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Bipartisan bills look to boost nation’s lagging recycling rates

Panel explores bills to standardize data, fund transfer stations

A recycling receptacle sits in the Senate subway in the Capitol. U.S. recycling rates have been hampered by challenges that include the prevalence of food contamination, low demand for recyclable materials and more.
A recycling receptacle sits in the Senate subway in the Capitol. U.S. recycling rates have been hampered by challenges that include the prevalence of food contamination, low demand for recyclable materials and more. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members began laying the groundwork Wednesday for bipartisan bills aimed at bolstering the nation’s recycling programs.

Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., have drafted legislation that would help standardize data reporting on recycling in the United States and require a slew of reports examining the potential for a national residential composting strategy, the recycling practices of federal agencies and basic information about the many local recycling programs across the country.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the panel’s top Republican, has an additional proposal that would establish a pilot grant program to fund transfer stations that can help provide recycling access in areas where a facility might not be able to turn a profit on collecting materials.

During a Wednesday committee hearing to discuss their proposals, Carper alluded to money included in the bipartisan infrastructure law to promote recycling efforts.

“Congress provided unprecedented levels of funding for recycling infrastructure and educational programs,” Carper said. “The two bills we are examining today represent our next steps to build on these efforts to turn the challenges of recycling and composting into opportunities to reduce planet-warming emissions and create good-paying jobs.”

U.S. recycling rates, particularly for plastic, have been hampered by challenges that include the prevalence of food contamination, low demand for recyclable materials and the difficulty in transporting them from remote areas.

Capito said West Virginia has a recycling rate of just 2 percent when excluding cardboard, the lowest rate of any state in the country, and that other rural states face similar issues.

The grants in her bill could be used to increase the number of transfer stations in a hub-and-spoke model, expand curbside recycling collection and leverage public-private partnerships to cut the costs of collecting and transporting recyclable materials in underserved communities.

She also touted the data collection requirements in Carper’s bill.

“This is information that’s critical for us to be able to evaluate how we can improve and how to best inform future recycling policies,” Capito said.

Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, testified that both the increased data collection and grant funding could help make meaningful progress on a national recycling effort, but suggested broadening definitions of underserved communities to address recycling challenges in urban and suburban areas.

“We definitely respect that distance to processing facilities is important, but that it’s not the only determinant for whether a community offers recycling or composting and that there may be communities that already have recycling or composting programs but charge an extra fee for that service, setting a barrier to participation,” Yepsen said. “These funds could be used more broadly.”

The proposals do not include the kinds of aggressive actions to rein in single-use plastics favored by lawmakers such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who has proposed an excise tax on new plastic.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Whitehouse said there has been a failure to improve plastic recycling rates despite public pressure and suggested industry’s resistance to change comes down to just dollars and cents.

New plastic is simply significantly cheaper for companies than buying recycled plastic.

“We can talk our way around this problem forever but the dollars drive the decisions, in my view,” Whitehouse said.

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