The EPA gets recycling all wrong

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released its long-awaited new National Recycling Strategy — and it was not worth waiting for. Instead of following these misguided and stale guidelines, local municipalities should reimagine their own recycling guidelines and turn their waste stream into a profitable “mine.”

Under pressure from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to identify ways to increase the amount of municipal waste that is reused, the EPA offered a plan which avoids confronting a materials marketplace that has dramatically changed since the Chinese government started limiting recycling imports into China.

The plan offers non-specific generalities about how to create markets for the money-losing existing local recyclable collections, while ignoring the potential of those materials that actually do have value — notably consumer electronics — that local governments could profitably “mine.”

Pieces of shredded aluminum iPhone cases are seen after traditional e-waste recycling testing at an Apple recycling facility in Austin, Texas, U.S. REUTERS/Spencer Selvidge

As matters stand, localities across the US are spending their own funds to run special pickups for what skeptics call “wish-cycling”— the pickup of materials for which markets are limited or non-existent. The GAO highlighted “wish-cycling” in a 2020 report, noting such problems as, “limited market demand for recyclables, and low profitability for operating recycling programs.”

In other words, we are spending scarce municipal budget funds that could be used for other purposes to fund separate pickups for materials that no one really wants to use.

And it’s not a new phenomenon. It’s been the case at least since 2017 when China, the former main waste paper destination for US exports, closed its borders to such imports under a policy it calls Operation National Sword. The fact that there is little demand for recycling paper — much of which tends to be contaminated and unusable anyway — hasn’t deterred us from picking it up. The largest portion (68 percent) of local solid waste that is picked up for recycling is paper, despite the lack of demand.

The EPA’s new strategy does not show evidence of learning much from this recycling failure nor adapting to permanently changed circumstances.

Instead, it doubles down on the chimera of a “circular” economy in which everything will somehow be reused. Rather than facing up to the fact that it is difficult or impossible to recycle materials for which there’s no market demand, the EPA imagines it will somehow “improve markets for recycled commodities through market development, analysis, manufacturing, and research.”

This is either without real substance or worrisome. One way that “markets” are developed is through government intervention, such as potential recycled material requirements. These measures would divert investment from markets where recycling might actually make financial, as well as environmental, sense.

The recycling of electronic devices, such as the vastly growing number of cellphones, is a worthwhile idea essentially ignored by the EPA and the GAO. These devices rely on a wide range of so-called rare earth metals, many mined in China or in African conflict zones. They should well be considered of strategic importance — and would command market interest.

For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) — in highly original work of which the EPA seems unaware — envisions a new generation of incinerators whose ash can be captured and from which heavy metals can be extracted for reuse.

Instead of building on the DOE’s innovative work, the EPA and GAO have doubled down on an effort to recycle plastics, glass and paper — all of which might either be incinerated or buried in safe landfill. 

Recycling is where environmental policy meets local government, and there is an important lesson here for thousands of local municipalities.

Rethink recycling — and re-imagine your solid waste stream as a mine from which a shifting series of materials can be extracted and profitably sold.

If the markets for plastics and paper suddenly shift, then, yes, pick them up. If they’re just going to pile up or be sold at a loss, then don’t. The current tsunami of electronic waste cries out for localities to mine it — and limit US reliance on imports from unfriendly places abroad.

Platitudes about recycling as an end in itself, based on shibboleths about limited landfill space or annoyance at Amazon boxes, are not useful guides to a sound municipal recycling strategy. Local governments facing budget tradeoffs should pay attention.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow in domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on municipal government, urban housing policy, civil society, and philanthropy. He is the author of the AEI report, “Municipal recycling and electronic waste: An environmental and financial opportunity.”

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