State and Federal Efforts to Revitalize Recycling

By Jennifer Schultz and Kristen Hildreth | Vol. 28, No. 41 | November 2020


Reduce what you use, reuse what you can, recycle everything else. Many of us are familiar with the three R’s of waste management. The first two tenets are relatively straightforward, but the last involves far more than tossing items into the blue bin at the end of the driveway. 

Not only does recycling reduce the amount of waste headed to landfills, it conserves natural resources, saves energy and creates jobs. In addition to its environmental benefits, recycling plays a critical role in supplying raw materials for manufacturing new products and is essential to the manufacturing industry and economy. Recycling in the United States contributes approximately 700,000 jobs, $37 billion in wages and $7 billion in tax revenues per year. Recycling is also an economic driver of state economies, with a 2017 study in Texas finding an overall economic benefit of more than $3.3 billion from recycling municipal solid waste (MSW). 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the recycling rate for MSW has increased from less than 7% in 1960 to just over 35% in 2017. Some materials, namely paper and aluminum, are recycled at relatively high levels, while others, like plastic, lag behind. However, the picture is different for commercial and industrial recyclers, and rates also vary widely from state to state.  

These numbers tell the story of a strong recycling industry, but not one without challenges. From China’s import ban on solid waste to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. recycling industry is facing major aftershocks felt by consumers, manufacturers and materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Changing international policies have limited the export of recyclables and left domestic markets struggling to keep up. Contamination in the recycling stream and dated infrastructure also affect operations, as well as products and packaging that were not designed for recycling. Finally, consumer confusion and a growing lack of confidence in the system are major issues, with a 2019 national poll finding that while 85% of respondents indicated they recycle, 44% do not believe the items are actually being recycled.  

Federal Action

The EPA has worked with state and local leaders, in combination with industry, over the last few years to promote the America Recycles Pledge. The pledge aims to build on efforts to address the challenges facing the nation’s recycling system and create a more resilient materials economy. Together with pledge signatories, EPA has developed a nonbinding framework outlining the collective action needed to strengthen recycling systems and reverse a current trend in which $8.9 billion worth of recyclable materials end up in landfills each year. In October 2020, the agency released its draft National Recycling Strategy, which aims to identify strategic objectives and actions needed to create a stronger, more resilient national MSW recycling system. 

Driven by international trade decisions, fluctuating commodity markets and a shift in public opinion, Congress has introduced legislation to address key areas within the national recycling infrastructure. Some bills offer grants for recycling education and infrastructure improvement while others take a regulatory approach to single-use plastics and address disruptions in the life cycle of recyclable materials. While no bills have passed yet, the debate is likely to continue.  

State Action

Given the absence of a federal recycling law, state and local governments are responsible for their own requirements and have taken various actions to address recycling in their communities. As of July 2020, 27 states and the District of Columbia have at least one mandatory recycling requirement, with every state but one banning at least one product (e.g., batteries, waste oil, tires) from disposal in its solid waste facilities.

More than 600 bills have been introduced during the 2020 legislative sessions. While most are focused on single-use plastics, food and other waste reduction measures, states are also looking for ways to strengthen recycling systems. This year at least 22 states considered or are considering bills to better understand, invest in and improve on recycling. A similar pattern was evident in 2019 with a high volume of bills and at least 80 enactments.

The first step in strengthening recycling systems, for many states, is gathering data. New Hampshire established a legislative committee in 2019 to study recycling programs in light of changing market conditions and challenges faced by the state and municipalities in running them (HB 617). Illinois created a similar committee (HB 3068) comprised of industry professionals and other stakeholders to provide recommendations to the General Assembly on ways to maximize waste diverted from landfills.  

States are also making large investments in recycling programs and providing funding to localities and businesses to support market development, education campaigns, infrastructure improvement and more. For example, Michigan dramatically increased funding to recycling programs in 2018, from $2 million to $15 million annually (HB 4991). Colorado created the Front Range Waste Diversion Grant Program (SB 192), which will use funds from an increase in user fees at Denver-area landfills to provide grants and technical assistance to increase recycling, composting and waste reduction.  

Washington was one of the first states to feel the effects of international import restrictions, spurring the creation of the Recycling Development Center. It will facilitate the expansion of domestic markets and develop a statewide plan to reduce contamination that local governments must adopt if they do not write their own (HB 1543). Florida lawmakers took a different approach to contamination with the passage of HB 73 in 2020. It holds local governments responsible for proper recycling and allows haulers and MRFs to refuse contaminated materials that violate the definition of acceptable recyclables as stated in their contracts. 

Washington is not the only state looking to stimulate demand for recyclable materials at home. California convened the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling (AB 1583), bringing together public and private recyclers to develop policy solutions to achieve its goal of 75% recycling. The New Jersey Legislature created the Recycling Market Development Council through SB 3939 and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is working on a report to encourage using recyclables as industrial feedstock for new products. The commission must also develop a public education campaign around the economic benefits of recycling and the detrimental effects of contamination. Other examples of statewide public education campaigns include Massachusetts’ Recycle Smart MA and Michigan’s Recycling Raccoon Squad