Who Will Pay to Fix Recycling?

Action #5 in Our 5 Actions for Sustainable Change

America’s recycling system needs a major overhaul. And we need to figure out how to pay for it.

Our recycling system is dated, set up mostly in the 1970s primarily to collect bottles, cans, and newspapers (remember print newspapers?). We’ve made some progress, but it’s a mixed bag. After four+ decades, our nation’s recycling rate dangles under 35%.

Although we’ve been recycling aluminum cans for decades, we’re still throwing away about half of them. And we’re also throwing away most plastic packaging.

One reason for low recycling rates? Approximately 40% of Americans lack ready access to recycling. We can’t recycle what we don’t collect.

Another reason? Over time, lighter weight materials became more popular, especially for packaging, such as plastic pouches and wraps. This newer, more efficient packaging is great at reducing the packaging needed to deliver food and drink. It also helps reduce food waste, uses less energy than heavier packaging, and shrinks greenhouse gas emissions compared to common alternatives.

But it doesn’t really work with our dated recycling system.

So, as a nation we need to make some changes to ramp up recycling (especially plastics), which keeps valuable materials out of landfills and our environment and saves precious resources.

We can’t rely on the federal government to fix recycling. Congress passed some funding in 2021 to help improve recycling, but it’s not going to be enough. We need significant investment, driven by powerful market forces, to achieve sustainable, high recycling rates.

How? By creating a funding system financed and directed by the private sector.

Other countries have implemented systems – typically called producer responsibility systems – that help increase access to recycling and produce a consistent supply of materials for recycling. In a U.S. system, funds would be generated through a small charge on consumer packaged goods, regardless the packaging material. These funds would be invested solely to expand efficient collection/sorting of recyclables and to educate Americans on how to participate, which would help build a path toward a circular economy in which all types of packaging are reused instead of discarded.

This is not another government program. The system would be run by private enterprises, maintain a free market approach, and support a competitive marketplace for increased investment in recycling. It would capitalize on existing recycling infrastructure and help build out the missing parts. A well-designed program would provide effective inducements to drive down litter, discourage landfilling, and stimulate recycling. You can read more details here.

While the system would not be government run, we’re asking Congress to help launch it. That’s Action #5 in our 5 Actions for Sustainable Change, important steps Congress can take to accelerate a circular economy for plastics through a comprehensive, national strategy (you can read more here).

(The other four actions: #1) require plastic packaging to be made with recycled plastics; #2) recognize new, advanced technologies for recycling #3) create national standards for plastics recycling; and #4) use scientific life cycle analyses to compare the environmental footprint of materials.)

It’s become clear that low recycling rates – and the resulting impacts on the environment – are not sustainable. Fixing our recycling system will require private funding. It’s the right thing to do. And the reality is that sustainability is good for business long-term… regardless which material you make.

The time has come to establish an American-designed producer responsibility system for packaging to help increase recycling access, collection, and education… for all materials, including plastics.