Conference panelists describe the state of plastics recycling policy

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David Biderman, far right, addresses the audience at the 2022 Plastics Recycling Conference | Photo by Brian Adams

Interest in minimum recycled content mandates and extended producer responsibility bills is at an all-time high, but the reality of passing legislation is more complicated, say industry experts .

The first day of the 2022 Plastics Recycling Conference, held outside Washington, DC, included a pair of policy-focused sessions that drew standing crowds. It was the latest sign of the attention recycling policy is receiving, both inside the Beltway and beyond.

Recycling is “one of the few things that can really pull people on both sides of the aisle,” noted David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).

When it comes to recycling, “if plastic is 10% of the stream, it’s 100% of the mindshare,” Biderman added.

The processor says the marks have “disappeared”

Resa Dimino, managing partner at consultancy Signalfire Group, said a policy was needed to move the industry forward. Supply depends on consumers, who do not see themselves as the beginning of the supply chain.

“The inconsistency of economic feedback means they don’t really work in this conventional supply-demand dynamic,” she said.

And while companies’ promises of minimum recycled content are positive, they’re not stable, she said.

Another panelist, Kate Davenport, Co-Chair of Eureka Recycling, echoed this instability. Eureka Recycling is a non-profit operator of material recovery facilities (MRF) in the Twin Cities area.

“Marks, you called me and asked for content and then disappeared three months later when the price of virgin got really low,” she said.

Instead, politics must be that driver, Dimino and other panelists said, and there has been a flurry of state and federal political activity in recent years.

A handful of bills have passed Congress this year to provide more funding for recycling, Biderman said, including the RECYCLE Act for awareness and Save Our Seas 2.0 for solid waste and recycling infrastructure. The Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act was recently introduced along with data from the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act.

“There continues to be a high level of activity and interest in advancing recycling,” he said.

Digging in the EPR

Maine and Oregon became the first states to pass sweeping Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills in 2021, but nothing in Congress is moving, Biderman added.

Panelists said EPR bills are strong policy solutions, but they must consider all stakeholder needs to be effective, have high standards and flexibility for different states and situations, and be paired with d other solutions such as bottle deposit invoices.

Davenport said MRFs primarily handle paper and glass, not plastic, so “we really need to keep that perspective in designing our policy.”

“These actors really need to come to the table and these policies need to be very localized and flexible in their design,” she said. “It has to be a multi-party governance model and I think it will have to be really contextual state by state in terms of what that looks like.”

She added that recycled content mandates would not be enough to solve supply problems, but would have to be combined with bottle bills.

Eadaoin Quinn, Business Development and Purchasing Manager for EFS-plastics, said she prefers systems that enable and encourage competition because it makes waste pickers “nervous about having only one vendor in a particular area.”

“I would also like to know more about eco-modulation,” Quinn said, because producers who choose to use more environmentally friendly materials “should pay less than producers who do not pay attention to these things”.

And just because an EPR bill passes doesn’t mean it’s a victory, said Bree Dietly, principal at Breezeway Consulting. She said “Maine has adopted the EPR, and it’s a lousy bill.” Breezeway Consulting represents the American Beverage Association.

“It’s not a program that’s going to work particularly well,” Dietly said, because the state Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for administering the entire system.

“Assuming the DEP gets the funds to even start this, then they’ll have to go through this whole process themselves,” Dietly said. “I don’t expect it to work very well, as it doesn’t in other jurisdictions.”

Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, said “the Maine model was basically writing a check, so we didn’t like that in Washington.” The Washington State Legislature recently failed to pass an EPR.

Instead, the bill she promoted tried to “thread that needle of producers always having high standards and municipalities and the waste industry having a big voice.”

High hopes for New York

Kate Walker, executive director of the New York State Center for Sustainable Materials Management, said New York State is currently considering an EPR bill and she has been able to learn from Trim’s work.

“Thank you, Washington, for clearing all the bruises first,” Walker said, adding that she was “really hopeful that in New York we’ll get her over the finish line.”

As the discussion of the merits of each type of bill continues, Biderman reminded panelists that “the enemy of excellence is perfection.”

“Every day, thousands of units of recyclable plastic end up in a trash can,” he said. “We have to do a better job and I have no dog in the fight as to how we will get there.”

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