We’ve all been there – standing in the kitchen, a restaurant or a Capitol Hill office and asking, “Can I recycle this product?” News coverage highlighting the challenges of recycling is abundant, and there is no question consumers are confused about what goes in the bin, how products should be broken down to be prepared for the recycling process and where recyclables go once in the hands of a hauler.
Despite these predicaments – and thanks to voluntary industry initiatives and the millions of Americans who recycle every day – paper is the most recycled material in the U.S. The nation’s paper recovery for recycling rate hit a record 68.1 percent in 2018, a metric that has met or exceeded 63 percent for the past decade. In fact, according to the EPA, more paper (by weight) is recovered for recycling from municipal waste streams than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined.
The paper products industry is extremely proud of these successes, but we also recognize our recycling system is faced with challenges that begin at the bin.
Recycling will only be successful if local communities have the tools they need to recycle effectively, and that effort starts with each of us – at home, at school, at work and on-the-go. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), in addition to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), recently introduced legislation that aims to improve recycling rates across the country, a much-needed effort to both increase participation in recycling and decrease contamination.
The Recycle Act of 2019 (S. 2941) would create a new federal grant program through the EPA to educate households and consumers about residential and community recycling programs. Education programs, like those the Recycle Act would establish, are the first step in empowering Americans to make conscientious decisions that will have far-reaching positive effects on the recycling market.
As millions of holiday purchases arrive at consumers’ homes in cardboard (“corrugated”) boxes, the use and recycling of paper-based products will be clearly illustrated for lawmakers. Corrugated boxes, the preferred packaging for holiday e-commerce shipments, are made from recovered paper and/or sustainably managed trees. And we all play an important role in ensuring the quality of the recovery stream so boxes can be recycled into new products.
Paper recycling is a bright spot because there is a well-established infrastructure already in place to collect and process paper to serve dynamic, complex and efficient markets for recovered fiber. More than 96 percent of all corrugated containers consumed in the U.S. in 2018 were recovered for recycling, which means they ended up being made into new products rather than being wasted. In fact, recycled box fibers are reused at least seven times to make new products like new corrugated containers, paperboard boxes for things like dry food, and construction paper and paperboard. That accomplishment reflects the efforts of millions of American consumers combined with the industry’s commitment and infrastructure to create a strong market for paper-based recycling.
Reducing waste in the environment is an important goal we all share. The Recycle Act, and efforts like it, recognize that recycling is not broken. Rather, further education will provide consumers with the resources they need to feel confident in their recycling systems and in their own efforts to recycle.
Actions like these will work to dispel recycling myths, discourage “wishcycling” and arm each of us with valuable information that will contribute to a growing U.S. recycling success story.
Heidi Brock is president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association.