The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to increase the national recycling rate to 50 percent by 2030, and in late 2021 released the National Recycling Strategy, which outlines about 50 multi-stakeholder-led actions, intended to help hit that target.
Now, two EPA grant programs are available, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to provide support in two among many areas prioritized by the strategy: community education and outreach and solid waste management infrastructure.
The first round of funding for the Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling (SWIFR) grant program will dole out $110M to political subdivisions, tribes and intertribal consortia, and states and territories. Monies are earmarked for collections; overall recycling, composting, and reuse infrastructure; and/or market development.
The Recycling Education and Outreach grant program will award $30M to communities to address contamination in recycling streams. Recipients will leverage monies to inform residents on what recycled materials are accepted in their collections programs and to gather and provide data showing grant project impact. With the thought that data is critical to gaining insight, EPA developed a guide enlightening on measuring contamination and on evaluating and reporting progress.
“There are materials out there that we know are recyclable because the technology to recycle them exists and the end markets exist. But they have low recycling rates,” says Swarupa Ganguli, acting chief, Resource Conservation branch at U.S. EPA.
She called out the infrastructure improvements and recycling education and outreach funded through these grants as essential to enhancing the quality and quantity of materials coming into the recycling stream.
Much of the nation’s collection and processing infrastructure is outdated, failing to keep pace with evolving streams, especially plastics.
To get clarity on what it will take to get up to speed, EPA conducted a financial needs assessment to determine the cost to upgrade and modernize the recycling system and plans to release the report later in 2023.
The agency is also developing a “Recycling Infrastructure and Market Opportunities map” to jumpstart activity along the supply chain. The map will provide a visual representation of material generation, recycling, infrastructure, and end market prospects across the U.S. to facilitate the connection of end users to viable commodity streams.
EPA’s overarching role is to set goals and the vision, with community-provided funding as one resource to get closer to that vision.
“The actions in the strategy are not to be taken by EPA alone, but by many actors [public sector at multiple government levels, private sector, and nonprofit] across the value chain to help increase markets for recycled commodities,” says Mya Sjogren, a sustainability analyst for EPA.
Market development is a project cut out for regional and local players as the recycled commodities world is geography-specific. The kinds of operations getting into this work vary, as do their approaches.
In Washington State two agencies, the departments of Ecology and Commerce, joined forces, establishing the Washington Recycling Development Center for the purpose of bolstering commodities markets. The team has been working to chip away at multiple pain points.
Among the most grueling, like in many regions, is excessive contamination in the stream and the ongoing impact of the loss of overseas markets. These disruptions have driven commodity prices down, or created such instability that local programs were forced to either remove materials or collect them at a loss, says Kara Steward, Recycling Development Center coordinator, Washington State Department of Ecology.
Lacking local manufacturing and recycling systems to advance a circular economy is another problem. “Some materials are too expensive to move long distances to end markets. Funding and building local infrastructure take time, money, and community support,” she says.
One way the state entity addresses these and related barriers to growing a robust market is supporting businesses focused on expanding waste prevention and material reuse, repair, or recycling through an accelerator. Dubbed as NextCycle Washington, it engages organizations as they innovate and develop approaches to advance a circular economy.
The Development Center’s team submitted a funding proposal for an EPA SWIFR grant to support the accelerator and is also going for a Consumer Recycling Education and Outreach grant to take on contamination.
“The biggest challenge to our Center is how to provide funding to our innovators to grow successful reuse, repair, and recycling businesses. These needs are in the millions of dollars. Federal funding would be a game changer for us. Substantial and sustained funding from EPA would boost Washington’s circular economy,” Steward says.
While the grants go directly to states, municipalities, and tribes it’s anticipated the monies will indirectly benefit industry, as Washington State aims to do through its accelerator—and ultimately bring gains for all sectors.
Ganguli points to a problem Steward referenced and that other regions have brought to the agency’s attention: Opportunities for selling the recyclables are stifled because end markets are far away.
“If you develop strong markets for end products, we believe the industry that will ultimately buy them will be interested in locating in that state,” she says.
The EPA is working to expand its network to bring more players in to buildout out a circular economy at scale.
Most of the focus recently is on keeping the network apprised of the recycling grant opportunities; the first recipients will likely be announced later in 2023.
“We want to make sure that all communities, including those that have often been left out of discussions and investments, are included in efforts to tackle the challenges we face related to an equitable and circular economy,” Ganguli says.
With that objective, 40 percent of grant funding has been set aside to support rural and disadvantaged communities.
The National Recycling Strategy is the first in a series named “Creating a Circular Economy for All.”
The series is intended to guide a shift from the current linear model where resources are mined, made into products, then thrown away to a model that prioritizes reducing resources and materials to make new products. Then keeping materials in use rather than managing them as trash.
Some of the initial circular economy-focused actions are reflected in the National Recycling Strategy. Subsequent strategies will frame additional actions, including an emphasis on plastics, to accomplish the ultimate goal of true circularity, Ganguli says.