Whatever happened to mandatory recycling?

Posted by Lynn Rubenstein on Wednesday, February 1 2012

A recent national survey by the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc. (NERC) of the states and District of Columbia found that banning materials, rather than requiring recycling, is the solid waste management strategy of choice for most states. Almost every state* has at least something banned from disposal in its solid waste facilities—at a minimum lead acid batteries. By contrast, only 20 states have mandatory recycling of at least one commodity. When Bottle Bill laws are included in the definition of mandatory recycling, the number of mandatory recycling states increases to 26.

Interestingly, it is relatively unusual for the same material to both be banned and have mandatory recycling requirements. The belief that bans will force recycling seems to have a solid following, although a few products have a higher correlation of both bans and mandatory recycling—for example electronics. Lead acid batteries are unique in this study as the only material stream that is banned in every state in which there is mandatory recycling.

While relatively few jurisdictions have mandatory recycling, among those that do the traditional recycling commodities of glass, paper, metal, and plastic top the list of materials required to be recycled.

We all agree that recycling rates in the United States are inadequate and strive through programs, initiatives, legislation, policy, and ingenuity to drive recycling rates higher, yet it seems from this analysis that legislation—with the exception of a few high profile materials—is not a strategy that is widely used. And certainly, we have not seen any expansion of legislation speaking to the basic commodities in a very long time. Perhaps it’s time that the recycling community consider spending energy on driving disposal bans and mandatory recycling for the traditional materials—paper, glass, plastics, and metals. Product stewardship strategies are, of course, important but as has been demonstrated with these initiatives, disposal bans and mandatory recycling remain important for the success of product stewardship initiatives.

The complete report, Disposal Bans and Mandatory Recycling in the United States, includes a state-by-state profile of all of the disposal bans and mandatory recycling, as well as program contacts and is available for free download. The report was prepared with funding from ReCommunity.

* Oklahoma was the only non-respoinding state to the survey.  When the term state is used, it refers to the 49 responding states and the District of Columbia (50).

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Bans and mandatory recycling mismatch

I am always surprised that bans and mandatory recycling rarely “match.” It is pretty apparent to me that the most effective strategy is having both a ban and mandatory recycling requirement. I also think that an increased use of these regulatory strategies is important for driving recycling. There is a national shortage of materials available for US recycling companies to process. Most of the recyclables collected – such as paper and plastic – are sent to overseas processors. The general belief is that if we had more material available, then the domestic companies would have a greater opportunity to thrive.

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