GUNASEKARA: ‘America First’ Recycling Is Something We Can All Support

Getty Images

Mandy Gunasekara Contributor
Font Size:

Whether Democrat, Republican, independent or politically agnostic, here is something we can all get behind: Nov. 15 is America Recycles Day. This is a day to focus on our nation’s commitment to conservation and celebrate the success of our recycling industry. It is also a good day to take stock of new and lingering challenges and set goals for where the domestic recycling industry can and should improve.

Recycling has come a long way. Americans produce around 260 million tons of municipal solid waste each year. This breaks down to about 4.5 pounds of trash per person each day. In the 1960s, less than 7 percent of the waste produced was actually recycled, whereas today, that percentage of recycled waste has grown to 35. This growth has produced a range of environmental and economic benefits, including domestic jobs. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report found that every 10,000 pounds of recycled waste supports at least 16 local jobs.

Building up a robust recycling industry has been a priority of the Trump administration. Last year on America Recycles Day, the president reiterated a commitment to bolster the resilience of local recycling programs stating that “[t]ogether, we can reduce waste and ensure our Nation more efficiently utilizes our resources as we build a stronger America for future generations.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler hosted the first-ever Recycling Day Summit, which brought together a range of recycling stakeholders to discuss ongoing challenges and develop best practices to address them. At the heart of the discussion was how to update aging infrastructure, expand consumer awareness and improve competition in this increasingly international market.

This year, EPA will be hosting an innovation fair in Washington, D.C. The fair will highlight new technologies as well as new uses for recycled material. It will also bring together both recycling entrepreneurs and investors with the goal of spurring market development.

Focusing on these issues could not come at a more crucial time for the domestic recycling industry. Last year, China stopped taking U.S. recyclable materials, citing high contamination rates. While this decision is nothing more than protectionist measures, it has had real consequences. For many municipalities, recycling became cost-prohibitive overnight. As such, industry leaders and local municipalities have been forced to rethink and reshape the recycling process.

A good first step involves increasing consumer awareness about steps they can take to make the materials they recycle more usable. In today’s hyper-aware society where consumers pick out coffee beans based on how sustainably they are harvested, we no doubt have a willing population. The opportunity lies in delivering easily digestible information on what is “recyclable material” and how best to sort them.

Another important step will require updating existing infrastructure and incorporating more efficient practices. The good news is that interest and awareness surrounding sustainable waste management practices has been steadily growing across a multitude of private industrial operators and businesses. This growing coalition has been focused on reducing the amount of lost value that is literally thrown in the trash each year. According to one report, Americans throw away roughly $9 billion worth of recyclable materials each year.

As the industry and its partners work hard to figure these challenges out, local officials must also resist short-term and short-sighted “fixes.” It’s an open secret that trash incinerators are using the current instability of the recycling market as a means to keep their outdated technologies alive. Accordingly, incinerators have invested in highly sophisticated PR campaigns meant to convince persuadable politicians for either special treatment in state laws or long-term, sweetheart deals that come with a series of complicated environmental implications.

As the saying goes, with challenges comes new opportunities and this is certainly the case with the domestic recycling industry. Smarter investments in a robust recycling market will protect us from international instability, promote job growth and conserve the environment. It’s truly a win-win and something all Americans can support.

Mandy Gunasekara is the founder of the Energy 45 Fund.  She previously served as a senior official in President Trump’s EPA and as counsel to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.