Recycling Is Rubbish: Four Concrete Steps Congress Must Take to Reimagine Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle by Reinventing, Reformatting, and Restructuring the Way the United States Manages Packaging Materials

Recycling Is Rubbish: Four Concrete Steps Congress Must Take to Reimagine Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle by Reinventing, Reformatting, and Restructuring the Way the United States Manages Packaging Materials

James D. Brien

The United States uses and disposes of materials at an alarming and unsustainable rate. The EPA estimates that in 2018 the U.S. generated over 292 million tons of household waste.[1] Between 30% and 65% of this waste comes from one source: containers and other packaging materials.[2] The U.S. then incinerated or landfilled more than 60% of these 292 million tons of waste.[3] Incinerating and landfilling at this rate harms people, resources, and the environment. This is unsustainable. Recycling and reusing these materials is critical to a sustainable future.

However, the United States is in the midst of a recycling crisis. This crisis is self-inflicted. For decades, the U.S. relied on other countries, mainly China, to process and recycle (or burn or landfill[4]) its municipal solid waste.[5] China no longer buys this waste.[6] Now, more than 111 million tons of plastic waste alone needs a new disposal method over the next decade.[7] Many states are trying to solve this crisis by increasing recycling through novel legislation.

But states cannot solve this crisis on their own. Some of the issues in increasing recycling rates are just too big for any one state to have much of an impact on. Some of the issues are unresolvable by states because federal law or policy creates the issues by incentivizing virgin material production. The federal government has the power and resources to implement meaningful changes to national waste-management policy and increase recycling rates throughout the country.[8]

Therefore, this Note proposes the federal government implement legislation to: (A) eliminate special tax subsidies for virgin materials; (B) charge a fee to producers of packaging materials; (C) reform regulations on environmental marketing claims; and (D) standardize recycling bins across the country. These four steps work together to substantially increase recycling rates in the U.S. while also decreasing the volume of packaging waste in the waste stream.

This Note proceeds as follows: Part I discusses the importance of recycling and explains the problems the U.S. faces in recycling more. Part II describes current federal law governing solid-waste management in the United States and discusses its inadequacies. Part III analyzes California’s, Maine’s, and Oregon’s solutions to the recycling crisis, and discusses examples from the EU and South Korea. In addition, Part III argues the scale and complexity of recycling demands a national solution and proposes a national law based, in part, off these state laws. The proposed law lays out several key elements that offer real promise for achieving progress on the critical issue of managing packaging waste.

[1] National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling, EPA, [hereinafter National Overview], (last updated July 14, 2021).

[2] See Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data, EPA, (last updated Jan. 28, 2021); Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz, The First Giant Step? Unpackage, Yes! Summer 2021, at 29, 29.

[3] National Overview, supra note 1.

[4] See Kenneth Rapoza, China Doesn’t Want The World’s Trash Anymore. Including ‘Recyclable’ Goods, Forbes (Nov. 29, 2020), (“The fact is, many pieces of plastic, including those with recyclable icons on them, are not recycled in the U.S. And when China, or other developing nations get a hold of them, they simply end up in a landfill, or in a storage facility somewhere, never recycled.”).

[5] Megan Manning & Stephanie Deskins, Making it Usable Again: Reviving the Nation’s Domestic Recycling Industry, 50 Golden Gate U. L. Rev. 107, 114 (2020).

[6] For years, China made money by using its cheap labor force to sort, process, and repurpose waste to be sold back to the world as new products. However, as China became richer, and its environmental laws became stricter, China no longer wanted to be the world’s waste processing center. Id., at 113–17.

[7] See Rapoza, supra note 4; Eugénie Joltreau, (De)globalization of International Plastic Waste Trade 3 (2019).

[8] See generally EPA, National Recycling Strategy: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All (2021) (recommending many other programs Congress can enact to increase recycling).


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