US: EPA says 50% national recycling target within reach

The EPA believes that a US national recycling strategy is feasible under current political and industrial conditions.

In October 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called for a 50% recycling rate by 2030.

This target was outlined in a draft version of the governmental body’s National Recycling Strategy.

Achieving said objective could be considered a watershed moment of sorts, seeing as the US recycling rate has been stuck in the mid-30% range since the 1990’s.

Yet, based on the current political climate, the US stands a good chance of sticking to its recycling commitment, according to Nena Shaw, acting division director of the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division.

"We are at a unique moment where there are so many policy drivers coming into alignment to positively impact our work," Shaw explained. "Congress, industry non-profits, the international community and the American public all want to see an improved recycling sector."

She stressed the fact that the country is ramping up, both on a state legislative as well as congressional level, being perfectly placed to meet the Biden administration’s demands for environmental justice and sustainable investment. Policies in this sense relate to the provision of new jobs, the improvement of public health as well as the minimization of climate change effects.

The EPA has petitioned Congress for funds going up to $10 million. The grant will be used to enhance the functionality of existing waste infrastructure by establishing a recycling pilot program. Said plan is intended to boost job security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while extending the lifecycle of sustainable raw materials.

"The connections between materials usage, the economy and the environment underscored by sustainable materials management is critical to our nation's health and prosperity," Shaw said.

Placing more emphasis on material repair and reuse as well as easing down on excess product consumption are two examples for how the recycling market may take further hold in the US. According to Shaw, this process may be facilitated by the adoption of a waste conscious product design mentality by companies and innovators.

"When governments and organizations purchase materials made from recycled content, we drive demand for recycled materials, and we make the system more economically viable," she commented.

A thriving circular economy, however, is dependent on a universal standardized methodology to measure recycling rates. Global figures on recycling are often estimates as there is a lot of variation in defining the term ‘recycling’ as well as the activities that fall under it-in a country as vast as the US, these discrepancies at state level render comparison of recycling rates impossible. In recognition of this, the EPA is slated to release a national recycling methodology, coupled with a recycling measurement guide to help local and state governments track progress against the national recycling goal.

Shaw calls for a holistic approach to achieve this level of ‘transformational change’. She proposes an active collaboration of federal state and local government, trade associations and private industry actors, stating that the multiple stakeholder approach is what will ‘help create a more viable recycling system’ that will help reduce the country’s ecological footprint.