Changes in Recycling Policy in the U.S. in 2021 & More Positive Progress This Year

Glass News,

Originally published in Glass International 

By Scott DeFife

While 2021 was an active year for recycling policy in the United States, 2022 promises even more change, with a potential for positive opportunities to improve and increase glass recycling. 

GPI released a roadmap-centered report earlier this year, the Circular Future for Glass, detailing ways to reach its industry goal of 50% recycling for glass, a goal  shared  nationally  as  per  the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 announcement of a 50% recycling rate in the next decade.

For background there are key differences and deficiencies in the U.S. recycling system, many in sharp contrast to the EU, UK and surrounding regions. Recently, Close the Glass Loop published new data showing collection rates for glass recycling hitting 78% across Europe.  Data for the US is considerably less reliable due to the prevalence of comingled single-stream, but the closest equivalent we can compare is roughly 40% for glass recovery.

While this rate is higher for beverage container glass covered within deposits systems across 10 states, the average recycling rate percentage for glass in the US has hovered in the low 30s for some time. Glass recycling rates for the container deposit states average in the mid-60% range, with the remaining states in the low 20%s, and several of those having glass recycling rates in the teens or even single digits.

A critical difference is the prevalence of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes in Europe, a key feature of the current policy debate that will expand here in 2022.

Comingled curbside recycling has a very small footprint throughout European systems, with most countries separating glass and other food and beverage packaging from fibre and other recyclable materials at the point of collection.

There are (virtually) no bottle banks in the United States, a dominant recycling programme feature across the EU. In many medium to larger metro areas of Europe there are hundreds of bottle banks, surface and underground systems to make collection convenient.

While a handful of US communities operate source-separated glass recycling at the curb, and some have successfully retained dual-stream recycling (where some combination of glass and rigid containers are collected separately from fibre and paper), the vast majority of residential recycling involve no recyclable separation, using only single bin collection and compaction.

The material recovery facilities tasked with sorting and selling these recyclables have a wide range of capabilities, with few held to any quality metric or performance standards. Many are also owned by the same companies that own the nearby landfill, which can be an economic conflict of interest that impacts the recycling of glass.

This is where the EPR debate enters. This past year two US states, Oregon and Maine, enacted new packaging EPR laws. Located on opposite coasts and which take slightly different approaches, but both already among the 10 states with container deposit programmes in place.

Products and materials covered by deposit programmes were exempted in both states, so the remaining glass products sold in the marketplace have some options to consider over the next few years, as the regulatory process unfolds in both states to formally enact their systems.

In Oregon, wine and spirits bottles may enter the existing bottle deposit system, seen by most observers as the most efficient of the state systems. In Maine, which has the most expansive coverage of beverage containers in the system, there is an opportunity for the industry to present proposals on collection of the remaining glass (mainly food jars) within the EPR scheme.

A dozen or more states are currently working on EPR proposals, and many are expected to introduce new legislative proposals in 2022, with large states such as California and New York, (both with container deposit systems in place), as well as Washington and Colorado (states without container deposit) being the furthest along.

Much of the impetus for policy in these states is regulatory pressure to police mismanaged plastic waste, combined   with   financial pressures on local government waste collection systems. These municipal programmes were already dealing with the financial upheaval of the recycling markets due to global transboundary waste quality issues that sent some commodity prices plummeting. These challenges have been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic on the overall economy, shifting consumption habits, waste industry worker health challenges and supply chain logistics.

All of this makes for what could be a very active legislative year, with policymakers anticipated to advance EPR proposals in more states across the country. Many of these proposals may include recycled content requirements for imported packaging, placing pressure on global and national brands to financially support  enhanced  recovery and recycling programmes.

GPI and many of its member companies have spent time educating policymakers about the systemic differences between European and Canadian provinces’ with usually much higher recycling rates, to US jurisdictions, that have a heavy reliance on commingled single-stream collection.

In addition to the financial responsibility assigned to food and beverage brands as well as packaging manufacturers, there are five key issues in the EPR policy debate critical for glass:

  • That glass as a material is fairly treated in the system by stewardship organisations which tend to be heavily represented by global retail brands focused on
  • A thorough ‘needs assessment’ of the existing recycling system is undertaken, to properly allocate fees for incremental recycling infrastructure
  • The insistence on higher material quality standards for MRF commodity
  • The ability of stewardship organisations to adjust collection systems to reduce contamination and produce cleaner streams for reprocessing and
  • Allow industries that desire the recyclable materials back to have reasonable and cost- effective access to
  • Divert from landfill as much recyclable material as possible.

GPI will be working on policies related to each of these points, as it navigates multiple state legislative debates going forward.  There is an opportunity to dramatically increase the availability of post-consumer recycled glass for collection if these systems are designed for success. It is critical for our industry to work collaboratively, in support of policies that will impact all glass producers, domestic and global, and to keep the glass from unnecessary landfill disposal and return the infinitely recyclable glass to the supply chain.