The United States finally has a “national recycling strategy.”
The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Monday that it has finalized a plan to help the country achieve a recycling rate of 50 percent by 2030. Currently, the recycling rate is an unimpressive 32 percent. The plan will be fueled, in part, by more than $350 million in grants for recycling and waste management that was recently signed into law as part of the infrastructure package.
The plan has five objectives that aim to improve the collection of recyclables while also reducing the contamination of non-recyclable products in single-sort recycling centers. Additionally, the plan aims to improve recycling data collection, make an assessment of needs within the recycling infrastructure system and review policies that may improve recycling overall.
This is the first-ever plan of its kind, though Americans have known for a long time that the recycling system in the United States needed to be fixed. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has been urging the EPA to make federal recycling reforms since 2006. At the time, the GAO believed that a solid plan by the EPA could help the U.S. achieve a recycling rate of 35 percent by 2008. Fifteen years later and the nation still falls short of that goal by nearly 3 percent.
While the EPA’s objectives are clear, the plan is light on details. There are very few specifics as to how the agency will actually meet the goals it set. And it will take a lot of work.
The current recycling rate for all plastics is low. The problem with recycling plastic is that not all plastics are the same and recycling plastic is more confusing than recycling other products like metals or cardboard.
Different types of plastic resins are identified by a number within a chasing arrows recycling logo. The recycling rate is much higher for #1 PET plastic (used in products like water and soda bottles) and #2 HDPE (used in detergent jugs). Both resins have a recycling rate of over 29 percent which isn’t too far off the recycling rate of aluminum at 34.9 percent. But products like polystyrene foam (#6) takeout containers cannot be recycled in most places, dragging down the recycling rate for plastics.
But this could change. Advancements in chemical recycling have made it so all plastics can be recycled, not just bottles and jugs. And while specifics were few and far between, the EPA did note that “chemical recycling is part of the scope of this strategy and further discussion is welcome.”
The lack of details in the plan certainly leaves a lot to be desired, but given that this is the first time in the history of the EPA that such a plan has even been announced, there is room for optimism.