, and the NextLooPP team is looking forward to launching the NextLooPP Americas project to achieve similar outstanding results.

Boosting the production of recycled food-grade PP resin is a major step towards stimulating growth in the sector and creating a market where sustainable solutions will become competitive with and a replacement for virgin polymers.

Edward Kosior has worked in the plastics recycling sector for 48 years, including 22 years as an academic and 26 years working in recycling and sustainable solutions. He’s the founder of the consulting organization Nextek Ltd.; of NextLooPP, a global project working to close the loop on post-consumer polypropylene; and of COtooCLEAN, which uses a unique super-critical CO2 technology to decontaminate, de-ink and delaminate soft plastic films back to food-grade compliance.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.

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Zero waste takes off

Published: June 21, 2024



Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the history of the zero waste movement and its impact; see part 1 here.

Our three legacy movements — recycling, anti-incineration and zero waste — are working expeditiously to reach 90% diversion with no incineration, organics out of landfills and no toxics in our packages or products. Communities, businesses and local governments today are equipped with strategic policies and programs that were not available when the three legacy movements emerged prior to 2000.

While the movement toward zero waste gains strength and momentum, so do the economic and environmental challenges that threaten us. Consider, for example, between 2012 and 2022, Maryland energy providers spent about $100 million subsidizing trash incinerators through that state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. A bill in the state legislature eliminates these payments and saves the state another $200 million between 2023 and 2030, according to testimony by Clean Water Action before the Maryland State Legislature in March.

With regard to our environment and nature itself, we have to eliminate the particulate emissions laden with microplastics, which represent our human fingerprints on ecological calamities. Plastic pollution, in particular, has transformed from an environmental crisis to a crisis of “critical human health,” as the recent documentary “Plastic People” makes clear. And then there are PFAS, chemicals with a virtually indestructible bond between chlorine and carbon molecules that, along with plastic, invade all of nature, including our bodies. Yet the plastics industry is telling our school children that there is nothing to worry about, as The Washington Post reported in February.

New strategies and tactics to rein in waste

The U.S. EPA has identified 100 local policies and programs that boost recycling. One of the most impactful is unit pricing or garbage metering, often called pay as you throw. Households are charged only for the waste they set out on the curb but not for recycling or composting. In practice, recycling can increase by 40% in one year. Cities adopting PAYT have reduced per capita waste generation from the US average of 4 pounds per day to less than 1 pound per day, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Bans and rewash initiatives focused on plastic products are having a major impact on economic, environmental and social problems as well. Scores of new companies are investing in wash systems that rely on reusable tableware in numerous jurisdictions banning single use plastic products. Durable plastic and stainless steel utensils are rewashed on site or picked up, cleaned and returned to the restaurant for use. Restaurant chains, sports and entertainment venues, government cafeterias and schools are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by switching to this new phenomenon, driven by local policy initiatives.

Venues that do not have wash facilities can obtain grants for this infrastructure from both federal programs and companies such as ReDish, RCup, Plastic Free Restaurants (and Schools), rWorld, Bold Reuse, We ReUse, and ReThink Disposables.

“We are starting to see a whole shift toward changing consumer behavior as scores of new reuse service companies are emerging,” said Chrise De Tournay, a zero waste adviser to government agencies and companies who tracks developments in this sector. “Local governments can lead the way to close the loop from one way plastic with an investment in rewash systems instead of single-use products.”

Right-to-repair laws requiring computer, automobile and farm equipment manufacturers to provide repair manuals and tools to customers and small repair businesses have been passed in 25 states.

Building deconstruction is spreading rapidly as new policies require deconstruction when buildings built before 1970 are taken down. In Baltimore, Second Chance, a nonprofit deconstruction enterprise, has 250 workers, up from six workers when they started in 2003. Around 90% of these workers are drawn from hard-to-employ people in the city and now have jobs with wages and benefits to raise a family and own a home. If the Baltimore City Council passes a bill requiring mandatory deconstruction, Second Chance CEO Mark Forster estimates that he will have to train and hire another 250 workers.

Another deconstruction company in Baltimore, Humanim, reported a zero recidivism rate for workers who were ex-offenders. The national rate for recidivism is 75%. Building deconstruction in Baltimore as elsewhere recycles people as well as building materials.

Deconstruction spread rapidly from its humble beginnings in the late 1990s as pilot projects took down World War II military barracks built with prized redwood lumber. Today the Reuse People, a deconstruction company based in San Diego, has over a dozen affiliates across the U.S. The Building Materials Reuse Association represents 32 robust for-profit, nonprofit and government programs in the U.S. and Canada.

“Deconstruction and reuse and construction and demolition recycling are on the minds of California cities and joint powers authorities triggered by new climate action plans or updates, as well as new construction and demolition waste ordinances required to meet the state’s Cal Green Code,” said Nicole Tai, owner of GreenLynx deconstruction company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Local ordinances in cities in California, Colorado and elsewhere require a bond from companies and require them to recycle 50% or more of all construction and demolition debris to have their bond money returned. At the national level, the EPA identifies deconstruction and reuse as examples of measures to include in state climate action plans funded under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Repair and resale of consumer products through retail thrift – appliances, textiles, furniture, mattresses and books – impact environmental, economic and social issues in the communities they serve. Iconic enterprises in this field include:

  • The Reuse Corridor serves the Central Appalachian regions of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Habitat for Humanity operates 50 ReStores, which help stabilize low-income families and communities.
  • Independent enterprises that fulfill the same mission include:
    • Urban Ore, in Berkeley, California.
    • Rebuilding Center in Portland, Oregon.
    • Construction Junction in Pittsburgh.
    • Community Forklift in Washington, D.C.
    • The Repurpose Center in Gainesville, Florida.
    • Saint Vincent de Paul of Lane County operates mattress, textile, appliance, and furniture enterprises in Eugene, Oregon. It created the Cascade Alliance, which replicated 10 new community-based enterprises across the US. Each enterprise pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales taxes as their workers pay wage taxes to local and state governments.

Notable enterprises like RecycleForce in Indianapolis, which repurposes discarded products from hotels, airlines and sports stadiums, and HomeBoy Enterprises in Los Angeles, which works in e-scrap, focus on people. They provide low-skilled workers a pathway away from chronic unemployment and gangs toward homeownership, stable family and community life.

LiquiDonate is a new startup that diverts returned consumer goods and excess inventory from landfills to schools and nonprofit organizations in support of local economic circularity in Canada and the U.S. Upstream just released its business reuse and circular economy start-up directories at

Composting is the proverbial magic bullet for zero-waste campaigns. We are seeing Americans take to composting as we did to recycling in the 1970s. About 9% of the waste stream is now being composted, according to this year’s Composting State of Practice report by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, United States Composting Council and Desert Research Institute, and the expectation is that this will grow rapidly.

Composting combined with food waste reduction programs can readily double the country’s recycling rate within just a few years. In addition to managing food scraps through composting – and aerobic and anaerobic digestion – food waste reduction programs are proliferating and proving highly cost effective.

The public has demanded that comprehensive, distributive composting be implemented in all parts of the U.S. When a private composting company in Wilmington, Delaware, that was serving the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area 10 years ago failed, citizens pushed for public action. Compost programs were launched in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties and in D.C. Some are robust, some are maturing, but citizen action moved the region forward.

Nine states – California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – now have laws mandating that organics be diverted from landfill or incineration. A bill proposed in Maryland would impose a surcharge of $2 per ton on all waste landfilled or incinerated in the state. The dollars raised will be allocated in favor of small-scale composting.

In Cleveland, Rust Belt Riders demonstrates how community-based enterprises can start with collecting food discards from homes and bike trailers and grow to provide city-wide service with five trucks and 35 workers. Rust Belt Riders will host a national gathering of community-based compost enterprises and programs in October.

In New York, all large generators of organic discards must send materials to a compost facility if it is within 25 miles of the point of generation. Schools have been exempted from the regulations. Anna Giordano of We Future Cycle, Inc. is working to end that exclusion.

“Schools are large generators and there should be systemic composting and recycling programs in place, not just for financial reasons but chiefly for the educational and social benefits. Teaching students early that very small changes in daily life can make a huge difference is creating generational change,” she said.

“It was done with seatbelts, and it can surely be done with waste management and environmental awareness. And of course students will carry the recycling and composting knowledge to the entire family as curb collection programs are implemented in their towns.”

Organic materials make up 35% to 40% of the waste stream. There are year-round stable markets for finished compost and compost products in every part of the country. Quality material is valued at from $75 to $100 per ton, or three cubic yards. When applied to agriculture, compost restores eroding topsoil, conserves water and improves soil health. Economies of scale can be reached in your kitchen (vermicomposting), backyard, community and city. Composting results in a ripple effect for jobs in processing, landscaping, and nurseries and home gardening stores. Keeping organics out of landfills reduces leachate and methane gas emissions.

Anaerobic digestion facilities, which digest organic material to recover methane, also have an array of economies of scale from small units to manage manures on farms to industrial facilities. A 5,000-ton-per-year facility can digest scraps from school cafeterias, restaurant chains and entertainment venues.

There is a danger from large-scale anaerobic digestion plants. The plant coming online in Jessup, Maryland, is scaled at 120,000 tons per year. To assure that it can get sufficient materials to make a profit, the company is lobbying against programs that support smaller compost operations and farmer composting networks.


Minnesota’s reuse economy:

  • Creates 45,000 jobs.
  • Is valued at over $5 billion.
  • Avoids carbon emissions equivalent to 100,000 gas powered vehicles.
  • Could add 1,700 more jobs in electronic scrap reuse.

Source: Reuse Minnesota



  • Climate Pollution Reduction Grants.
  • Solid Waste Infrastructure Grants.
  • Recycling Education and Outreach.
  • Brownfields.
  • Pollution Prevention.
  • Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers.
  • Community Change.

U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Composting and Food Waste Reduction.
  • Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production.

U.S. Department of Energy:

  • Recycle-X Competition.
  • Strategy for Plastics Innovation.
  • Make It Prize.
  • Battery Manufacturing and Recycling.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  • Marine Debris Community Action Coalition.

Critical developments at the EPA

The incineration industry is aggressively fighting to protect its turf. Ongoing lobbying efforts are under way to persuade EPA to declare pyrolysis or gasification of garbage a non-incineration technology.

The public, especially environmentalists who are focused on plastic reduction, fear that incineration of plastic waste will only bring more virgin plastic pollution. Plastic particles already permeate every crack and crevice of the natural world, including our bodies. Microplastics are found in human brains and babies’ umbilical cords with unknown consequences.

Thanks to the work of the Energy Justice Network and its network of over 30 grassroots groups, the EPA has been challenged to justify its decades long claim that garbage incineration is a better waste management technique than landfilling. EJN and its network is further pressing EPA to recalculate its Waste Reduction Model, or WARM, which also has been a prop for determining that incineration is better than landfilling.

The model “gets it backwards when constantly showing results that burning trash (and landfilling ash) is better for the climate than directly landfilling trash. The opposite is true,” Energy Justice Network CEO Mike Ewall said. “Incinerators immediately shoot all of the carbon in trash into the atmosphere while much of the carbon in waste ends up stored in landfills, especially from plastics that don’t biodegrade.”

A new law in Oregon may also impact the fate of garbage incineration nationally. The justice network, working with anti-incineration forces, in Oregon succeeded in passing a requirement in 2023 that incinerators operating in the state must have continuous monitoring of emissions and report this information to the public.

By next year the landscape for incineration could change fundamentally. In late February, for example, the U.S. EPA updated the
National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, tightening the standard for soot pollution from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA estimates that the new rule will save 4,200 lives, prevent 5,400 new cases of asthma and 10,000 emergency room visits and avoid 270,000 lost workdays each year.

The role of EPR

It remains to be seen how recently passed extended producer responsibility laws will impact the recycling and incineration industry. Industry giants have overseen 20 years of no growth in the national recycling rate. What will the producer responsibility organizations created by EPR laws to oversee recycling and composting change? Will incineration – in cement kilns, industrial boilers and/or in pyrolysis plants – become part of a greenwashed version of zero waste? Already burning options are included in many bad EPR proposals around the U.S., such as California’s SB 54, which may include chemical recycling. An EPR bill in New York prepared by Beyond Plastics environmental group specifically excludes chemical recycling.

It all depends on whether grassroots strategies and values are written into the governing rules and regulations. The fear at the grassroots level is that corporate giants in the packaging and plastic industry can easily gain control of an EPR bureaucracy, or producer responsibility organization, and promote incineration as an acceptable management practice. This has happened in British Columbia. This would pervert the nature of EPR from a policy of polluter pays to a policy of polluter controls.

Some states are considering using consultants to manage the PRO. This also is worrisome for grassroots zero waste advocates. Why contract out for essential long-term services that require skilled public servants to manage? Building capacity and institutional memory within the public sector is essential.

Elizabeth Balkan, Director of ReLoop North America, said EPR could present a barrier to the expansion of reuse regimens.

“EPR could be used as a tool for accelerating or decelerating source reduction,” she said. “Producers will be focused on securing the cheapest possible programs, and because reuse solutions are cost-effective long-term but require significant upfront capital, they will not voluntarily make the investments.”

Balkan continued: “Developing reuse targets and incentives, as well as funding requirements, is critical to achieve system performance and source reduction. Without this, we could be locking ourselves into several more decades of a carbon-intensive toxic and polluting single use packaging economy.”

Any city or county seeking financial support for capital investment in zero-waste infrastructure and enterprises can apply to numerous federal grant programs.

Will this be enough to stop the plastic/pyrolysis onslaught?

Most recently, PFAS chemicals have drawn attention from scientists and activists in addition to well-known pollutants emanating from municipal waste incinerators. Incineration of PFAS material produces smaller versions of the chemical.

PFAS were developed in the ’40s, and by the ’70s began appearing in consumer products and eventually in nature and humans. They are manufactured mostly in the U.S. and Europe by two companies, 3M and DuPont, but are highly mobile via rain, snow and soil. The companies were “deeply aware” of the dangers, explained David Bond of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College during a presentation to the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions in March. Most recently, the EPA designated two PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund program.

Living downstream from plastic manufacturing or military bases is dangerous, Bond has said, as PFAS contribute to an array of health problems including cancer, obesity and hypertension. Plastic manufacturing plants have proliferated in recent years in the US: 55 since 2012, with companies proposing to build 33 plants, though that number could rise, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

Extremely low levels of exposure to PFAS can trigger these serious ailments and more. Yet the petrochemical industry is fighting back against the common-sense efforts to stop plastics from impacting the environment. The proliferation of these plants will allow the industry to produce more and more plastic. Industry is heavily lobbying to exempt this technology from all air pollution rules; incinerators are not incinerators, they claim, but rather are energy manufacturing plants. In the past few years these lobbying efforts at the state level have convinced 25 states to adopt this rebranding and make the plants eligible for public financing.

Since federal laws preempt state laws, the industry is focusing its forces on the EPA to reclassify pyrolysis. Such false rebranding would open the door to more and more plastic pollution. In addition, the industry is targeting special new tax credits for electricity generated by pyrolysis plants.

The environmental movement in the 1960s was a candle in the dark for Americans. Today, the warnings from plastic production and global warming are a burning bush. Plastic particles have entered our lungs, our brains and our babies. Global warming is leading us headlong into ecological collapse. Now is the time for grassroots activists to aggressively approach their officials to take advantage of available funds, technology and businesses to eliminate incineration and implement zero waste. We are at the take-off stage for achieving zero waste. It is within reach.

As before, we must organize at the local level to protect the gains we have already made and overcome these new challenges. Solid waste management decisions are made at the local level, where activists can secure zero waste policies and programs, and which ripple upwards into state and federal actions. We need to vote for zero waste champions to maintain and accelerate this process.

Neil Seldman is cofounder of Zero Waste USA, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Zero Waste International Alliance and Save the Albatross Coalition. He directs the Recycling Cornucopia Program at Zero Waste USA, which provides pro bono assistance to community and environmental organizations as well as small businesses.

Posted in Resource Recycling Magazine | Tagged |

Plastics Recycling Conference 2024: Charting a course in plastic recycling

Published: June 21, 2024


Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling

In the showdown between recycled and virgin plastic resins, recycling can’t prevail without more supportive public policy, greater buy-in from the public and other outside reinforcements, several plastics recycling leaders agreed in March.

Two numbers make the scale of the imbalance clear. The recycling sector collects roughly 5 billion pounds of bottles, films and other plastics for recycling each year in the U.S., according to the research and consulting firm Stina Inc. U.S. plastic producers, meanwhile, made more than 8 billion pounds of new resin just in the month of February, as tallied by the American Chemistry Council, a national association of chemical manufacturers.

Far from the early days of plastic recycling, when reclaimed resin was seen as a more cost-effective and somewhat embarrassing alternative, recycled plastic is now sought after in many contexts but outcheapened and outmatched by a worldwide glut of the new stuff.

“If we don’t deal with the price differential, at the end of the day – I believe this – nothing we do matters,” Stephen Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, told an audience during Resource Recycling’s Plastics Recycling Conference in the Dallas area earlier this year. APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc., which publishes this magazine.

“Some call it headwinds we face, I call it the attacks that we face across the board,” he added. “A lot of us are here trying to solve a problem that someone else creates.”

That was one of many takeaways speakers shared at the annual conference, where around 2,500 attendees gathered in Grapevine, Texas, for 20 sessions that delved into product design, artificial intelligence, chemical recycling techniques and other important trends.

The lay of the land

In a series of panel discussions, Alexander and other experts painted a somber picture of an industry in some ways stuck in a rut, though they also identified several levers that could help pry it out. George Smilow, chief operating officer at New York-based PQ Recycling, recalled starting his career back in the 1970s.

“Back then I believe there were about 50 to 60 PET reclaimers in North America, and the return rate was 30%,” he said. “Today there are about half, and the return rate is about 27%.”

New plastic production, on the other hand, has gone gangbusters to the point of overkill, said Joel Morales, vice president of polyolefins Americas for Chemical Market Analytics.

China is a big driver, he said. Many new plants there are tied to fossil fuel refineries, insulating them from low prices amid an oversupply, and projects are also trying to get ahead of anticipated regulation and building difficulties. But it’s a global pattern.

“From a virgin resin supplier perspective, we’ve only added more capacity since last year, and we’ve removed demand in the virgin forecast,” Morales said. “It’s almost like people do exactly the opposite of what we suggest they do.”

On the recycling side, companies and government programs face a disjunction between supply and demand for recycled plastics, with simultaneously too much and too little material on hand. With curbside recycling flat for years, supply can fall short of sustainability goals set by major brands, for example.

Courtesy of Stina Inc.

“The engineering and technology that we use today is amazing compared to when we first started – we can do just about anything. The only thing we can’t engineer is getting more bottles,” Smilow said. “It’s not something that you can just go out and buy. It exists only if people return the bottles and they’re in some sort of a system where we can get those bottles and make something of them, return them to the system.”

Scott Saunders, general manager for KW Plastics in Alabama, said recycling must do a better job of reaching mid-sized, mid-U.S. cities to get more inflow.

“We can build all the lines we want to build, so can Jon,” Saunders said, referring to his co-panelist, Jon Vander Ark, president and CEO of Republic Services – both companies have invested heavily in expanding their recycled plastic processing capacity in the past few years. “If we don’t have the material to put on those lines, it’s just equipment.”

Demand can appear strong at least for certain resins and contexts. After Republic began building facilities to process post-consumer plastic, “we had 50 customers come up to us and say ‘we’ll buy every molecule that comes out the back door of all five of your facilities,’” Vander Ark said.

Yet demand can falter or lag when sustainability goals fall by the wayside in the face of low virgin costs, concerns over food safety or other factors.
Some post-consumer films have received no-objection letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their use in food-grade pouches, but “we’re still seeing some resistance in that actually being commercialized,” said Cherish Changala, vice president of sustainability and public affairs at the Arkansas-based reclaimer Revolution.

“In many cases, you can say they’re able to recycle material, but it’s that demand that’s not there,” she said. “What’s it going to take to get us over that hurdle?”

With all of this in mind, the question posed by a session title – can PCR still compete? – has a clear answer, said panelist David Nix, president of Pennsylvania-based Green Group Consulting.

“No, it can’t compete,” he said, pointing to the myriad collection, shipping, processing and cleaning costs tied around recycling’s neck. “That’s a no-win situation. It’s just not going to work. The things that will make that work are legislation.”

‘Take the devil out of plastics’

Several panelists joined the call for recycling-friendly policy. Nix and Alexander favored state laws requiring that new packages include minimum proportions of recycled content, as some states have done, as a way to essentially force demand into being.

Vander Ark said brands’ verbal commitments don’t always reach into the companies’ cost-focused procurement offices without that legal poke. “That world is starting to rotate because of regulation, and we’re seeing that in California, New Jersey and other states. And that’s the reason why we’re making this investment.”

Boosting recycling tax credits to match other industries, making recycling programs more consistent in the materials they accept and requiring manufacturers to buy their recycled resin domestically would all help as well, Alexander said. Extended producer responsibility seems promising, but he’s waiting to see results.

“The plastics recycling industry is being left behind, because we’re tasked to do it all by ourselves,” he said.

Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO at Stina Inc. and a moderator of two sessions, pressed panelists to keep a deeper need in mind: making recycling worthwhile, in all senses of the word. Recycling does a lot of good, including for the environment and public health, but this isn’t always obvious or tangible for the general public.

“I can either throw it away, where it’s easy, or I can recycle. It’s a little extra effort. There’s no economic benefit for them to do that. So what is the other motivation that they have?” she said. “Is there something that we haven’t thought of yet that really provides the value on PCR, that represents all those things that society actually needs? It is a public service, and we’re not seeing that translated to the reclaimers.”

Brian King, executive vice president of marking at Advanced Drainage Systems out of Ohio, pointed to local policy changes like higher tipping fees for waste than for recycling. More broadly, he said the recycling industry needs to tell its story in a better and more unified way, echoing comments from Alexander and others.

“It is showing what happens to the product, showing what a recycled material does versus a virgin material,” he said, adding that he objects to the pejorative term “downcycling” when his company turns a single-use item into one that can last decades.

“We tend to look for a silver bullet. Chemical recycling’s going to save us all, some EPR is going to save us all, right? And it’s not,” King said. “It’s collaboration, it’s working together.”

When Ajit Perera, vice president of post-consumer operations at Talco Plastics in California, joined the state’s advisory board for its recycled-content law, he was the only plastics person in the room.

“Everyone wants to demonize plastics, let’s not use plastics, let’s go to something different, paper, so on and so forth,” he said of his fellow board members. “And I said my mantra here is actually to take the devil out of the plastics.

“I think we should all be passionate and we should push the word out that plastic is here to stay, and it can be only sustained if we recycle it,” Perera went on. “It’s up to us to go out there and preach.”

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

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Organics program leaders share lessons learned

Published: May 20, 2024


Waste Expo 2024 in Las Vegas featured multiple sessions focusing on food waste and other organics diversion. | Randy Andy/Shutterstock

Detailed data, strong community ties and a willingness to try something new are essential ingredients for a successful organics diversion program, speakers from across the continent said earlier this month.  Continue Reading

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Plastic-to-paper switch brings complications, panelists say

Published: April 2, 2024


A panel at last week’s Plastics Recycling Conference dug into the question: “The Switch to Paper Packaging: Fad or New Norm?” | Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling Inc.

Paper is on the march against plastic, taking its place in several forms of protective packaging, food wrappers, beverage containers and bread bag clips as manufacturers pivot to a more commonly recycled, and seemingly more sustainable, material.  Continue Reading

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LyondellBasell acquires PreZero’s assets

Published: February 27, 2024

LyondellBasell facility exterior.

LyondellBasell, a global plastics manufacturer, has made major inroads into the recycling industry in recent years. | Flagmania/Shutterstock

Global plastics producer LyondellBasell has acquired mechanical plastic recycling processing machinery and properties in California from recycling company PreZero. Continue Reading

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EPA to launch battery recycling work sessions in March

Published: February 20, 2024

Lithium batteries on white background.

The EPA is convening battery recycling stakeholders of all kinds in work sessions that will begin in March, exploring such topics as battery labeling and collection best practices. | Showcake/ Shutterstock

Battery manufacturers, nonprofits, local governments and others can share their experiences with and insights into battery recycling with the U.S. EPA during work sessions that are set to begin in March. Continue Reading

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Stakeholders respond to California recyclability report

Published: February 20, 2024


California is in the process of implementing a state law that defines which materials are considered truly recyclable. | Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock

California regulators released a preliminary report on which commodities the state might consider recyclable, with promising results for many materials but a handful of low scores that drew criticism from manufacturers and others earlier this month.  Continue Reading

Textile recycling is at a pivotal moment, experts say

Published: February 13, 2024

Textiles collected for recycling

Methods for recycling clothing and other textiles exist but must be scaled up to meet the problem, several experts said during a recent panel discussion hosted by TOMRA. | Chatham172/Shutterstock

Textile production is among the world’s least sustainable industries, but that could change if brands, governments and investors supercharge and interweave recycling systems that already exist in isolation, experts said during a recent webinar from Europe. Continue Reading

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