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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 longtime 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.”

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Closing up shop: Program contractions center around plastics, glass

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.

Local recycling programs have always experienced some level of fluctuation in how much and what variety of material they accept, but operators said a recent trend of program contractions and closures will need policy
intervention to correct.

Every month in the print edition of Resource Recycling, the Programs in Action section is filled with program reductions or closures, most citing costs and contamination. April’s updates stretched from Greenville County, South Carolina, to Clay County, Florida; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Portage, Indiana.

A press release from the Greater Greenville Sanitation District said that “it is imperative as a community service funded by tax dollars that Greater Greenville Sanitation manage the funding wisely and be good stewards of the monies received.”
As the cost of recycling is more than four times the cost of landfilling, Greater Greenville Sanitation made “the difficult decision to end recycling collection.”

April had bright spots, too: Chesapeake, Virginia is thinking about bringing its program back, and Columbia, Missouri, and Walla Walla, Washington, brought back programs curtailed in the past.

So are local programs dropping off, or is this just a natural ebb and flow? Operators on the ground said there’s definitely been a contraction of programs, and while there have been a few hopeful signs lately, it’s by no means a strong reversal trend.

Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, said the state is “a little bit in a holding pattern” because of all the work being done to pass an extended producer responsibility law for paper and packaging, and organizations there are in “‘wait-and-see mode.”

“I think what happened a lot of stuff went out and stayed out after National Sword,” she said, referring to China’s decision in 2018 to stop accepting most imports of materials meant for recycling, particularly plastics. “Things might come back, but at this point, I haven’t seen anything be added back.”

Experiences on the ground

Trim said in two of Washington’s bigger cities, Tacoma and Olympia, glass was removed from curbside collection several years ago, and Olympia also stopped accepting cartons.

In King County, where Seattle is located, plastic bags and film were removed from the curbside program, along with shredded paper and aluminum foil. Some smaller towns, including Walla Walla, also stopped accepting plastic, Trim added.

However, organics collection programs are growing, she said, including curbside.
Dan Weston, a materials management and recycling policy coordinator at the Washington Department of Ecology, has been checking in on what about 300 programs across the state collect for several years, starting in 2020.

His department uses a list of 70 or so different materials to track what programs are collecting, how they are collecting it and how frequently. In addition, Weston said the department asks which MRF the programs use, which hauler, what bin colors they use and if they had made any changes to the program as a result of National Sword.

Of the 334 communities listed, 184 responded that they made changes as a direct result of China’s policy change, defined as between late 2017 and the end of 2020 in the survey. Another 74 said they didn’t, and the rest didn’t answer the question.

Of the 55% that made changes, 24 communities removed glass entirely, and a few others moved to glass drop-off only. Another 29 reported they chose to no longer accept plastics 3-7, and two stopped accepting all plastics. Five communities said they both stopped accepting glass and plastics 3-7.

Smaller reductions in what resin types or forms of plastics were reported by 45 communities, and 26 communities stopped accepting plastic bags or film. Three stopped accepting mixed paper, and nine reported charging higher fees or rates.
There were far fewer changes in 2021. Of the same 334 communities, 46 reported changes in 2021.

Bryan Ukena, CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor, a nonprofit MRF operating in Michigan, said the dynamics are a little different in the state because many MRFs are publicly owned. There is currently more capacity being built out around the state, he said, but there was definitely a loss of collection range in programs over the past few years.

“We had programs, like individual curbside recycling programs, that either picked up materials as recycling and then threw it away or just quit recycling because of the market downturn,” he said, and even when the markets returned, most programs didn’t.

“Once they stop, it’s really difficult for them to start back up again,” Ukena said, adding that a couple of large suburban communities around Detroit started programs back up. “I wouldn’t call it a trend, but I see it happening.”

Miriam Holsinger, co-president of Minnesota-based Eureka Recycling, said while recycling mandates in the state paired with state Select Committee for Recycling and the Environment funding has helped keep many smaller programs running, that hasn’t been foolproof.

The city of Virginia, Minnesota, discontinued curbside recycling on Feb. 6 of this year, opting for drop-off only due to rising costs of recycling, Holsinger said, but “in Minnesota they’re the only ones I know that have reduced services.”

Contamination, rising costs and volatile markets are the most commonly cited factors in reductions and closures.

Holsinger said the rising cost of insurance isn’t helping matters, especially paired with inflation.

“Recycling is such an interesting industry because it’s this combination of public and private and people making these individual decisions to recycle this product, combined with systems,” she said.

Solutions in the field

Weston said in an interview that extended producer responsibility is one very strong way that policy can be used to bolster recycling programs. If not EPR, then mandates for brands to use a certain amount of recycled content is another good option, he added.

Washington has such a mandate, passed in 2021, but as it’s been rolling out slowly, Weston said it’s hard to tell what kind of impact it’s had.

Local programs are less interested in projects that turn plastics into long-term durables, he said, such as a park bench, and more interested in a system that will allow plastics to be used six or seven times.

“Our material isn’t being recycled back into bottles … and that is what they would want to see,” he said.

More transparency would also help, Weston added, and a “variety of changes made to the system to beef it up more and make it more defensible before we start repeating the same process we had eight years ago.”

Ukena said Michigan has very low landfill tip fees and raising them would help local programs. The state passed a suite of bills that overhaul the recycling system and that will provide more recycling opportunities for rural areas through mandated county-level recycling targets.

Both Recycle Ann Arbor and Eureka are part of the Alliance for Mission Based Recyclers, which brings together nonprofit recyclers.

Ukena said interest in that model of business is also growing, which could help.
“The message is starting to resonate with some people, and that has allowed us to open things up,” he said. “Instead of being the alliance of, we’re the alliance for,” meaning they’ve started to work with other groups.

Trim noted that on a policy front, composting and recycling policies are starting to be combined, and it’s sometimes hard to tell how much proposed bills should overlap.

For example, in HB 2301, which was signed into law this year, Trim was there was a section that would make bin colors uniform across the state. That section was removed from the final bill this year, she said, but will come back next year: “The question is will it be in a composting bill or EPR bill? Which does it fit better in?”

Holsinger said that dedicated funding, such as the SCORE funding in Minnesota, provides a strong incentive and the kind of steady income that is often a challenge in the industry.

“A lot of people look at it as, oh there are tides of current economic stuff, but they’re not looking at the larger policy position,” she said.

For example, in the early 2000s there was a movement to classify glass that was used as alternative daily landfill cover as recycled, and “we really fought” against that, Holsinger said.

To help combat contamination, Minnesota has made it so recycling isn’t taxed while waste disposal is. Any MRF that has more than 15% residuals would start being taxed as a waste facility, Holsinger said, “so that’s another thing that really makes it so we want to keep our residuals down.”

“It’s nice that there is a state law we can just point to if haulers bring too contaminated loads,” she said. All in all, “the policy is really key.”

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The plastic effect: Recycling firms double down on outreach after skeptical headlines

Published: July 3, 2024



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

The West Coast MRF operator Recology, which runs a major facility on San Francisco’s Pier 96 called Recycle Central, has seen an increase in the inquiries it receives from customers in recent months asking where their recycling is going.

The facility receives about 500 tons per day of recyclables from the city’s program. The vast majority of the recyclables that enter the MRF are fiber materials — 44% of it is OCC, and 23% is other paper. Only 6% is recyclable plastic.

Yet after Recology reassures inquiring customers that their recyclables are baled and sent to facilities like paper mills that process the recovered material into new products, “customers increasingly ask the follow-up question: ‘What about plastics?'” Recology spokesman Robert Reed said in a written statement.

Recology notes that certain types of plastic are not recyclable in San Francisco’s program, such as film and flexible packaging, Reed said. But otherwise, “we explain that we sort and bale plastic bottles — such as water, detergent, and shampoo containers — for recycling along with other hard or stiff plastics, such as yogurt tubs and clear plastic clamshell containers.”

Skepticism of recycling is nothing new — industry veterans surely remember John Tierney’s 1996 “Recycling is Garbage” column and his 2015 follow-up, both attacking the economics of recycling. But the ever-increasing global attention on plastic waste has corresponded with an increase in articles criticizing various points about plastics recycling.

On April 14, CBS Sunday Morning host Jane Pauley opened a segment of the show with a trope that’s become familiar within the recycling industry over the past several years.

“Many of us try to do the right thing, we dutifully separate plastics from our trash to recycle,” Pauley said. “But are we really making a difference?”

It was the lead-in to a story highlighting frequent critiques. By the end of the five-minute segment, viewers heard evidence that the chemical industry has long pushed recycling as a way to continue selling plastic products, that the “chasing arrows” symbol doesn’t actually mean a product is recyclable and that plastics as a whole have an incredibly low recycling rate. In short, they’re likely to come away even more confused and potentially dubious about the value of the blue bin.

The CBS story was tied to a recent report from the Center for Climate Integrity, called the “Fraud of Plastic Recycling.” The report received widespread coverage in NPR, The Guardian, Salon, Democracy Now and beyond. Most of it followed a narrative that’s come up in numerous waves of media coverage over the last few years, ever since Frontline published its lengthy investigation, “How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled,” in 2020.

Outside the “fraud” report, other notable headlines over the last couple years include, “Don’t waste your time recycling plastic,” an opinion piece in the Washington Post; “Recycling plastic is practically impossible,” from NPR; and “Plastic recycling doesn’t work and never will,” from The Atlantic.

Validity of the reporting within such articles aside, the constant barrage of skeptical messaging might affect customer behavior when it comes to recycling plastics and even other materials, several industry observers said.

“I think it creates confusion, certainly creates questions and, interestingly, forces folks like us to even more so step up our messaging in order to support the recycling initiatives that are working,” said Kevin Roche, CEO of Ecomaine, a nonprofit recycling operator in Maine.

Transparency is a powerful tool

Recycling programs already face challenges communicating with residents about which materials go in the bin. According to The Recycling Partnership, there are more than 9,000 recycling programs operating across the U.S., with substantial variance in terms of how they’re set up —
single-stream, dual-stream, drop-off, multi-family — and what they accept.

That means blanket statements are almost impossible, and the answer to recyclability is almost always, “It depends.” So how do recycling programs and facility operators respond to headlines in nationwide publications and TV outlets, or the potential global reach of a single social media post, saying certain materials aren’t recyclable or that the entire industry is fraudulent?

Primarily, by doubling down on outreach to their local customers.

“It sends out mixed signals that we kind of have to correct, and we do,” Roche said.

Ecomaine recently spoke with a local media outlet to describe exactly how the organization handles collected recyclables and where they go.

“We invited them in and showed them all the accounting,” Roche said. Showing all the data detailing collection and material volumes can be a powerful way to communicate. “We wouldn’t go through all this process to toss the material into a waste-to-energy plant or a landfill.”

The resulting coverage had a headline much different from the doom-and-gloom narrative: “Yes, Maine groups recycle the paper, plastic, and metal placed in your curbside bin.”

Roche added Ecomaine acknowledges there are certainly ways to improve the recycling system, and his organization is looking forward to new elements like Maine’s extended producer responsibility for packaging program to bring assistance. But he said it’s important to not focus solely on the systemic problems.

“I’d rather be more focused on what is happening and what is being recovered,” Roche said.
Explaining exactly what happens in the recycling process is a popular tool among a variety of stakeholders looking to improve materials recovery.

The American Forest & Paper Association, which represents paper producers, including those that consume recovered fiber, noted it hasn’t seen data that suggests perceptions about recycling are negatively impacting paper recycling. That said, the organization does see opportunities to increase the quantity and quality of recovered fiber, and it favors an educational approach to doing so.

“The best way to convince people that paper is recycled is to show them,” said Abigail Sztein, executive director for recovered fiber at AF&PA. To that end, AF&PA has developed educational materials showing how paper goes from the bin to the MRF, is sorted and baled, sent to a mill for repulping and manufacturing into new paper products.

As a recyclable commodity, paper doesn’t undergo anywhere near the same media scrutiny as plastic, and it’s recovered at a far higher rate. Even so, there are persistent messages that industry groups like AF&PA look to address: Pizza boxes and paper padded mailers are two packaging types that the organization frequently dispels myths about, in part through a Q&A portion of its website. That has become one of the highest-traffic pages on AF&PA’s site, Sztein added.

Focusing on the fundamentals

Beyond simply educating customers by responding to inquiries, Recology in California has taken the conflicting messages about recycling — and the challenges posed by different material types — into account when designing its outreach materials.

In its latest quarterly customer newsletter that goes out to residents, the organization skipped over the confusion about plastics entirely. Instead, Recology offered a surprisingly simple list of recyclables for residents to concentrate on.

“Getting the basics right is critical to every endeavor’s success,” the newsletter stated. “In the case of recycling, we encourage customers to embrace the following: Be sure to recycle all bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard. These are the fundamental four.”

The accompanying illustration shows a flattened cardboard box, a piece of copy paper, an aluminum can and a glass bottle going into a blue bin. The word “plastic” doesn’t appear in the newsletter. Reed, the spokesman, reiterated that these four material types make up the “vast majority” of what is recycled in the bin, hence their focus in the outreach.

That’s not to say the organization doesn’t recover plastic – in a separate outreach initiative, Recology head of sustainability Julia Mangin spoke in depth about which plastics the organization recovers and how it does so. But the “fundamental four” outreach effort provides a clear, simple message for residents to keep in mind.

“People who consistently recycle the big four can take satisfaction in knowing they do a very good job of recycling,” the newsletter states.

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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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