On Wednesday, Sept. 22, Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) on recycling’s important role in the economy and some of the challenges facing the industry. His testimony was part of the EPW’s hearing on the importance of promoting the circular economy. “The Circular Economy as a Concept for Creating a More Sustainable Future” hearing covered several topics including investing in recycling infrastructure, demand for recycled materials, and innovative technologies.

Johnson also participated in one of three virtual roundtable discussions that preceded the hearing earlier in September. Hosted by Senators John Boozman, R-Ark., and Thomas Carper, D-Del., the roundtable Johnson spoke on examined investment in recycling infrastructure and curbing contamination in the recycling stream. Representing ISRI members and the recycling industry, he was one of six on a panel that included SWANA (Solid Waste Association of North America), Tetra Pak, the American Beverage Association, and Graphic Packaging International.

During the roundtable, Johnson highlighted ISRI’s recommended five elements to reduce contamination in residential recycling: designing products with recycling in mind, educating the public about recycling, improving sorting and separation technology, flexibility regarding recycling rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, and ensuring that existing recycling markets are not disrupted.

At the in-person hearing, Johnson was joined by three other witnesses: The Honorable Elizabeth Biser, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality; Roberta Elias, Director of Policy and Government Affairs at World Wildlife Fund; and Brian Hawkinson, Executive Director, Recovered Fiber at American Forest & Paper Association.

Johnson first spoke about the key elements that make successful recycling: market demand to use the recyclable materials and the need for minimal contamination to ensure specification-grade products. When discussing the importance of recycling, he noted that the industry touches almost every aspect of the economy, “from retail stores, office complexes, residential neighborhoods, schools, factories, and even military bases.”

He divided U.S. recycling into two main areas: commercial and industrial recycling on one hand and residential recycling on the other. Most of the material that flows into the recycling infrastructure from commercial and industrial sectors moves forward without a problem and can be transformed into high-quality commodity-grade products.

Problems with recycling typically arise on the residential side. “While it’s subject to the same demand-driven end-market [as industrial & commercial], it is saddled with an ever-changing mix of materials on the supply side and that material flows into the stream whether there is a market or not,” Johnson explained. The unique nature of residential recycling’s infrastructure requires a different approach from commercial and industrial recycling, he added.

The recycling industry is working, Johnson noted, especially on the commercial and industrial side. “Residential recycling represents only 20% of the material that works its way through that infrastructure. The other 80% comes from the recycling of commercial and industrial materials that tend to be cleaner.”

Similar to his roundtable testimony, Johnson stressed the need for multiple approaches to and solutions for residential recycling. He noted that the residential recycling chain is a complex system. While it is driven by market demand, it has a supply chain that isn’t really linked to current market conditions.

He reviewed the areas that ISRI considers to be pressure points in the residential recycling infrastructure. The first pressure point occurs before the material enters the stream, with the consumer deciding what to put in the bin. It’s at this point where providing better education to the public about what is and is not recyclable would be most valuable, Johnson says.

When the material makes its way from the municipality to the material recovery facility (MRF) is the second pressure point of the system. In this area, “there is a need for contracting policies and procedures that provide flexibility for market fluctuations.”

The third pressure point Johnson highlighted was when the material is processed. At this point, Johnson pointed to an increased need for additional upgrading of equipment and facilities despite investments that have already been made. The recyclables entering the end-market is the fourth and final pressure point of the system.

He concluded by noting the importance of involving all stakeholders to tackle these issues together. Since the challenges facing the industry are varied, the solutions should come from all parties working together. Collaboration, Johnson argued, would allow everyone to gain a better understanding of the fundamental problems, “and then work together to develop the menu of solutions that need to be put in place.”

After providing testimony, the witnesses were asked several questions by the committee members. Carper asked each witness what kind of legislation Congress could pass in the foreseeable future that would help move the needle toward the circular economy. A common answer among all the panelists was public education, and Hawkinson named the RECYCLE Act, which passed the Senate in August. When the question came to Johnson, he agreed with Hawkinson on the importance of the RECYCLE Act in educating the public about what is recyclable. He expressed a need for policies that encourage market development and promote demand for recycled content. He also noted the importance of legislation that encourages design for recycling, which would make products more effective to recycle at their end-of-life.

Johnson also called for changing the nomenclature of recycling. “Recycling is not solid waste management, recyclables are valuable commodities used in manufacturing,” he explained. “Treating them as solid waste imposes various burdens and makes the material sound like trash. Reforming the term recycling would provide a technical and legal pathway to recycle more efficiently.”

Now that the hearing has come to a close, Johnson anticipates the senators will draft a bill on this issue taking into account the information from the hearing and roundtables.

Photos courtesy of AF&PA. Credit for the photos goes to Clara Cozort.

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.