This Is Plastics: Environmental Protection Agency Announces “Unprecedented” Investment to Improve Community Recycling


Environmental Protection Agency Announces “Unprecedented” Investment to Improve Community Recycling

Investment by EPA will be the largest recycling investment in three decades and looks to improve community recycling nationwide.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its largest recycling investment in 30 years: $375 million in funding for new recycling, reuse and waste prevention programs, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed in November 2021. The funding will develop a slate of new initiatives to address pollution and improper waste management at the state and local levels, including the new Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling and Recycling Education and Outreach Grant Programs. Upon its announcement, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan celebrated the “unprecedent investment” and its potential to “transform recycling and solid waste management across the nation” with the variety of funding options. This move by the EPA is a great example of the kinds of investments needed to build the circular economy and ensure plastics are reused, recycled and remanufactured.

Investment in waste management is key to eliminating plastic waste

U.S. recycling structures and guidelines have been largely left to state and local governments, which has led to an inconsistent patchwork of state and local programs that are either noncomplementary or limited due to limited funding. For example, when changes in the global scrap market increased the cost of recycling in 2019, many communities were forced to cancel or suspend their recycling programs because they couldn’t afford the new prices for processing recyclable waste – some were four times that of the previous year. Unfortunately, when recycling programs are cancelled, plastic waste ends up in landfills instead of back in the economy, and the benefits of the material are not fully realized.

The EPA’s investment will help state and local governments address funding concerns with a $275 million investment in the new Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling Grant Program. The program will provide grants to state and local governments to implement new strategies that “improve post-consumer materials management and infrastructure; support improvements to local post-consumer materials management and recycling programs; and assist local waste management authorities in making improvements to local waste management systems.” With additional federal funding, community leaders will have more opportunities to expand recycling programs to better address consumer needs and keep plastics out of landfills so products can be recycled into new goods.

Improving recycling education is crucial for effective systems

Patchwork recycling can also cause confusion around what can and can’t be recycled and where; what’s recyclable via curbside collection in one community may not be in another, and general recycling misconceptions can deter consumers from recycling at all. This reality makes the EPA’s investment of $75 million to establish the Recycling Education and Outreach Grant Program all the more crucial. The program will fund state and local projects that “inform the public about residential or community waste prevention or recycling programs; provide information about the recycled materials that are accepted; and increase collection rates and decrease contamination across the nation.” Heightened consumer education will ensure that the public is aware of the plastic recycling options at their disposal, and can prevent accidental landfilling due to lack of awareness.

To further support public education and community recycling resources, the EPA is also consulting with stakeholders to develop a Model Recycling Program Toolkit containing standard terminology, training modules, and recycling best practices. The toolkit will include a community self-assessment to determine existing recycling program gaps, and a guide to measure grant effectiveness through recycling rates and contamination levels. These investments are incredible resources to help community leaders work with policymakers and industry to create unique recycling solutions and increase program participation.

Addressing plastic waste requires collaboration across sectors

While the EPA’s recent recycling investment is historic, reducing plastic waste in the environment and improving recycling systems nationwide will require even more innovation and investment. With the plastics industry and government working together on legislative solutions, like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act enabling the EPA’s investment, the opportunities to create a circular plastic economy can be endless.

Other notable legislation currently under debate in Congress include S. 3743 The Recycling and Composting Accountability Act (RCAA) and S. 3742 The Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act (RIAA), which would improve recycling data collection and infrastructure, especially in underserved communities.

As the first step in implementing these programs, the EPA published several Requests for Information (RFIs) for wide stakeholder input on the initiatives’ design. Continued federal action that serves to complement ongoing industry efforts and commitments, are crucial to creating comprehensive recycling systems across the United States. The EPA’s investments showcase bipartisan support for more widespread, effective recycling programs that keep plastics in the circular economy as new goods, and the collaboration with stakeholders through the RFI process will further inform the agency’s actions to ensure funding is deployed effectively. 

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