With recycling rates dropping, new report from Pennsylvania Resources Council and PennEnvironment offers ways to put city, state back on track

Local officials join environmental advocates, call for updates to Commonwealth’s recycling law to improve health, environment and create jobs

(Philadelphia, PA ) --A new report issued  by Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) and PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center outlines how Pennsylvania's solid waste laws haven't kept up with the growing problems facing local recycling programs, trash disposal, and significant changes in the items making up Pennsylvania's waste stream. Act 101, the landmark recycling law that made Pennsylvania a leader in 1988 needs multiple updates to meet the demands of today’s economy. Together with Eunomia, the groups found that the full potential of this recycling and waste management law in the Keystone State has not been met. PRC and PennEnvironment called on Act 101 to be modernized to address the Commonwealth’s growing waste problem, improve public health, clean up the environment and create jobs for Pennsylvanians.

“We live and use products differently than we did in 1988, and we need to modernize our recycling and waste management policies to reflect these differences,” said Darren Spielman, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Resources Council. “Pennsylvania should be moving toward the goals of a zero-waste and circular economy where all post-consumer materials are reused and recycled. We look forward to working with policymakers on the pathways we’ve proposed to achieve those goals.”

Act 101 established four main goals in order to manage municipal waste, advance recycling and protect public health and safety. While the Act led to important changes across the state, the new analysis finds that the Commonwealth has fallen short on all four goals:  efforts to educate Pennsylvanians about recycling have fallen short due to budget cuts; waste generation has grown; the Commonwealth is not using and procuring recyclable products to the extent it can; and the overall state recycling rate is uncertain due to inadequate data collection.  

Challenges in waste management and recycling abound in and across Pennsylvania. Waste generation has grown by 45% between 1990 and 2018. New products are being made that have no good end use plans, such as single-use plastics and e-waste. And recycling funding has been stagnant, which is leading to cities cutting the types and amounts of recycling that they collect.  

“Our study shows we have the tools and technical know-how to address this challenge. Now the question is, do we have the political will?,” said Faran Savitz, Zero Waste Advocate, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “There isn’t a silver bullet solution to our waste crisis. It requires a concerted effort from all of our leaders targeting every step of the process to really make a difference.”

While it created a necessary foundation for the Commonwealth to kick-start recycling, the report finds that Act 101 is inadequate today. A key challenge has been that recycling requirements differ across municipalities, which impedes the benefits of strong recycling and waste diversion. Examples include: 

  • Only 475 municipalities are required to offer curbside recycling under Act 101. Voluntary recycling programs, which account for ¾ of the municipal recycling programs in the state (1,520) are not required to meet Act 101 standards. If each municipality was required to meet the same set of standards, it would allow them to jointly contract for services more cost effective. 

  • Act 101 only requires those municipalities mandated to provide recycling to collect three out of eight listed materials (aluminum cans, steel/tin cans, 3 types of plastic, newsprint, corrugated paper, and clear, brown and green glass). This makes it difficult to coordinate recycling education and messaging across the whole Commonwealth. 

PRC and PennEnvironment outline a series of 15 recommendations in the report to improve the state of recycling and waste management in Pennsylvania, including:

  • Enforcing existing Act 101 provisions such as requiring additional recycling by Commonwealth agencies;

  • Developing a mandatory set of materials to be recycled that all municipalities must follow; 

  • Enacting landfill bans for certain materials, such as aluminum and steel cans, which are endlessly recyclable; and

  • Implementing new policies such as “right to repair” legislation that would allow Pennsylvania consumers to have access to tools and services to repair goods rather than dispose of them, as well as deposit return systems for beverage containers.

“The Streets Department is committed to continuously improving its curbside recycling program and working with the Office of Sustainability to identify innovative strategies for achieving the City’s zero waste goals,” said Scott McGrath, Environmental Services Director, Philadelphia Streets Department.  “Managing other parts of the waste stream in many cases requires a broader statewide solution such as enforcement of commercial recycling requirements where collected materials are combined in a truck that crosses municipal boundaries, recycling of tires, and e-waste.”

The analysis makes clear the environmental and economic benefits of comprehensive waste and recycling policies. Recycling reduces the need to make products from raw materials and thus reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive climate change. For 2018, recycled material offset GHGs equivalent to taking more than 2 million vehicles off the road in one year. In terms of economic benefits, the recycling marketplace employed 66,000 Pennsylvanians directly with another 110,000 more indirect and induced jobs as of 2015. Recycling has contributed $22.6 billion to Pennsylvania’s gross state product.

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About Pennsylvania Resources Council

Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) is Pennsylvania’s oldest grassroots environmental organization. Since 1939, we have worked to protect the Commonwealth’s resources for future generations through environmental education, recycling, waste diversion programs, anti-litter campaigns, and much more. For more information, visithttps://prc.org.

About PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment. For more information, visitwww.pennenvironmencenter.org