What National Sword’s analysis can tell us about optimizing plastics recycling in the United States

Jessica Heiges is a doctoral candidate in environmental science, policy and management, and Kate O’Neill is a professor of global environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley. They recently published research titled “A Recycling Reckoning: How Operation National Sword Catalyzed a Transition in America’s Plastics Recycling System.”

The US plastics recycling system is in a long overdue transition, triggered by the global disruption caused by China’s Operation National Sword.

Without careful planning, the US plastics recycling system has become a dispersed system with underfunded infrastructure and not enough policy intervention. It accepted plastics that had no market, relied too heavily on exporting materials to a single buyer (China), and allowed high contamination rates, thus low rates of recycling use. These inefficiencies progressed piecemeal, with minimal disruption or progress through 2018.

The routine progression of the US plastics recycling system, increasingly integrated into daily practice across the country, was addressed in 2018 through China’s Operation National Sword. China no longer wanted or needed to buy shoddy plastics – a widespread, abrupt, surprising and impactful disruption of this already dysfunctional system.

Our lab has been working on the implications of this seismic shift on plastics and recycling policies, practices, and technologies across the country, and recently published an article on this topic for a special issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production. Our findings suggest, as recommendations, that although a transition to a more stable system is not complete, there are important elements that policy makers, industry members and activists need to focus on, in combination :

  • Development of technology and infrastructure (downstream);
  • Elimination of problematic plastics (upstream);
  • And to fix and build those systems based on ideas and principles that resonate with stakeholders, like the need for a circular economy.

Either way, recycling retains a vital role in the future.

Our research aims to address the big picture: the current state and potential future of the US plastics recycling system as it transitions to sustainability. It means looking at how systems are changing and who is striving for – or hindering – progress towards a more sustainable future.

One way to understand transitions to sustainability is to look at the interactions between policy levels. To use an academic principle, the multi-level perspective framework (MLP) suggests how changes occur when localized technology, politics, and/or ideas challenge the status quo or if there is a large-scale disruption within the status quo, whether regionalized or global.

Operation National Sword was unprecedented in scale and impact, causing massive disruption globally. Within the markets, the commodity price of tradable plastics has declined. Meanwhile, the cost of landfill fees has increased, as has the cost of recycling services for residential and corporate customers. This disruption has prompted stakeholders – including municipalities and recycling service providers – to scramble to find quick fixes to adapt.

These solutions were not systematic and they were not coordinated. Some municipalities have launched or expanded awareness campaigns to reduce contamination of commercial and residential bins. Many local recycling services have halted collection of glass, mixed paper and mixed plastics. Recycling services were increasingly being revoked for repeat contamination offenders. Most of this learning was synthesized from Waste Dive “How Recycling Has Changed in All 50 States”.

With such large-scale disruption, some things can happen, including a complete change in the status quo.

According to the MLP framework, this occurs if a local technology or policy change is mature enough to take advantage of the window of opportunity created by the disruption. What is missing from this theory – and what we are proposing is potentially happening in the US plastics recycling system – is that there are three innovations in development that can replace the pre-existing, unsystematic system:

  • Zero waste and circular economy movements;
  • National transformation;
  • And the elimination of problematic plastics.

The zero waste and circular economy movements advocate and implement upstream solutions to prevent waste generation, pursue reuse, and recognize the importance of recycling (if done in an efficient, effective, and environmentally responsible manner ). Domestic transformation is the trend of conserving plastic waste (and waste) in the United States by building more collection and processing infrastructure, investing in technology, and increasing the local purchase of these materials. Eliminating problematic plastics aims to put only recyclable plastics into the consumer process, thereby increasing the recycling rate of plastics.

Amid the historic global disruption of Operation National Sword, the U.S. plastics recycling system is taking a toll and it’s unclear how the dust from the disruption will settle.

It is possible that America’s unsystematic and fragmented plastics recycling system will remain in place. It is also possible that the three divergent, but arguably more systematic, approaches to the zero waste and circular economy movements; domestic treatment; and the elimination of problematic plastics could be imposed and replace the current system.

From the perspective of sustainability transition theory, we will only know when the transition is “complete”. However, from a practitioner’s perspective, this approach clarifies possible opportunities to galvanize and coalesce around three arguably more sustainable and fairer futures for America’s plastic recycling system.

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