What is your confidence level, as a consumer, in the recyclability of the products and materials you have to dispose of? Some consumer goods are easy. Everyone knows what to do with an empty beer can or the cardboard packaging from an online delivery. However, what about an empty milk container (and with or without the cap)? What about plastic food packaging? Can a pizza box with grease be recycled or should it be thrown away? What about bubble wrap or packing peanuts?
The recycling system in the U.S. was designed to be easy for consumers to use. There’s curbside recycling, where one puts recyclables in a bin—either single-source or sorted—and places them on the curb to be picked up. Or one can take recyclables to a drop-off site, which isn’t as convenient as curbside, but is still doable. Why is there still confusion about what should—and should not—be recycled?i
Part of the challenge is that recycling systems across the U.S. are different—there is no consistency between States, or even neighboring towns, on what can be recycled and how to do it. If a consumer recycles a material incorrectly, it can contaminate the recycling stream. However, throwing everything away is wasteful and thwarts opportunities to decrease our environmental impact.
Can you imagine if our traffic signs weren’t standardized? Just think of the confusion and chaos as drivers tried to navigate the meaning of different shapes and colors between States instead of the universally-accepted red octagon for STOP.
You may be wondering why there isn’t a standardized recycling system in the U.S. Our recycling system is complex and ever-changing, so it’s no wonder that consumers are confused.
Another issue is that not all recycling programs can recycle the same materials. The U.S. has not invested the necessary resources in our waste management system, opting to ship our waste to China and other countries instead. However, with China’s National Swordii and other countries no longer accepting U.S. wasteiii, recyclable material doesn’t have as many places to go. The recycling market has been slow to respond to this challenge and government has been working to react.
One way government has responded is through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its National Recycling Strategy and Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling Streamiv. Congress has also been working on the RECYCLE Act,v which would direct the EPA to establish a program to award grants to improve the effectiveness of residential and community recycling programs and could be included in an overall infrastructure bill. A Federal approach that creates consistency across the U.S., while allowing for ongoing innovation, would certainly be a welcome improvement.
However, Federal legislation often takes time to establish and States have been moving more quickly to address their recycling problems. Mainevi and Oregonvii recently passed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that will require brand owners of consumer products to join stewardship organization(s) and pay fees to support the improvement of recycling programs. Additionally, Washington State passed a lawviii to require post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging. Multiple States have formed internal commissions to improve recycling systems within their respective States. While these actions have good intentions, they still leave us with a patchwork of requirements between the States and don’t simplify recycling for consumers.
As an avid reader of SPRAY, you might be wondering where aerosol products fit into this conversation about recycling. After all, aerosol products are primarily housed in steel or aluminum containers—metals that are inherently recyclable.
I wrote an articleix with Scott Breen from the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) about what we learned from our recent aerosol recycling project. That information helped us develop potential projects for the entire aerosol industry to encourage and enhance the recycling of aerosol containers, which includes improving consumer awareness of recycling, addressing critical data gaps and increasing the acceptance of empty aerosol containers by material recovery facilities (MRFs).
Here are some projects we would like to accomplish in 2022:
• Develop a methodology to determine the baseline recycling rate
• Determine the baseline recycling rate for the U.S. & California
• Develop data to determine whether aerosol containers entering the recycling stream are empty
• Investigate the economic and environmental impact of recycling aerosol containers
• Engage with MRFs to encourage acceptance of empty aerosol containers
• Engage with environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to encourage municipalities to accept aerosol containers in their recycling programs.
• Develop guidelines for the industry to use to communicate with key stakeholders about how to recycle empty aerosol containers.
If all of this sounds incredibly ambitious, that’s because it is (and should be). The aerosol industry needs to be part of overall recycling discussions to ensure aerosol containers are included in mainstream recycling programs. Otherwise, consumers won’t know which metal containers can be recycled and those valuable materials will be lost to a landfill.
These aerosol recycling initiatives are open to anyone who would like to participate. You don’t need to be an HCPA or CMI member. The entire aerosol industry needs to work together on this; otherwise, consumers will remain confused and we’ll miss a great opportunity to build a more circular economy. For more information, please contact me at [email protected]. SPRAY
i Morgan, Blake. Why Is It So Hard To Recycle? Forbes. April 21, 2021. Available here
ii Katz, Cheryl. Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling. Yale Environment 360. March 7, 2019. Available here.
vi Available here
vii Available here
viii Available here