America Recycles Day—November 15—will be an occasion marred by unfortunate irony, as our nation’s waste management landscape has changed dramatically since China stopped accepting our recyclable materials last year. What we are in dire need of, now, is a change in both messaging and mindset around recycling and waste management. It is time for the mainstream concept of a circular economy—which is both good for the environment and projected to be worth $4.5 trillion—to replace dated, quaint notions of changing the world through citizens’ blue-bin habits alone.
When America Recycles Day was established in the 1990s, consumer behavior was the simple target: encourage citizens to choose recycling over landfills. Over time, this public campaign was fairly successful. More and more Americans separated their recyclables from their trash. Processing centers in China developed an insatiable desire for these valuable materials, providing American municipalities with a convenient, revenue-positive solution, and container ships full of paper, plastic and glass sailed away from the U.S. every day for years.
Unfortunately, this international solution was so easy and affordable for municipalities that it took away domestic incentives for developing a circular recycling industry here at home. When China stopped taking our recyclables last year, American cities were immediately in a waste-management crisis. Some made rash decisions to revert to burning valuable recyclables and excess waste. An exploitive narrative resurfaced that characterized incineration as “waste-to-energy” and a sustainable alternative—as if burning waste is a renewable energy solution to our waste management challenge. A sense of sliding backwards set in to the environmental community.
Thanks to this chain of global events, “recycling is good” is no longer an effective message. There is instead an urgent need for new, modern goals and for concrete action—from individuals, industry and government.
Government’s role is critically important because it uniquely provides incentives to the material-production and waste-management sectors. But market-changing policies will not be produced in a vacuum; private citizens and industry will each have to play their role to change policy around waste management and recycling.
New policies must be right-sized around outcomes, and they should prioritize the circular vision of material recovery over one-directional disposal or incineration. Current policies reward quick fixes and the loss of materials, instead of material recovery innovation and other best practices. As a result, the incineration option has a competitive advantage with government officials—but its quick-fix nature should not obscure the fact that burning plastic and other recyclable material generates significant carbon emissions and other pollutants. Furthermore, its relatively small economic contribution is reduced by the fact that, when burned, a valuable commodity is lost forever.
When thinking about the value of these materials, consider that the annual economic loss for single-use plastics alone is estimated to be $80 billion to $120 billion. A circular loop for plastics would reap economic benefits and reduce greenhouse emissions by as much as 37 percent.
Citizens have a unique power to influence how local and state representatives make waste-management policy. We can all play a role in pressuring our governments to invest our recycling tax dollars honestly and responsibly. This begins with a demand for transparency; for example, show us how you are “recycling” revenue. Deposit fees, taxes and extended producer responsibility fees that are meant for investment in recycling are, instead, often diverted to address budget gaps, and citizens aren’t told.
We deserve to know how the money is spent, and what the outcomes are of our investment. Government should be investing in smart, circular-economy infrastructure and incentives for business and consumers—not dirty, old-fashioned incineration—and it’s our job to pressure them in that direction.
There is value in the overarching message of America Recycles Day: consumers, governments and businesses must take action. But in the context of today’s waste-management crisis, a day of feel-good recycling events may actually belittle and distract from the much greater need for fundamental reforms that clear the way for education, ideas and innovative circular-economy solutions.
Recycling materials is still good, but recycling old ideas—including incineration—is no longer good enough.