A Midterm Lay of the Land: Zero Waste in 2019

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the seventh in a series of posts over the past several weeks reviewing the problems and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

Waste — whether in the form of plastic bags stuck in trees, food dumped into landfills, or excessive product packaging sent up in smoke in an incinerator — isn’t just a source of environmental problems. It is the culmination of a wasteful, “one-way” system that turns valuable natural resources into items that are used briefly — or not at all — before they are dumped or burned and their materials are lost. This crazy system is an affront to Americans across the political spectrum, liberal and conservative.

In 2018, the U.S. and world woke up to many of the problems created by trash, as well as new opportunities to eliminate it.

In 2019, the stage is set for newly elected leaders to create plans to achieve zero waste for their cities, states and our country as a whole. Cities such as New York and states such as Connecticut have already adopted zero waste plans — laying the path to create a “circular economy” in which less is consumed, products are built to last and easy to repair, and all discarded materials are reused, composted or recycled in a sustainable loop.

The most promising opportunities for making short-term progress toward a zero-waste society include:

Reducing Plastic Pollution

2018 was the year of banning single-use plastics. The huge patches of floating garbage that now exist in all of the world’s oceans — the largest in the Pacific being roughly the size of Mexico — have captured the world’s eye and called attention to the problem of plastic pollution.

Sea animals riddled with plastic trash have been the most heartbreaking evidence of this problem, but plastic pollution is everywhere and its effects are still largely unknown.

Plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time and eventually into micro- and nanoparticles — many taking hundreds of years to do so. Almost all of the plastic ever produced — an unimaginable quantity — still exists on Earth in some form. This invisible pollution has spread throughout the world and has shown up in our table salt, drinking water and air — to name just a few examples.

The health effects of ingesting and inhaling plastic are still largely unknown because this is a recently created and discovered problem. Preliminary studies indicate that microplastics may be toxic and interfere with metabolic, immune and neurological systems. Also, certain plastic additives are known to be carcinogenic, or to interfere with the hormonal system.

Plastics can be very useful materials, but by far the largest category of plastic products is packaging — making up 36 percent of all plastics produced. Luckily, this largest category is also something we can do without — as evidenced by single-use plastic bans sweeping the globe.

Many commitments to eliminate single-use plastics were made in 2018, including a ban on all single-use plastics approved by the European Parliament. The conservative leaders of India and the UK both made commitments to phase out single-use plastics in their countries, and the entire nation of Chile banned plastic bags. Even corporations are starting to phase out their use of single-use plastics. Starbucks, McDonalds, Disney, Alaska Airlines, United, and American Airlines are just some of the companies that began to phase out or eliminate straws this year. California, which already has a ban on single-use plastic bags, implemented a partial ban on plastic straws in 2018, and Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban straws and plastic utensils. In October 2018, President Trump signed the bipartisan Save Our Seas Act to fund the Marine Debris Act through 2022 to clean up marine plastic trash and encourage the countries responsible for the majority of ocean trash to improve their waste management practices.

Leaders elected in November can build on this momentum and ban single-use plastics in their own towns, cities and states.

Recycling Reform

Curbside recycling programs are widespread in the U.S. and participation is pretty high. But once the recyclables are picked up, the U.S. does not have enough infrastructure to process them, or large enough markets to utilize them.

Prior to 2018, about one-third of U.S. recyclables were exported, with about half of those exports going to China. But now, China’s growing middle-class is generating its own steady volume of recyclables, and other countries’ recyclables tend to be mis-sorted, contaminated and sometimes hazardous. So China has stopped accepting much of the recyclable material it used to take.

This has caused a crisis for many recycling programs across the U.S., some of which have begun sending recyclables to landfills and incinerators. The trade publication Waste Dive has found that China’s waste ban is having a noticeable effect in 41 states with a heavy impact in 13.

This shift is a problem, but it is also an opportunity to create robust recycling systems within communities, states and the U.S. as a whole. We need to create a closed-loop system in which recyclables aren’t just collected, but are sorted, processed and turned into new goods. To make that a reality, newly-elected officials should work to:

1. Reduce consumption — The first and most important step is to dramatically reduce how many recyclables we create. Packaging and single-use products are nonessential items that make up almost one-third of U.S. waste, so limiting and banning these products is one of the most effective ways to reduce waste.

2. Make producers pay for the collection and processing of their products once consumers are done with them. This will incentivize producers to limit their use of packaging and will make single-use products less economical.

3. Create and expand markets for recycled materials. This can be done in different ways, for example by requiring government agencies to purchase goods made with recycled content, or by requiring manufacturers to utilize recycled materials in manufacturing. Limiting or increasing the cost of extracting virgin materials also makes it more economical for producers to utilize recycled materials.

4. Investing in recycling infrastructure. Because the U.S. has exported so much of its recyclables, we produce far more recyclables than we have the infrastructure to process. Governments should invest in these sorting and processing facilities.

Right to Repair

To ensure that consumers continually buy more products, producers often make them hard, impossible, or even illegal to fix. They do this by making the tools, software or manuals needed to fix their goods proprietary, so that customers have to pay certified technicians to fix them. Some electronics manufacturers also glue components together so that they often break when someone tries to fix them.

This is a headache for consumers and creates a big waste problem. For example, we throw out 416,000 cellphones every day in the U.S. The EPA reports that less than 40 percent of common electronics are recycled — the majority end up in landfills. There, the finite earth elements they contain can’t be recovered and their toxic components, including heavy metals with serious health effects, can leach into groundwater.

To address these and many other problems associated with producers not allowing consumers to fix their own stuff, Right to Repair bills were introduced in 18 states across the country in 2018. These bills would require producers to make the tools, manuals and software needed to fix their products available to consumers and independent repair technicians. These bills were introduced in states from Nebraska to New Hampshire, and Iowa to Hawaii, and received broad, bipartisan support. In 2019, legislators will certainly have more chances to grant their constituents the right to repair their belongings.

Limiting Food Waste

In the U.S., 40 percent of our food is wasted each year. That food presents a significant opportunity to eliminate hunger and produce compost — a vital resource that can replenish topsoil, which is currently being degraded at rates that threaten our future ability to produce food. Food waste that ends up in landfills also produces methane, a greenhouse gas at least 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while composted food waste helps microorganisms and plants to grow, which actually sequesters carbon. Compost also helps to replace synthetic fertilizers that contribute to water pollution.

In December, Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 by an overwhelming majority. This update of the Farm Bill includes more efforts to reduce food waste than ever before. Specifically, the bill includes state and local funding for a variety of efforts, including food waste reduction, municipal compost plans, food donation programs, marketing for businesses that divert farm food waste, and research into extending the storage life of crops.

State and local officials taking their seats in January should make use of this federal funding for innovative projects to reduce food waste in their towns and states.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The problem of waste in America is large, but there are many opportunities for local, state and federal leaders to help move toward zero waste in ways that provide an array of benefits. Eliminating plastic pollution and food waste, creating robust recycling systems, and enabling repair are just a few of those avenues.