When the Pennsylvania legislature passed a recycling law in 1988, Act 101 was hailed as the nation’s most extensive recycling law, and considered groundbreaking. But that was in the era before disposable items like cell phones, overnight Amazon packages, and single-use coffee pods. According to the environmental research firm Eunomia, in Pennsylvania, waste generation has grown by 45% between 1990 and 2018.
In the 50 years since the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was ingrained into our nation’s lexicon, our recycling laws and programs haven’t been able to keep up with the deluge of materials and products that are becoming more common in our solid waste stream — aka, our “trash.”
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly must make it a priority to modernize Pennsylvania’s recycling policies and update Act 101 to meet the demands of our modern economy, and with it, create jobs that improve our health and environment.
Next year will be the 35th anniversary of the passage of Act 101, yet the law has failed to fulfill its promise, and has not evolved to meet the needs of the modern day. Act 101 may have been groundbreaking in 1988 but is inadequate in 2022.
Some of its biggest shortcomings include the fact that only 25% of all municipalities in Pennsylvania are required to offer recycling to their residents and businesses. How can we manage the state’s solid waste challenges when most of us live in a place that doesn’t have to offer recycling solutions?
Another weakness in the law is that the towns that are required to offer recycling aren’t required to provide recycling for most of the common recyclable products today, such as electronic waste and the deluge of single-use plastic items dominating the marketplace.
Finally, Act 101 did little to promote transparency or tracking of our recycling stream from the time it leaves our homes until it gets recycled into a new product. Without such data, it’s impossible to know what’s working or not working in Pennsylvania’s myriad local recycling programs. Funding for Pennsylvania’s recycling laws has essentially flatlined since the enactment of Act 101, compounding the problem.
The good news is that it doesn’t need to be this way. After the Pennsylvania Resources Council and PennEnvironment worked to ferret out the problems in Pennsylvania’s waste management and recycling systems, we identified the best practices and most successful technologies being used here and across the nation. We took these successful practices and created a blueprint for Pennsylvania leaders to follow, which could make Pennsylvania a national leader in recycling and solid waste today, just as we were in 1988.
Here are four steps that our state can take now to improve recycling:
Require recycling and modern solid waste programs in all Pennsylvania communities, not just one-quarter of them.
Ensure that all of the common materials that are part of our waste stream in our day-to-day lives — such as cardboard, paper, glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans, and single-use plastics — are required to be collected by local recycling programs and curbside recycling efforts.
Properly fund our recycling programs for 2022 — not at 1988 levels — and make the producers pay for the waste they produce. This could include revenue generation through legislation proposed in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would raise monies for recycling programs by increasing fees on trash for instate and out-of-state waste. Other states are raising funds through producer responsibility fees, like the bottle deposit.
We need comprehensive programs for composting (to deal with our largest source of waste: organics), for e-waste (our fastest growing waste stream), and the scourge of single-use plastics overtaking the planet.
Enhancing Pennsylvania’s recycling and solid waste efforts would have numerous benefits. Recycling is already a $22.6 billion industry that employs over 66,000 people statewide. Our state’s recycling efforts reduce our carbon footprint by an amount equal to taking two million cars off the road each year. Just imagine what we could achieve if we further improved our recycling system.
Pennsylvania can be a leader in recycling by modernizing the policy that positioned us as champions so long ago. For our health, environment, and the economy, we must recommit to reducing, reusing, and recycling across our commonwealth.
Darren Spielman is the executive director of Pennsylvania Resources Council. David Masur is the executive director of PennEnvironment.