Recycling Programs + Single-Use Plastics Policies Remain Impacted by Pandemic

By Brendan Adamczyk & Olivia Den Dulk

In June, PSI examined the initial impacts of COVID-19 on US recycling programs as municipalities suspended services and re-evaluated their budgets. Cities with recycling programs were struggling with the initial impacts of the pandemic. In Miami, FL residents were instructed to mix trash and recycling and in Los Angeles, CA recycling materials were diverted to the landfill. This summer, we continued monitoring the effects of the pandemic on recycling programs and found that while many recycling pick-up and drop-off services have reopened, other impacts continue to present serious challenges for recycling programs. Cities of various sizes across the country have continued to face two key difficulties: First, recycling programs contended with employee shortages as staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus, quarantined because of possible exposure, or stayed home due to the risk that the virus presented. Second, residents disposed of more trash and recycling while spending more time at home.

Philadelphia, PA and Baltimore, MD both exemplified this two-fold problem this summer. Philadelphia residents disposed of 30% more trash during the pandemic and sanitation crews struggled to keep up, especially as some employees tested positive and had to take time off from work. Residents complained of unsightly trash left on the curb for days, and in August some crews had to resort to mixing trash and recycling. Baltimore experienced a 20% increase in trash, and several employees either contracted the virus or quit because of the virus risk. The city was overwhelmed by these compounding problems and announced that recycling pick-up would be suspended for at least a month beginning on August 31.

While several municipalities have reopened their recycling services, PSI expects that COVID-19 will continue to cause employee shortages and increased volumes for months to come as cities face new outbreaks and manage them by implementing lockdowns and restrictions. Budgetary impacts on recycling programs have also persisted since the outbreak of the pandemic. Some cities proposed terminating their curbside recycling programs altogether. Others switched to bi-weekly services. Some municipalities stopped accepting materials, such as cardboard and some plastics. It is clear, and concerning, that these changes will have a lasting impact on programs across the country, particularly as local governments are still grappling with with the budgetary impacts of the 2018 China Sword Policy.

Plastics Policies Rolled Back

Beyond recycling programs, COVID-19 has also had a major impact on plastic pollution policy across the United States. Since March of this year, PSI has been monitoring these changes on the city, county, and state levels in our COVID-19 Impacts on U.S. Plastics Policy tracker, chronicling delayed legislation, lifted bag bans and fees, and bans on reusable bags, as well as impacts on bottle deposits, other single-use plastics (such as polystyrene takeout containers), and relevant major news coverage.

What we have found is troubling: at least 79 policies rolling back restrictions on single-use plastic bags and takeout containers or banning reusable bags were imposed between March and August 2020, spanning 22 states and the District of Columbia. As of September 1, 45 of these policies, or 57%, remain in effect, with more than a dozen guaranteed to extend through the beginning of 2021 – just one of the many policy impacts of COVID-19. The graphics below indicate the impact on plastic bags, the biggest category impacted by recent changes:

It’s clear from this data that a wide swatch of municipalities rescinded or delayed bans on plastic products, with some even banning reusable bags outright, all based on claims that plastic helped reduce exposure to COVID-19. This idea was promoted by the plastics industry in mid-March, when they urged the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to speak out against bans and in support of single-use plastics. However, research soon revealed turning to plastics was not the solution, as a June 2020 statement signed by more than 125 health experts from 18 countries urged retailers, governments, and consumers alike that reusables were just as safe as single-use-plastics. This is the most recent example in a long pattern of the plastic industry placing the burden of systemic problems on individuals and deflecting focus from plastic pollution instead of taking responsibility for their role in the plastic pollution crisis.

What EPR Can Do

While the problem is clear, what is the solution? PSI advocates for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation for packaging and paper products that holds producers accountable for their products by shifting the financial and management burden of recycling from taxpayers and local governments to the packaging producers themselves. Around the world, EPR for packaging has helped solid waste programs weather the economic uncertainties of the China National Sword as well as the COVID-19 crisis. For example, a study conducted by Eco-Entreprises Quebec found that in the areas in Canada where EPR has been implemented, curbside recycling experienced fewer disruptions than in provinces without EPR. Furthermore, recycling services in provinces with EPR were far more resilient to the effects of COVID-19 than programs in the United States, despite Canadian programs facing the same challenges as the U.S., including a 30% increase in residential trash volume and employee shortages.

In the United States, at least 10 states will be considering EPR for plastic and packaging products in the upcoming 2021 legislative session, while the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in February 2020 by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), would implement EPR for packaging and paper products on a national scale, along with a nationwide container deposit requirement, bans on certain single-use plastic products, a carryout bag fee, and standardized labeling for recycling and disposal.

As the nation continues to work through this crisis, we need to aim higher than the status quo – now is the time to adopt EPR legislation for packaging and paper products in the U.S. so that we can stabilize and improve our recycling programs and build their resiliency in the face of any challenges that may lie ahead.  

%d bloggers like this: