Fixing Recycling One Step and One Policy at a Time

Recycling facility conveyer belt
The plastic pollution crisis has reignited conversations about both Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Responsibility laws. Collectively, these policies can create the foundation of a new wave of recycling reform. Photo Credit: jantsarik via Shutterstock

Our Recycling System Needs a Makeover

Our recycling system isn’t working. It’s expensive, confusing, and in many places inaccessible. This is especially true when it comes to plastic recycling. Right now, the U.S. has a 5% plastic recycling rate. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic wand that will fix our failing system. Overhauling recycling in the U.S. will take time, effort, and an array of new policies targeting specific materials and problems with how we collect, sort, and manage waste.

Thankfully, there are two policies that can do most of the leg work: Bottle Bills and Packing Reduction and Recycling Laws.

Both policies are a form of extended producer responsibility, an unnecessarily complex name for a straightforward concept. Extended producer responsibility holds companies that manufacture specific products accountable for the waste they create.

Many states across the country have successfully developed and implemented producer responsibility programs for hard-to-manage products like paint, car batteries, carpets, and electronics. These policies have helped increase access to recycling services and created specialized recycling and waste management programs for hard-to-manage products. However, these programs only focus on a small portion of the waste stream. That’s where Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws come into play.

Infographic of venn diagram highlighting benefits of passing bottle bills, benefits of passing packaging reduction laws, and the benefit of passing both.

New Policies Can Reform Recycling

Packaging makes up a significant portion of the waste stream. Roughly a third of all household waste is packaging – things like cardboard boxes, cans, plastic containers, bags, and glass jars. Some of these materials, like cardboard, glass, paper, and PET plastic bottles, are highly recyclable.  We just need good systems to collect, sort, and recycle them. Other packaging materials like plastic film, plastic bags, Styrofoam, and most other forms of plastic are not, and will never be, recyclable. But with Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws, we can create comprehensive programs to make sure the materials that are recyclable get recycled. The materials that aren’t recyclable? Those should be phased out of production completely.

Bottle Bills

Bottle bills have been around for decades. And they’ve proven to be among the most impactful recycling programs ever created. Why? Because beverage containers are highly recyclable when kept clean. Bottle Bills remove beverage containers from curbside recycling systems and instead, collect and sort those containers through their own system. This means the containers are clean and free of contaminants, and ready to be recycled into new beverage containers. Even better, beverage companies pay the cost of collecting, sorting, and recycling these containers, not consumers.

The results speak for themselves. Nearly 60% of all the glass that is recycled into new bottles in the U.S. comes from the ten states that currently have bottle bill programs. And a third of all aluminum cans that are recycled in the U.S. come from those same states. But the benefits of Bottle Bills don’t end with increased recycling. These bills also reduce litter, and they can kickstart reusable and refillable beverage container programs.

Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws

Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws focus on fixing curbside recycling. How? By handling hard-to-manage materials like plastic containers, paper, cardboard boxes, and others, in a more efficient way. Right now, consumers – not corporations – pay the cost to manage all this packaging waste. As a result, corporations have no incentive to 1) redesign their products to use less packaging or 2) make the packaging reusable or recyclable. Instead, corporations just focus on packaging their products as cheaply as possible.

Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws change this. These laws require companies to manage the packaging waste they create. Now, companies will pay fees based on the amount of packaging their products use. The fees go towards paying for recycling and waste management services. On top of that, the laws require the companies to reduce the amount of packaging they use to sell and market their products. It also forces them to make that packaging recyclable. Most important of all, for packaging reduction and responsibility laws to achieve their goals, they must not be undermined by the industry that created this problem in the first place.

It’s Not Enough to Have One Law or The Other

The plastic pollution crisis has reignited conversations about both Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Responsibility laws, which is great! Collectively, these policies can create the foundation of a new wave of recycling reform.

However, it’s important that states pursue both policies and more importantly, that they develop those policies separately. That means passing a Bottle Bill to create and implement a modern bottle recycling program that covers all beverage containers. It also means passing a Packaging Reduction and Recycling law that manages all other packaging material.

Including beverage containers in Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws gets messy. And that’s because it keeps beverage containers in curbside recycling bins rather than separating them out and managing them through their own dedicated system. Remember, beverage containers are highly recyclable when kept clean and free of contamination. In the curbside system, they just won’t be recycled as effectively as through an independent program.

When beverage containers are included in Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws you also lose the litter reduction benefits that come with Bottle Bills. A central part of Bottle Bill programs is that every container sold has a small refundable deposit placed on it. Consumers pay that deposit when they purchase the beverage. And they get that money back when they bring the empty container back for recycling. This creates an incentive for consumers to participate in the program, which reduces the likelihood that these containers become litter. Why? Because they now have an economic value. That isn’t the case with Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws.

Managing beverage containers through Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws also limits the development of reusable and refillable beverage container programs. The independent and specialized recycling system created by Bottle Bills can easily be transitioned to have beverage containers sterilized, refilled, and put back into circulation. While recycling is an important waste reduction component, it is not as good as reuse.

All Hands on Deck

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fixing our recycling system. That said, the best approach to reforming recycling is to pass a variety of policies targeting the specific failures of our recycling system. We need policies that ultimately reshape how we produce, consume, and ultimately dispose of goods.

Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws represent two critical tools at our disposal, and ones that should be adopted by all states. While these policies are impactful on their own, they work better in tandem. Simultaneously, the two take the burden of managing packaging off communities and place it onto the companies that create all this waste.

Just Zero is working to implement these bills in several states across the country. Sign up for our emails to stay connected and learn how you can help advocate for these bills.

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