The Federal Budget Should Support Expansion of America’s Recycling Infrastructure

By Bob Gedert, President, National Recycling Coalition; Senior Recycling Consultant, RRS; SWEEP Steering Committee Member

In the President’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual budget allocation is proposed to be cut by one third, with the elimination of over 50 programs and 3,200 jobs. Two of the programs proposed to be eliminated include the Sustainable Materials Management program and the Waste Reduction Model. Eliminating these programs will likely reduce critical support of recycling and negatively impact the American recycling industry.

According to a recent statement from Ron Gonen of the Closed Loop Fund, “These EPA programs analyze the way we consume, use and reuse materials and solid waste, providing tools and guidelines for industry, private companies and elected officials. The materials management and waste reduction programs guide investments into recycling facilities that sort and process material, and manufacturing infrastructure that utilizes these materials to make new products here at home – creating jobs in the process.”

It is disappointing to see federal disinvestment in recycling – at a time when the American recycling industry is in real need of infrastructure expansion and redevelopment.

One potential silver lining of the President’s budget proposal is new funding to support infrastructure redevelopment. Recently, the President has toured the country announcing new transportation infrastructure funding for the airline industry, for the inland waterway transportation network, for dams and levee reconstruction, and for the federal highway system. The announcements throughout the “Infrastructure Week” outlined a series of proactive funding approaches aimed at revitalizing America’s a decaying infrastructure. Unfortunately, support of the American Recycling infrastructure, which provides three-quarters of a million jobs and tens of billions of dollars in economic activity, is missing from the President’s proposals.

Recycling material recovery facilities (MRFs) throughout America were built on the premise of a steady and safe consumer household material stream. Yet today there are hundreds of MRF fires annually caused through the accidental compression of lithium-ion batteries – a new danger from household electronics in the waste stream that MRFs were not designed to process. Other obstacles to safe, effective recycling include, the needles from diabetics and other self-administered medicines, the plastic bags that wrap the gears and screens of recycling machinery, and shredded glass that all become part of the unsaleable residual that can make up nearly a quarter of the material flowing through a MRF.

Given today’s rapidly evolving waste stream, in order to have any chance of reaching for Zero Waste, our country requires an upgraded recycling infrastructure. Industry experts note that the “evolving ton” reflects the light-weighting of plastic containers (PET), a significant reduction in newsprint (ONP) in the consumer stream, and a significant uptick in old corrugated containers (OCC) known as the “Amazon Effect” due to internet sales to home delivery. Single-stream MRFs that service residential communities were not designed for these consumer shifts and are in need of redesign. End-users and remanufactures also need to reflect these consumer shifts. The “evolving ton” creates pressure points throughout the value chain from consumer product design and sales all the way through the recycling system, requiring a full upscaling of the American recycling infrastructure.

Investing in the infrastructure of America’s recycling processing industry will bring jobs back to America. Instead of shipping nearly half of all recovered recyclables to overseas markets, a refreshed recycling infrastructure will support new American end markets, creating closed loop material streams and lower transportation costs.

As China’s “National Sword” restrictions on imports of recyclables tighten again, I point to another reason we need to rebuild the domestic recycling infrastructure. As noted by Resource Recycling Magazine Jerry Powell, “We’re again seeing import restrictions by China, because they no longer want to be the world’s dumping ground. Recycling practices of the past no longer suffice. However, it is a bit too early to be able to gauge the full impact of the current National Sword import restriction initiative.”

Investing in American recycling infrastructure will also lower impacts on climate change. The energy required to make new products from recovered material is a fraction of that to create them from virgin materials and tighter, closed loop systems lower transportation impacts.

As the Federal Budget begins to be formed this summer, consider contacting your local Congressional Representative asking for support of the US EPA budget, as well as infrastructure support for the American recycling system.

Investing in America’s recycling infrastructure is an investment in American jobs, an investment in the American economy, and an investment in reducing our impact on climate change – a win-win-win that will provide an excellent return for the investment of federal funds.

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