Creating A National Recycling Strategy

Aug 26, 2019

Commentary: On June 29, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan that was part of a larger bill. The amendment directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its funding to create a national recycling strategy that will ensure the long-term economic and environmental viability of recycling programs at the local level.

On the heels of the amendment, New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland joined other representatives in writing a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, asking if his agency can develop a strategy to assist communities across the nation that are facing stockpiles of recycled items. This is occurring because China, which had previously taken U.S. recyclables, has reduced its imports of these items to a trickle, thus putting many communities with fledgling recycling programs in a crisis mode, as the cost of their recycling programs rise. Haaland and her colleagues want to see the federal government invest in infrastructure that will allow these communities to continue with their recycling efforts. The letter expresses a desire for the U.S. to become the world leader in recycling and to stop throwing away billions of dollars of recyclable materials each year.

   A comparison of other leading recycling countries shows just how far the U.S. needs to go to catch up. Last year, Eunomia, which tracks recycling among countries of the world, published the report, “Recycling – Who Really Leads the World?” According to this report, Germany, which recycles 56 percent of its waste, is the world’s leading recycler, followed by Austria (54 percent), South Korea (54 percent), Wales (52 percent), and Switzerland (50 percent). Of the top ten recyclers on the list, eight are in Europe and two are in Asia (South Korea and Singapore). At a 35 percent recycling rate, the United States barely cracks the top 25 list.

   A look at Germany’s recycling program reveals just how seriously the country’s national recycling strategy deals with waste. The country produces more than 30 million tons of garbage annually therefore, it recycles 16,800,000 tons of waste. As part of its recycling strategy, Germany established the Green Dot system, which is intended to result in less and lighter packaging. Retailers and manufacturers have to pay for a Green Dot on products, and the more packaging they use, the more they have to pay. This creates an incentive to use less plastic, paper, metal, and other packaging materials when shipping and selling a product. This alone has resulted in more than one million tons less garbage on an annual basis. 

   Another part of Germany’s recycling program is the requirements at the local level. First, households have multi-colored bins in which to deposit recyclables. Glass and bottles that are non-refundable and without a deposit are put in a separate glass bin. Paper and paper products are dumped into blue bins. Aluminum, cans, and beverage cartons go into yellow bins.

Bio-waste (leaves, coffee filters, and food waste) are dumped into brown bins. This waste is used for composting or to make fuel from biomass. Most other odd items such as nylons, tissues, diapers, cigarette butts, pots/pans, and brushes will be dumped in a gray bin. Hazmat items such as chemicals, batteries, fluorescent tubes, and cans of paint will be sent to collection sites for separate disposal. Damaged or old furniture and household items also can be taken to collection sites or left in front of the house for commercial recyclers or restorers to pick up.

   Germany’s aggressive recycling strategy has raised the bar in the world. One might think that such a strategy takes an inordinate time to develop. However, within 20 years, the tiny country of Wales in the United Kingdom increased its recycling rate by more than 50 percent to move to number four on the list of top recyclers. It did so by creating a strong recycling strategy, with aggressive targets, in which everybody from the top down participated. To date, approximately 85 percent of localities have met their recycling targets. Furthermore, similar to what House members are calling for in the U.S., the Welsh officials backed up their vision with funding to local authorities so that they could achieve the aggressive targets.

   Some might argue that Americans’ materialistic culture has a disposable aspect in which we freely toss away waste that could be easily recycled. Others might argue that making recycling available to the extent that Germany and the other top recyclers do will add increased costs to products. However, on the flipside of the coin, the cost of not recycling includes increased pollution, expanding landfills, increased health risks, and poor stewardship of our planet. A bold national recycling strategy could be the new Apollo space program moonshot that can integrate our communities and help draw our nation closer together

Jerry Pacheco is Executive Director of the International Business Accelerator, a non-profit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network, and the President/CEO of the Border Industrial Association.  He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or