2022 was an amazing year for recycling. Legislators were aggressive, but markets were cool. Despite the increase in new laws, the idea of recycling has continued to be fueled by anti-plastic polemics.
Let’s start with the new laws. Congress, as usual, did little. Oh, they did the session. But only two laws, the Recycling Infrastructure and Access Act and the Responsible Recycling and Composting Act, had any challenge. The former contributed to increased recycling access while the latter was associated with better recycling data. The Senate passed both with bipartisan support. They are non-starters in the framework but still did not go to the House.
Additionally, the Omnibus Budget proposal includes negative language about “chemical” recycling. The EPA is in the process of creating potential rules to cover new plastic recycling technology. Congress urged it to consider disproportionate effects in its rules.
The state legislatures were much more active than the Hill. Legislators created new EPR programs, updated recycling content requirements, organic mandates, and landfill laws. Michigan now has a set of eight new laws that are a comprehensive overhaul of its waste and recycling laws.
EPR action includes carpets in New York State, mattresses in Oregon, updates to South Carolina’s electronics law and adding rechargeable batteries to California’s battery law. Additionally, California and Colorado have issued EPRs for packaging.
New Jersey passed a recyclable content packaging law. Storage laws were revised in California, Iowa and Oregon and, in two cases, expanded to cover more types of liquor. Washington passed a comprehensive organics management law with a goal of reducing organic waste disposal by 75% by 2030. Later in the year, the California legislature delayed enforcement of its mandatory organic waste disposal law.
I don’t expect much from Congress in 2023. Recycling is not the most pressing issue facing a Congress riven by partisan divides. The new laws are more at the state level. Legislators will look to bills that have passed in other states in previous years.
At this point it is hard to say what will happen. Waste and recycling legislation used to be non-partisan. Bills will pass or fail based on their merits, not their partisanship. This has changed. Except for the two updates to the current law and the Michigan law, all of the laws listed above have been implemented in blue states.
Only 33 states have any form of EPR legislation. Most of them are related to electronics or mercury products. This means that a third of the states have not shown any interest in EPR. I expect some EPR bills to pass in 2023, including EPR packaging. I also expect that at least one of the four states with an EPR packaging law will fail to meet its implementation date. These laws are very complex and have no precedents in the United States. More cautious states may have to wait and see how this new concept works in practice. They will prefer to learn from the inevitable mistakes of a newly developed program.
Finally, expect legislation that covers recycling claims. In December, the Federal Trade Commission asked for comments on how it should update its “Green Guides” on environmental marketing claims. This is your chance to tell the FTC what to do about recycling labels.
For the markets, 2022 was a difficult year. With one exception, recycling markets were lower at the end of 2022 than at the beginning of the year. Paper (“cardboard” boxes and mixed paper) remained strong until August, when markets for both grades fell sharply. Both steel and aluminum cans, PET, PP and colored HDPE plastics also ended the year lower than they started.
Only natural HDPE finished in a better position on December 31. The lack of color makes it very versatile as it can be dyed and used for a variety of products. Natural HDPE can also be in tight supply because it is used to package a small number of products (milk, garbage and drinking water bottles). If there is demand, that supply problem will drive up prices.
The declining recycling markets in 2022 were largely due to the weakness of the US and global economies. In addition, retail companies found themselves with excess inventory at the beginning of the summer. To clear out their warehouses, they cut orders for new products, which meant fewer new boxes were needed. Paper mills began to close as orders fell and more recycling capacity came online. Plastics markets have been hit by a lack of construction and a weak economy. The Northeast Recycling Council’s Quarterly Recycling Market Value Reports summed up current markets when its third quarter showed a $62.20 drop in average price per ton from a year ago.
I am at a loss to guess how the markets will fare later this year. We are in extraordinary economic times. If you can successfully predict the state of the economy throughout 2023, you can also predict the recycling markets. I expect that prices for most curbside recycling will gradually increase. Most of them have stabilized and some have started to return. Plastics markets should benefit when the effects of the Infrastructure Act are felt. But we must not forget that recycling is only raw materials that go on the market. A strong economy is the best guarantee of good recycling markets.
Finally, the disinformation campaign against plastic recycling is starting to drive down all recycling. Including a December 15th opinion piece The New York Times stated that “the moral halo around recycling is largely the result of a decades-long disinformation campaign by plastic manufacturers”. This is a surprising fact.
Curbside recycling was started in the late 60’s by Garden State Paper and the new recycled newspaper industry. Paper is the primary material collected in recycling programs. In the mid-70s, metal cans and glass bottles began to be collected alongside donkeys. Plastic packaging didn’t catch on until the late 80s, mostly because it’s a product of the late 70s and 80s. Anyone who believes in the “moral halo”, the fact that recycling has a positive environmental impact, created by the plastics industry, probably also believes that the moon is made of green cheese. Yet this “false truth” persists in the popular press, constantly repeated by those who should know better.
It is an easy prediction that more recycling laws will be passed in 2023. As for the markets, they should improve a bit. If the economy gets strong again, the markets will develop even more.
But what is the “moral halo” of recycling? Will Americans lose interest in recycling as it continues to be hammered by anti-plastic activists and lazy journalists? Recycling will not save the world nor is it the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s an invaluable way to conserve materials and, like it or not, recycling, including plastic recycling, reduces greenhouse gas emissions. We need to continue to develop what recycling entails as we continue to improve it. 2023 will be an important year to restore public confidence in recycling. We don’t miss this opportunity.