The incoming U.S. Congress and Biden administration will provide both big opportunities and potential challenges for recyclers in the coming year, Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist, says. In an election summary and analysis Johnson prepared and shared with members in a January webinar, and in a separate phone conversation, Johnson outlined the policy priorities he sees in store for 2021.

Climate President Biden lists the climate emergency among the administration’s immediate priorities and has called for a “unified national response” to the crisis. He began building a team to deal with climate in December, including among his picks former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy as senior White House advisor on climate change, former Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate (a new cabinet-level position), Rep. Deb Haaland (D.-N.M.) as Secretary of the Interior, and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy.

President Biden has already made some climate moves in his first hours in office, including signing executive orders to rejoin the Paris Agreement and to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Johnson says recyclers should expect both the Biden Administration and Congress to view forthcoming actions through the “lens of climate change.” The significant focus on climate could offer opportunities for recyclers due to the industry’s role in reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (President Biden’s climate plan calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050). “Recycling is poised to be an important component in any climate solution,” Johnson says. “Manufacturers that adopt greener manufacturing processes to be more sustainable will have an advantage under a Biden Administration.”


Hand-in-hand with climate, infrastructure is expected to be a top priority. In fact, Biden’s climate plan includes a commitment “that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.” Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, green spaces, water systems, and electricity grids; building 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units; and upgrading and weatherizing 6 million residential and other buildings, among other actions. If it goes into effect, the plan could drive strong demand for scrap material by the construction industry.

Scrap metals such as steel, aluminum, and copper will be used to build infrastructure such as roads, bridges, pipes, and waterways, Johnson says, noting that upwards of 70% of steel is made from recycled content. It isn’t just the scrap metal sector that could benefit from a major infrastructure push, either—Johnson points out the “newer opportunities” that exist to use rubberized and plasticized asphalt in new roads, creating demand for commodities like recycled

tires and recycled plastic and contributing beneficial characteristics like noise reduction and carbon emissions reduction.

Because of the combined focus on environment and climate with the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plans, legislation will provide opportunities to insert provisions for recycled content in building materials, as well as research and development projects to study ways to use “difficult-to-recycle” materials in infrastructure projects, Johnson says.

Environmental justice

For the Biden Administration, environmental justice will be a top concern and a policy area closely related to its other top priorities, climate and infrastructure. Through his environmental justice plan, Biden hopes to elevate the issue federally by creating two new White House councils to oversee environmental justice concerns. He also plans to mandate monitoring of emissions, pollutants, and toxics in “frontline and fenceline communities,” require community notification of “any toxic release,” and establish a task force to “resolve the most challenging and persistent existing pockets of climate inequity in frontline vulnerable communities and tribal nations,” among other actions.

“Recyclers can look at environmental justice either way—as a challenge or an opportunity to explain why recycling is so important,” Johnson says. He adds that it is a “well-organized movement that will put pressure on bad actors,” but it provides the opportunity for recyclers to be “good actors in their communities and to talk about all the positives of the recycling operation, from job creation to environmental protection.”

Recyclers should be on the lookout for robust environmental enforcement and oversight, Johnson says. He also notes that environmental legislation could potentially help fund citizen suits against recycling facilities.

Residential recycling

While residential recycling has not made its way to the top of the list of Biden Administration policy priorities like the previous three issues have, Johnson says recyclers should expect the flurry of legislation around the topic that appeared over the past few years to reappear in Congress as the body looks to address climate and environmental issues.

“Over the past several years, there has been more attention paid to recycling than ever before,” Johnson says. More businesses, associations, and advocacy groups have entered the policy discussion on how to address issues with contamination and market demand, with different players proposing strategies like public education, technology investment, material bans, and extended producer responsibility.

Many of the previously introduced bills are focused exclusively on issues with the residential recycling system, but “could very well disrupt existing markets for many recyclers,” Johnson says. Others, like the RECYCLE Act, focus on public education and awareness of materials that are recyclable at the curbside level.

Because of the legislative mix of pros and cons for recyclers and the crowding of the discussion by a wide variety of stakeholders, the coming year will require ever more advocacy by ISRI and its membership in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols, Johnson says.