Challenges with plastics recycling and efforts to address marine litter got some serious attention at the Environmental Protection Agency's national recycling summit this year, with some urging the federal government to take a much more active role.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled a national recycling goal of 50 percent at the Nov. 17 summit, but in panels throughout the half-day conference, local governments and waste management industry officials pressed for specifics on how to actually get there.
They noted difficult markets for recycled plastics like polypropylene and urged EPA to endorse mandated recycled content to shore up logistical support.
As well, mayors wanted tighter marketing claims around recyclability. The U.S. Conference of Mayors "begged" manufacturers not to make what it said are questionable claims about recyclability of their products, saying such marketing damages the economics of their curbside programs.
Discussions around plastics weaved throughout several parts of the virtual and in-person summit, with Wheeler leading a prerecorded discussion with plastics industry representatives around the agency's new strategy for addressing ocean litter globally.
But the most pointed comments came from local governments and waste hauling and recycling companies looking at their domestic challenges.
"We're at a critical stage regarding recycling in the U.S.," said Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., and chair of the environmental committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "Local governments have been the backbone of our nation's recycling efforts, with millions of dollars being spent every year.
"Unfortunately, up to now, we've done all this with little to no help from others who are key to this discussion," he said.
In particular, he said consumers are confused about recyclability marketing claims that companies make, including using the resin identification code on packaging.
Consumers see the symbol and throw unrecyclable materials into bins, leaving local governments stuck with contaminated, less valuable loads of scrap, Kriseman said.
"Speaking on behalf of my fellow mayors, I am begging the manufacturers of products to not say something is recyclable unless a certain large percentage of cities actually have a program that collects that material," he said. "By perpetuating a myth that a certain product is recyclable, [it] is not only disingenuous, but causes many other collected recyclables to become contaminated and unusable."
David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, echoed that, singling out plastic bags.
"It's not always the public's fault," said Biderman. "Companies distribute plastic bags marked with the recycling symbol. Are we surprised that they're placed in the recycling bin?"
A representative of a state government waste management association said the loss of scrap export markets like China should also force changes in policy.
EPA's Wheeler kicked off the summit by noting that the agency is developing the first U.S. recycling strategy.
Cathy Jamieson, chair of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials and a Vermont state official, said the federal effort should focus on making recycling economically viable.
"Most importantly, the national recycling strategy needs to include how economics of recycling will be sustainable, addressing current costs to cities, taxpayers and low market value of materials," she said.
Low market values are causing some local municipal recycling facilities to stop collecting mixed grades of plastics, those with resin identification codes three through seven, said Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs with the National Waste and Recycling Association.
"We see fewer MRFs [materials recycling facilities] accepting mixed plastics," she said. "Although every MRF out there accepts No. 1 and 2 [PET and high density polyethylene], on bottles and jugs, the rest of the material is more hit or miss."
As an example, she noted that PP, one of the most popular plastics in packaging, was downgraded in its recyclability classification earlier this year, from "widely recycled" to "check locally."
As well, an official with the industry-funded Recycling Partnership warned in a September Plastics News conference that PP was "at risk" of losing recycling acceptance.
The waste hauling and recycling groups used the summit to repeat previous calls to EPA to back recycled-content mandates.
Germain's group has asked EPA to set ambitious goals of 30 percent recycled content for plastics by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030, and she told the summit that "we need additional minimum content legislation."
Biderman said SWANA is glad EPA's draft strategy includes strong commitments to improve markets for recycled materials, but he said mandates are needed to create stability that will draw in investment.
"What's not included in the national recycling strategy are policy recommendations, including the requirement for companies to use more recycled content in their products and containers," he said. "Voluntary pledges are nice, but a level playing field for all companies large and small, that includes mandatory and meaningful recycled content requirements, would create the demand pull that increases the value of recyclables, encourages my members to invest in recycling equipment and infrastructure and creates jobs."
Ahead of the summit, EPA released updated recycling rate figures, showing that the recycling and composting rate for all materials in the municipal solid waste stream fell from 35 percent in 2017 to 32.1 percent in 2018.
EPA said if you looked at recycling alone, the volume of materials processed rose but the rate was at its lowest level since 2006.
For plastics, the rates largely held steady, but at much lower levels than for all materials. EPA said 8.5 percent of all plastics in municipal waste was recycled in 2018, and 13.1 percent of all plastic in containers and packaging.
While Wheeler announced the 50 percent recycling goal by 2030 and EPA convened its first recycling summits under President Donald Trump, the fate of the agency's target is not clear, as presumptive President-elect Joe Biden is widely expected to name his own EPA administrator.