USA: Will Trump hinder the land of recycling opportunity?

With the election of Donald Trump, it’s fair to say that America (and the rest of the world) has been plunged into turmoil. But (and we know this is the question on everyone’s mind) what does this mean for America’s resource industry? Libby Peake surveys the scene

One of the major concerns for the UK’s waste and resources industry in recent years has been consistency – a desire to end recycling confusion by ensuring that all residents have access to a similar recycling system into which they can place a harmonised set of materials. The situation was evocatively described by former Resources Minister Rory Stewart in 2015 (when he was still fresh-faced and driven to make a mark in his role), who invoked a powerful symbol of division to describe our current disjointed system: “We have about 360 different local authorities, doing different things with their waste. It is completely mad. It is mad in terms of us as householders, crossing those ‘Berlin Walls’ on London streets and trying to work out what is in our waste.

USA: Is Trump hindering the land of recycling opportunity?

“It is mad from the point of view of the waste industry trying to work out how to get any economies of scale, it’s mad in terms of the councils themselves. It doesn’t save them any money having these different systems for waste.”

And while a vision for consistency has now been launched, historically, it has proved difficult to ensure that the UK’s 65 million residents, spread across 418 different council areas, receive a similar level of recycling provision. Now, imagine how hard it could be in a country that is more than 40 times larger in area, with a population five times greater – 325 million – living in approximately 20,000 incorporated communities, each with governing bodies responsible for waste and recycling decisions (and with no statutory national targets to guide them). I refer, of course, to the United States.

Speaking to me before President Donald Trump (more of whom in a bit) placed a gagging order on the department, a spokesperson for the US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explained: “Decisions about how municipal solid waste is managed are made at the state and local level. States and local governments determine what approaches to take for waste management – including enacting and implementing recycling regulations and programmes – within their communities. Since 1989, a number of states have passed recycling laws, while 20 states have set recycling goals and 22 states have implemented mandatory recycling programmes.”

Delving into a bit more detail, the country’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition recently released a report, ‘2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling’, which does what it says on the tin, and documents Americans’ access to household recycling programmes. The report shows that: kerbside recycling is available automatically to only 53 per cent of the country’s population, while a further 20 per cent can opt-in or subscribe to a programme (and only about a third of people take up such offers); 21 per cent of people, meanwhile, only have access to drop-off recycling programmes, and six per cent of the population has no access to any recycling services.

Another report, ‘The 2016 State of Curbside Report’, produced by The Recycling Partnership in conjunction with the EPA, includes a section tellingly entitled ‘All Recycling is Local’, which reads: ‘The responsibility of who collects the curbside recycling in the US differs greatly depending on the part of the country that is being studied. The only standard is that there is no standard.’ Another aspect of the waste and recycling system documented in that report that varies greatly depending on location is landfill tipping fees, which can be as low as US$11 per tonne (Michigan in that case, but many of the less densely populated states have relatively low fees) and as high as $121 per tonne (Vermont, in the densely-populated northeast corner, although the next highest rate after that is $76 per tonne in Washington state on the west coast). The report found that there was some correlation between landfill fees and household waste generation, although not as much as would be expected.

According to 2014 EPA statistics, Americans, on average, produce 4.4 pounds (lb) of waste each a day (just shy of two kilogrammes (kg)), meaning that the average American produces 1,606lb (728kg) of waste every year. While the EPA spokesperson was keen to point out that the figure ‘is one of the lowest rates since before 1990’, it is still quite high compared to most European countries, where average waste generation per head lands at 477kg per head, although Denmark produces a whopping 789kg per head each year (to feed its many incinerators). In the US, 34.6 per cent of this waste was recycled in 2014, and the country has seen a similar levelling off of recycling rates as the UK is famously experiencing; recycling rates shot up from 16 per cent in 1990 to more than 31 per cent in 2005, but have seen little increase since then.

But enough of statistics. The EPA spokesperson pointed out that “improvements are possible given the right circumstances”, adding: “EPA and many other stakeholders are working to bring those improvements to fruition”, so I spoke so some of those involved in the industry to find out how they feel the US recycling industry is faring, and how they expect it to develop in the coming years.

The state of American recycling

Asked to characterise the state of American recycling, consultant Gary Liss, who is Vice-President of both Zero Waste USA and of the US Zero Waste Business Council, describes a situation that will be familiar to recycling professionals in the UK: “I would say that the current situation is that prices have decreased, market specs have increased, and reality has set in to the American recycling system. As a result, quality is the overarching goal that people are striving for. There’s renewed interest in market development and food scraps composting and surplus food recovery programmes.”

Liss suggests that China’s imposition of a ‘Green Fence’ in 2013, when the country unexpectedly announced that it would no longer accept poorly-sorted or dirty shipments of recyclable waste from foreign countries, was a ‘reality check’ for recycling in America (as it was here in the UK). In the US, you see, single-stream recycling had been steadily gaining in favour, with Liss describing a situation in which “over the last 10 years, single stream marched across America, mostly from the west coast, on the Pacific – California, Oregon and Washington – and now over the last 10 years has also been adopted around the country more and more”. These days, the vast majority (generally estimated to be higher than 80 per cent) of American kerbside recycling services collect waste in a fully co-mingled fashion.

As in this country, one of the main arguments in favour of co-mingling has been ease of use for consumers. However, as Brenda Pulley, Senior Vice President for Recycling at Keep America Beautiful (which runs the annual ‘America Recycles Day’ campaign each November), explains: “I think, in rolling it out over the past decades, where we the industry went wrong, was in giving this message of: ‘It all goes in one bin.’ Well, it doesn’t all go in one bin, and now there’s a lot of contamination, so we’re paying for that.”

Paper waste taken to a Waste Management depot

Indeed, Waste Management Inc, the nation’s largest ‘waste hauler’, as service providers are known there, indicated in 2015 that the recycling it processes now contains 16 per cent contamination, double the average rate of eight per cent contamination in 2005 – a jump confirmed to be representative of the industry by a 2013 survey of facilities around the country by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation.

And the rise in contamination has been compounded by the drop in commodity prices, most notably oil, which is driving down the price of plastics, which (along with contaminants) are becoming more common (replacing, to some extent, the old recycling stalwart of paper) in the country’s ‘evolving tonne’. “What the waste haulers are doing is charging more for processing materials at the materials recovery facilities”, Liss explains. “Fort Collins, Colorado is a place we worked recently where there was a $50 swing literally overnight when the contract changed. They had been paid about $30 a tonne for materials brought to their material recovery facility in Denver, and once the new contract started up in 2015, they were paying about $20, $25 a tonne. And that’s typical of what’s been happening all around the country.” Waste Management and other haulers have been renegotiating contracts, with Waste Management reportedly also shutting down at least 10 per cent of its recycling facilities.

Single-stream is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, though, with Liss explaining that the waste haulers, who were behind the drive towards co-mingling in the first place, “are regrouping and saying: ‘Yes, we think that single stream was the right way to go, but we have to do it better, we need to have people not put all their stuff in. We need to get rid of wishful recycling, where people hope and wish that whatever they put in their recycling containers is going to be recycled.’”

This point is echoed by Pulley, who bemoans the overly complicated literature householders sometimes receive about their waste services: “Sometimes, when we develop marketing brochures for people, it is 8-point pica, and we’ve listed 100 things that you can recycle and 100 things that you can’t.” In response, Pulley says there needs to be more emphasis on a core set of easily recyclable materials, and Keep America Beautiful is working towards encouraging more simplicity and uniformity, or, as Pulley catchily puts it: “How can we unify, simplify and then together amplify the recycling messaging?” Part of the answer, her organisation believes, lies in its ‘Top 10 in the Bin’ campaign, developed in partnership with the National Waste and Recycling Association, the Solid Waste Association of North America and the EPA, which offers a communication toolkit identifying the top materials that are generally recycled around the country.

Focusing on food waste

In addition to focusing on improving quality, America’s recycling industry is increasingly focusing on removing food waste from the residual stream, as it constitutes the largest proportion of municipal solid waste going to landfill (21.6 per cent in 2014, according to EPA figures). In 2015, the US’s central government introduced its first national waste target, a country-wide voluntary goal of reducing food waste by 50 per cent by 2030, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.

As in many other developed countries, food waste in America is particularly galling at a time when so many are struggling to put food on the table, as Liss describes: “In our economy, one out of seven American families don’t know where their next meal is coming from, while 40 per cent of all food grown in America is wasted, and connecting the dots between that food loss and food needs has really inspired people all over the country to work with local food banks, food pantries, food collection systems as a key part of responding to both the wasting challenges and the needs of the triple bottom line of communities addressing the social needs of their residents.”

For at least 10 years, the EPA has been pushing its Food Recovery Hierarchy, which advocates the following actions (in the following order) to prevent and divert wasted food: source reduction; feed hungry people; feed animals; industrial uses including fuel creation and anaerobic digestion; and composting. Access to food recycling and donation facilities, again, varies according to where you are in the US, but food waste collections are (slowly) becoming more common (and, significantly, are offered in major cities like San Francisco and now New York). Moreover, many major US corporations are promoting better use of food, with 15 companies, including food giants General Mills, the Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, and Walmart, pledging to reduce food waste and loss in their operations by 50 per cent by 2030, as part of the EPA’s US Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions programme.

Incineration and zero waste

Businesses also appear to be at the forefront of another drive in the waste field in America – zero waste to be exact. The Zero Waste Business Council, now run by the US Green Business Council, boasts members including General Motors, TD Bank, Lockheed Martin, Kellogg, and Microsoft, and a number of participating businesses in the scheme have facilities that have been certified as zero waste, meaning they achieve at least 90 per cent waste diversion from landfill and incineraiton, though Liss says some have achieved as high as 99 per cent diversion.

“Businesses are leading the way towards zero waste”, Liss tells me. “Thousands of businesses have already achieved over 90 per cent waste diversion, but communities all over the country are now also embracing the concept of zero waste – some of the recent ones include New York City last year, Boston last year, and we’re seeing about 100 different communities around the country that have adopted zero waste as a goal or a resolution.”

The success of some of these communities, moreover, has provided ample ammunition for the US’s very strong anti-incineration movement, with Liss explaining: “Because there are success stories, major accomplishments moving towards zero waste, the idea that incineration is inevitable is easily countered.”

Amazingly, since 1995, only one new incinerator has opened in the US, in West Palm Beach, Florida, though it’s a whopper – capable of burning 2,700 tonnes of waste a day, nearly a million tonnes per year. There are, however, 76 additional incineration facilities around the country, which together handled 33 million tonnes of municipal solid waste in 2014, roughly 12.8 per cent of all waste. The EPA spokesperson describes waste-to-energy as “a key part of the solid waste management hierarchy”, and the technology is, unsurprisingly, popular with some big businesses, which continue to promote it and market it as clean energy.

One of the most recent successes of the anti-incineration movement has been in Curtis Bay, an industrialised part of Baltimore, where the Maryland authorities had approved the construction of an enormous incineration facility, capable of burning 4,000 tonnes of waste a day, nearly 1.5 million tonnes a year. The facility was opposed by local people, most notably teenager Destiny Watford, who attended high school less than a mile from the incinerator’s proposed site. Watford founded the Free Your Voice student organisation, which galvanised the community to oppose more heavy industry and put pressure on government agencies to withdraw the project’s permits. For her efforts, Watford received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Liss points out, though, that Baltimore’s anti-incineration campaigners had a surprising ally in the local Tea Party, who opposed the project “because of the waste of financial resources” and the need for government subsidies for the capital-intensive project. He adds: “Zero waste is the poster child, or should be the poster child of the Tea Party and the Trump movement.”

Recycling in the era of Trump

At the time of writing – two long weeks into Trump’s administration – the new President has yet to take up the mantle of anti-incineration, zero waste and high recycling, but what should the industry expect from the rest of his tenure?

There’s no doubt that recycling faces some genuine logistical and financial problems in the US at the minute (though not as many as some prominent publications would have it, including The Economist, which ran an article entitled ‘Recycling in America: In the Bin’, Forbes, which ran one under the header ‘The European Union's Ludicrous Enthusiasm For Recycling’ and even The New York Times, whose opinion columnist John Tierney pops up to rubbish recycling with spurious arguments every once in a while). And, as the POTUS is generally opposed to regulations and taxes, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him championing the likes of recycling (a national strategy is definitely not on the cards) or financial instruments like subsidies for anaerobic digestion or imposing landfill taxes anytime soon.

This article was taken from Issue 87

More worryingly, though, his approach to general environmental matters is to deregulate – one of the first actions of the notorious climate sceptic upon assuming office was to impose a media blackout on the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture, largely considered to be a move intended to silence climate change scientists. It also looks like Trump might just pursue his campaign pledges to scrap the EPA in its entirety (a bill to that effect has already been drafted by Matt Gaetz, a Republican member of the House of Representatives).

To some extent, though, the fact that recycling is so devolved to the local level in the US means that the industry could be mercifully beyond the president’s reach. Liss, for one, remains optimistic about the direction of travel for the recycling industry over the next four years: “I’m optimistic that the state and local governments and industry are the ones that will continue to be the leaders in reduce, reuse, recycle, zero waste programmes around America, and the federal government will continue to be a relatively insignificant backdrop to all of that. The recycling movement, the recycling industry in America is a $250-billion a year industry, it’s as large as the automobile industry, it employs millions of people across America. It is not going away – it is here to stay and to grow incrementally as new policies and programmes are rolled out, some of which are in response to climate change, some of which are responding to feeding the hungry, some of which respond to the need for local jobs, and some of which are aiming for zero waste to eliminate inefficiencies. We have the answer to many questions, many problems that are out there – this is an industry that will continue move forward and to thrive.” 

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