The Recycling Partnership: EPR, access, collection and outreach essential to building US circular economy
16 Jan 2024 — One fifth of all residential recyclables are recycled in the US, leaving every material type under-recycled, according to a newly published report by NGO The Recycling Partnership.
The gaps in the US’ residential recycling system prevent it from achieving needed environmental and economic benefits, according to the report.
In the US, 21% of residential recyclables are recycled, leaving 76% of residential recyclables lost at the household level, which stresses the importance of access and engagement, says The Recycling Partnership.
Furthermore, the report states that less than half (43%) of US households participate in recycling. The NGO explains that non-participation is due to insufficient access, communication and outreach.
The Recycling Partnership highlights that policymakers adopting and companies supporting EPR is the most effective strategy to drive improvement at every step of the recycling system because it channels packaging-based financing to improve access, engagement and processing, while incentivizing packaging recyclability and supporting end markets.
State-by-state residential recycling rates (Image credit: The Recycling Partnership).Access and participation
States with higher levels of recycling access generally have higher levels of recycling engagement as these states have invested in their recycling programs, finds the report.
In detail, single-family households have more than double the recycling access rate of multi-family homes, excluding nearly 20 million households (63% of all multi-family homes) from recycling.
The Recycling Partnership highlights 13 states in which 40% or more of all households have no access to recycling.
Industry investment to increase material acceptance can have a measurable impact by boosting the amount of recyclables collected from households and transforming more materials into new commodities, asserts the organization.
“In an optimal system, at least 90% would participate [in recycling],” says The Recycling Partnership. “To improve this, we must increase recycling access overall. For those that have access, communication, education and outreach are critical to boosting full participation.”
Since certain items are more frequently placed in the recycling container than others, it can be seen that there is a need for better and more frequent communication so that households are informed of the full range of accepted materials.
Establishing an effective system
For the US residential recycling system to function effectively, The Recycling Partnership says five requirements must be met.
These requirements include that 100% of packaging needs to be recyclable. Clear, harmonized and transparent standards are needed to demonstrate what makes a package recyclable.EPR policies are key for driving the requirements for an effective recycling system, according to the NGO.
Secondly, all households need access to recycling from their home. Everyone can dispose of waste, but not every household has access to recycling. For those with access, some locations do not collect all packaging types, limiting the amount of recyclable material collected.
Another requirement is that residents need to fully engage in recycling. Recyclable material is lost because some households with access do not receive sufficient communication to help them use their recycling service and recycle all their recyclables.
Furthermore, recycling facilities need to effectively process 95% of the material. Once collected from households, recycling facilities need adequate technology and infrastructure to sort and process different material types.
A fifth requirement states that recycling facilities need sufficient end markets. After recycling facilities sort the various material types, they must be able to sell these recycled commodities. Sufficient end markets for these materials are key to an efficient recycling system.
According to The Recycling Partnership, EPR policies drive improvement to all five requirements of an effective recycling system, including recycling engagement — “the area most in need of investment.”
Furthermore, the report stresses that the private industry must invest beyond EPR to design packaging for recyclability, improve collection and harvest the opportunities in regions of greatest material loss.
Company demand for recycled content is a key driver of sufficient end markets. Without that demand, local governments must absorb the cost of processing recyclables. A combination of proactive company action, policy and economic development can address end market challenges.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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