Taking a holistic approach

Features - Recycling Policy

A study that Eunomia conducted of recycling in the U.S. reveals that bottle bills and other forms of EPR could help increase the recycling rate for packaging.

May 2, 2021

Photo courtesy of Eunomia Research & Consulting

A study of U.S. residential recycling programs concludes that deposit-return systems (DRS), or bottle bills, that operate under extended producer responsibility (EPR) principles help to boost the recycling rate for packaging. It also offers a state-by-state comparison of recycling rates for the most commonly used containers and packaging materials.

The New York office of the Bristol, U.K.-based consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting prepared the study, “The 50 States of Recycling: A State-by-State Assessment of Containers and Packaging Recycling Rates,” which was funded by Ball Corp., headquartered in Westminster, Colorado.

Setting a baseline

The study, which is more than 230 pages long, is intended to set a baseline for each state that can be used to inform policy, design programs and assess infrastructure proposals and improvements, Eunomia says. Using 2018 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, counties, municipalities, sorting facilities and material processors, the study looks at plastic bottles and trays, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, steel cans and cardboard and boxboard. The report focuses on recycling rates based on the actual material reprocessed into new products, rather than the collection rate, which Eunomia says is more representative of a material’s true circularity and accounts for material losses at the sorting and processing stage.

“Good data is the foundation of smart policy, and this study shows there is enormous opportunity for improving U.S. recycling rates with solutions that are already working in several states,” Eunomia North America Director Sarah Edwards says in the news release about the study, which was released in March. “This report is just one piece of the puzzle. It is crucially important we have consistent and transparent measurement in order to create meaningful change. We want to help policymakers, operators and investors make more informed strategic decisions when it comes to recycling, infrastructure investment and reducing emissions in waste management.”

Edwards tells Recycling Today a number of issues surround recycling measurement at the state and national levels, including:

  • inconsistent definitions of recycling;
  • inconsistency on what data should be collected from which sectors and stakeholders and how that data should be reported; and
  • few resources in states to collect data to audit what is being received.

She says, “No state is calculating a true recycling rate because, as far as we are aware, what is being reported is either what is collected or what comes out of a MRF. Both of these points of measurement do not reflect what actually finds its way into a new product. Only after we subtract losses at the sorting and processing stage can we understand the true recycling rate, and that is what our report attempts to do across all states,” Edwards says.

She adds, “The European Commission has recently set out clearly how recycling rates should be calculated and the point of measurement. A similar approach needs to be taken in the U.S.

“States are making assessments based on what is reported by municipalities and sorting facilities as well as what is disposed of, so what is actually in the waste stream,” Edwards continues. “The EPA relies on industry data and some limited state data. In the report, we point out that the data from the EPA appears to be underestimating both the amount of packaging waste generated as well as what is recycled.”

Recognizing the commonalities

Edwards says the five states with the highest recycling rates for a common set of containers and packaging materials (CCPM), excluding cardboard and boxboard—Maine (72 percent), Vermont (62 percent), Massachusetts (55 percent), Oregon (55 percent) and Connecticut (52 percent)—have a DRS for beverage containers.

“Maine, the highest performing state, has the most comprehensive DRS in that it includes containers for all alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages—carbonated and noncarbonated drinks, wines, liquor and beer,” Edwards says. “States such as Vermont, which has a DRS, but one that does not include wine and liquor or water bottles, are limiting their potential to maximize recycling.”

According to the study, while bottle bill states account for only 28 percent of the U.S. population, they recycle:
  • 46 percent of all CCPM (excluding cardboard);
  • 47 percent of all glass bottles and jars;
  • 51 percent of all aluminum cans; and
  • 62 percent of all PET bottles.

Disposal costs also affect recycling rates at the state level. Edwards says, “Eight out of the top 10 states also have disposal costs in the top 25 percent, demonstrating that when the cost of disposal goes up, there is more of an economic drive to invest in recycling infrastructure and programs.”

The lowest performing states—South Carolina (8 percent), Tennessee (7 percent), Alaska (6 percent), Louisiana (4 percent) and West Virginia (2 percent)—also share common traits. “None of the states with the lowest recycling rates have good data management, none have a DRS and all have low disposal costs,” Edwards says.

Assessing possible solutions

“Extended producer responsibility has the potential to be the policy measure that could deliver improvements in data collection, achievement of higher recycling rates and the necessary investment needed to reach those targets,” she says. Such legislation could include provisions for producers to report on how much packaging they place on the market and set up systems to collect data on what is collected for recycling, as well as what actually gets recycled, so the producers can comply with the established recycling targets, Edwards adds.

“There is significant confusion as to what EPR means,” she says, “with many municipalities concerned that it will mean that producers will take over services they provide their residents.”

Instead, Edwards says, well-designed EPR systems allow for investment into collection, sorting and processing that enable the targets set in legislation to be achieved in a cost-effective manner, allowing municipalities to continue to supply or contract for services with haulers. They also increase consistency across municipalities and access to curbside collections for households.

“An EPR system that does not include material-specific targets, which could start low but increase over time, is unlikely to improve recycling in the U.S.,” she says. “It will only maintain the status quo, limiting the potential for a circular economy in which resources are kept in the economy for as long as possible, helping to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Minimum recycled content mandates also can create demand for recovered recyclables, Edwards says.

EPR and recycled-content legislation would support continuous investment in U.S. recycling infrastructure, she says.

Despite its potential to improve recycling, some material recovery facility (MRF) operators fear that DRS could siphon off some of their more valuable recyclables. However, Edwards says, this is not necessarily the case.

“As our report shows, the bulk of the packaging material that is processed through MRFs is cardboard and boxboard, representing over 70 percent of the packaging stream,” she says. “So, a DRS will only remove a small proportion of material from the curbside.”

Edwards adds, “DRS systems can be designed to support investment in MRF infrastructure, which can enable MRF operators to put in place improvements to better manage the evolving packaging stream. There is also a role for operators in the sorting and verification of containers within a DRS program, adding a revenue-generating element to their business. Finally, not all beverage containers will be returned through a DRS. Some people will continue to choose to place those in their curbside carts. If MRFs separate these containers, they can access the deposit. At 10 cents a container, this would be significantly greater than the value of the material when marketed on a pound-for-pound basis.”

She says bottle bills also reduce the amount of glass going through a MRF, thereby reducing the wear and tear to equipment that can result from processing material.

“Lastly, we have to remember that a DRS will pull more material from landfill, sending more material for recycling, generating savings for municipalities,” Edwards adds.

“The piecemeal approach to investment in the U.S. recycling system that we’ve seen over the last 20 years has not worked,” Edwards says. “We now need a coordinated approach which is based on producers investing in a system that will deliver against targets for which they are legally required to achieve.”

Keefe Harrison, CEO of the nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, says Eunomia’s latest report demonstrates that “no one thing will heal recycling’s challenge alone.”

Harrison continues, “Understanding the current state of our recycling system is crucial to designing policies, infrastructure and products that support true circularity in our communities. … The key is addressing the system holistically to drive real and meaningful change.”

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dtoto@gie.net.