A Global Challenge Calling for Local and State-Based Solutions

November 6, 2019



NCEL Point of Contact


In 2019, 36 states introduced over 220 bills to curb or eliminate plastic pollution. News story after news story has covered the harrowing statistics around the presence of plastic in nearly everything, from the water we drink to the air we breathe. This relatively sudden spotlight on plastic pollution is largely a result of China’s 2018 National Sword Policy. After years of purchasing, processing, and managing 70% of the United States’ plastic collected for recycling and 95% of the European Union’s, China banned imports of most recyclable waste, leading to a stark 99% drop in its plastic materials imports in one year’s time.  Below, we will detail how states are working to create a market for recyclables to fill the void left by China’s Sword Policy, namely through improving both public and private (extended producer responsibility) recycling infrastructure.

The impacts of China’s policy have been drastic, affecting all 50 states. Many U.S. cities have had to alter their approach to recycling entirely as they lost their biggest market for recyclable materials when China stopped accepting imports. We’ve even seen cities like Philadelphia turn to incineration to manage some of their plastic waste because the processing and separating fees for recycling were too high. Estimates show that in the past year alone, thousands of tons of materials placed in curbside recycling have instead ended up in landfills.

However, while China’s policy has presented a  huge problem for U.S. recycling, it has also helped bring attention to larger issues around recycling and waste. For example, the troubling fact that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled emphasizes that this challenge has been developing for decades and will have implications far beyond 2019. A number of factors contribute to this problem, such as certain types of plastics being difficult to recycle or not recyclable altogether, confusion surrounding the different numbers (1-7) on plastic labels, compounded by the fact that each state has their own requirements governing curbside pickup. 

While single-use bans are the most effective way to reduce plastic pollution at its source, it is important to improve waste management and create a domestic, cost-effective market for recyclables. In response to this need, more than 14 states have introduced over 30 bills focused on improving recycling and waste management. 

Washington’s Sustainable Recycling Act as a Case Study for Revitalizing Recycling Programs

Given the lack of existing resources, infrastructure, and a market for recycling in the US, states are now working to improve waste management facilities and processes through funding, technical assistance, and education. At least eight states across the country introduced bills to improve overall recycling and waste management including Pennsylvania (HB 1797), Arkansas (HB 1948), and Washington (SB 5545). Washington’s bill, the Sustainable Recycling Act, was signed into law earlier this year and provides a great case study of how states are working to revamp their in-state recycling.  

The goal of Washington’s bill is to fully revitalize recycling in the state and ultimately fill the gap created by China’s National Sword Policy. Through the creation of a fund, a recycling development center, and a corresponding advisory board, the bill charges the Department of Ecology with developing “new markets and [expanding] existing markets for recycled commodities and recycling facilities.” This ultimately means offering a thorough and wide variety of technical assistance, policy recommendations, funding, and outreach services to both public and private entities in the state working on recycling. 

Since recycling is often implemented at the local or municipal level, SB 5545 also provides a good model for supporting local jurisdictions’ recycling programs. The bill requires local jurisdictions to either establish their own outreach and education plans for recycling or opt into the statewide plan. SB 5545 also ensures that a portion of funds goes towards oversight of local government programs on recycling. 

Extended Producer Responsibility as a Way to Engage the Private Sector in Waste Management

While Washington’s Sustainable Recycling Act and similar bills like Massachusetts’ H 2830 use public dollars to improve recycling, states are also looking into ways to make producers of plastic responsible for the waste they create. This concept is known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), making producers are responsible for the full life cycle of their product(s). Making producers responsible will not only lead to higher recycling rates, but will also incentivize the creation of more easily recyclable packaging and thus will help to increase recyclability at the source.

IndianaConnecticut, and Washington’s bills introduced this year provide strong examples of some of the major elements of an extended producer responsibility system. This includes: 

  • Requiring producers of plastic packaging to register their production and recycling facilities with a state’s Department of Environment so a producer’s progress can be tracked.
  • Charging producers with creating developing a formal plan and stewardship program to ultimately finance, collect, and recycle their packaging. 
  • Establishing recycling rate goals. California’s AB 1080/SB 54 provides one of the most thorough examples of recycling rate goals, as it would require that producers ensure that all single-use packaging manufactured on or after January 1, 2030, and that is offered for sale, sold, distributed, or imported in or into California is recyclable or compostable.

Ultimately, no states have signed legislation into law that would implement an EPR system for plastic packaging, but 2019 marked notable progress. For example, Washington’s EPR bill (SB  5397/HB 1204) was amended and signed into law as a study bill. It charges the Department of Ecology with developing a study that will assess the impacts of plastics packaging on Washington and ultimately help outline useful data points on plastic waste management and the feasibility of EPR. And while it didn’t pass as introduced, the original bill provides a strong guideline for what EPR will look like. 

In Maine, the legislature passed a resolution (LD 1431) that charges its Department of Environmental Protection with creating an EPR bill. In doing so, this allows the Department that will oversee producers’ stewardship programs to create a system that is realistic given the Department’s capacity and resources and ultimately allows them to further become an integral part of the process. 

As we enter the 2020 session, it is likely we will see more EPR bills introduced (and reintroduced). We will continue to track states’ progress towards eliminating plastic pollution and improve recycling and encourage you to check out the NCEL website for additional information.