Plastics recycling is broken. Partnerships with industry can go a long way toward fixing it.

July 27, 2022

By Mark Funkhouser

Millions of Americans do their part to recycle, and most would want to support ways of reducing waste through circular economy approaches. However, despite many laudable efforts in this direction, most post-consumer recyclable waste still winds up in landfills and incinerators, and plastic pollution is increasing at an alarming rate. What was once a promising and cost-effective approach to municipal recycling is no longer working.

And things are getting worse. Globally, half of all plastics ever manufactured has been made in the last 15 years, and production is expected to double by 2050. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this situation by significantly increasing the production of packaging materials related to e-commerce. As a result, America is producing more waste than ever before. This is partly due to the fact that it’s cheaper for manufacturers to use new plastic for products or packaging. Last year alone, the U.S. produced more than 40 million tons of plastic waste, and only 5–6 percent of that was recycled.

What’s more, we now have fewer options for disposing of our recyclables. Bans on importing recyclables, most notably by China, have left our municipalities with excess waste but without the capacity, budgets, or end markets needed to recycle effectively. In short, plastic waste, climate change, and their collective impacts on people and the planet are intensifying. But we are not helpless to make genuine progress toward solutions.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $375 million for recycling and waste management improvements. This critical seed money provides a tremendous opportunity to fix the nation’s broken recycling system. The Environmental Protection Agency’s ambitious National Recycling Strategy, released last November, prioritizes improving markets for recycled commodities, increasing collection and materials-management infrastructure, and reducing contamination in the recycled-materials stream.

While federal legislative efforts are gaining traction, states continue to lead on this issue by enacting new laws that implement minimum recycled-content standards, extended producer responsibility frameworks, increased recycling rates, and advanced recycling technology initiatives. But these efforts tend to be too siloed to produce the systemic change that’s needed.

Instead, achieving a market-based, circular approach to waste management and recycling will require frameworks and incentives for regional collaboration and public-private partnerships (P3s). With the influx of capital for recycling infrastructure, states and localities should seize the opportunity to incubate regional waste management strategies, identify new economic potential, generate green jobs, and promote environmental justice and equity.

Regional P3s can pool public and private financial resources and technical capacity while leveraging expertise, capacity-building, and scale to address logistical barriers in a way that makes fiscal and environmental sense. The following examples show how P3s can center on community goals and regional cooperation to develop circular approaches to addressing plastic waste.

Houston Recycling Collaboration
This January, the city of Houston, ExxonMobil, Cyclyx International, LyondellBasell Industries, and FCC Environmental Services formed the Houston Recycling Collaboration, a first-of-its-kind partnership. The goal is to significantly increase recycling in the region and provide recyclable plastic for ExxonMobil’s advanced recycling facility. Although it sounds counterintuitive, collaborating with plastic producers is the most effective path toward change, said mayoral spokesperson Brent Taylor: “We can leverage these and other partnerships to get plastic out of neighborhoods and bayous, and get it into the circular economy.” Taylor hopes Houston’s program can serve as a model for other city-corporate partnerships.

Every Bottle Back Initiative
This public-private partnership brings together Coca-Cola, Keurig, Dr. Pepper, and PepsiCo with leading environmental and sustainability organizations — the World Wildlife Fund, Closed Loop Partners and the Recycling Partnership — to support the circular-plastics economy. The goal is to increase the amount of plastic beverage bottles collected and remade into new ones. Every Bottle Back has invested in recycling systems in Dallas-Fort Worth; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Such projects support local economies while keeping plastic bottles in the supply chain and out of landfills, providing recyclable materials for companies to use in new products and packaging materials.

Republic Services Polymer Center
This model for true circularity will remanufacture plastic collected from consumer households into packaging materials for new consumer goods. The first facility is scheduled to open in Las Vegas in 2023 and is expected to produce more than 100 million pounds per year of recycled plastic products, helping California and other western states meet their new requirements for using recycled content in single-use plastic containers. The company has said it plans on opening two or three other centers across the country, making it possible for other state and local governments to set similar packaging goals.

Identifying regions across the U.S. that are well situated to take advantage of federal infrastructure funding that encourages multi-jurisdictional public-private ventures remains critical. As the examples above show, the transition to a regional P3 approach can:

  • Make recycling more accessible to citizens and manageable for local governments, supporting environmental justice and fiscal sustainability.
  • Create markets that ensure balanced supply and demand for recyclable materials.
  • Incentivize innovation and investment to improve recycling technologies and advance circular models of production and consumption.

 

State and local governments serve as incubators for innovation and leadership on policy issues, and the current recycling imperative is no exception. If we are to ever truly achieve our goal of net zero carbon emissions, true circularity has to be part of the solution.

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