Regions across the U.S. are clamoring to grow recycled commodities markets.
In this Q&A, Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) leaders Megan Fontes, executive director and Mary Ann Remolador, assistant director, discuss the organization’s work in this space.
Some highlights are recycled content model legislation they plan to offer as a resource to any state; what they’ve accomplished through partnerships; and near-future plans to pump end markets.
Waste360: What are some ways Northeast Recycling Council supports businesses and local governments with market development of recycled commodities?
Remolador: NERC supports recycling businesses and local governments by sharing our knowledge and resources in response to specific requests, such as for contacts of outlets for recyclable byproducts.
NERC’s website is also a clearinghouse of information. In addition to studies, model legislation, seminar recordings and presentations, fact sheets, videos, etc., it offers contact information of the Northeast states’ environmental agencies.
Historically, we’ve implemented projects that focused on greening up the operations of businesses and municipalities. The resources we’ve developed for any project are on our website, such as one where we helped Vermont hotels with work to include developing a system for recycling throughout their facilities, using green cleaning products, donating food to local foodbanks, etc.
Waste360: Tell us about NERC’s Government Recycling Demand Champions Program
Remolador: This program helps to stimulate and create domestic markets for recyclable plastics. The program, in partnership with the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), encourages purchasing products that contain PCR by local, state, and regional government entities, as well as schools, colleges and universities, and other nonprofits. The program offers free technical assistance, training, recognition, and tools to support participants’ buying of PCR.
Waste360: What are some partnerships NERC has formed to grow and strengthen commodities markets?
Remolador: Going back to the 1990s, we assisted the Newspaper Publishers Association in establishing a voluntary agreement with individual newspapers to use more postconsumer recycled content.
From 2000 to 2020 we worked on a variety of projects that included providing technical assistance directly to businesses and municipalities, with one of many being developing Minimum PCR Content Requirements for Plastic Products and Packaging Model Legislation, which was in partnership with the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association (NEWMOA) and state recycling officials.
From 2020 to 2022, NERC worked with 14 communities in rural Maine to assist with developing their glass collection programs. This involved partnering with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Resource Recovery Association and included working with transfer stations to maximize their collection procedures; developing signage about the glass they accept; procuring safety gear for employees working with glass; developing safety guides; providing program outreach to promote the program; and identifying outlets for collected glass.
The Maine towns now all have established glass collection programs for the public.
Waste360: Can you expound on your policy work to drive use of postconsumer content?
Remolador: NERC convened two steering committees to develop model legislation for minimum postconsumer content, one for glass and one for plastic. We focused on glass and plastic due to their unique market issues. There is a greater supply of recycled paper and aluminum.
However, supply side issues are not insignificant, and are not directly addressed through minimum recycled content laws, so establishing the Supply Side Policies Committee was a natural next step. The committee is made up of state agency representatives and advisory members from the private sector. The objective is to create a resource that is an aggregate of legislative and non-legislative strategies to increase the supply of postconsumer materials.
Waste360: What are you doing to increase awareness around recycling and who are you reaching out to?
Fontes: NERC increases awareness and understanding of materials management issues, trends, and opportunities by convening state agencies with industry experts, corporate leaders, and communities. We engage our state and advisory members from the private sector on committees focused on regional recycling market trends, glass recycling, chemical recycling, and supply side policies such as the bottle bill, to name a few.
NERC also offers seminars that are free and open to anyone. They focus on a range of topics in materials management and aim to provide education on current issues, ideas, and upcoming technologies. They are highly attended by individuals across the value chain across North America. All seminars are recorded and on our website: https://nerc.org/conferences-and-workshops/seminars
Waste360: What are you doing to tackle organic waste? And how does this tie in with your environmental justice (EJ) work?
Fontes: Recently, NERC began a project in partnership with NEWMOA to increase organic waste diversion. The project is focused on expanding anaerobic digestion in communities by reducing regulatory barriers while addressing environmental justice.
By engaging with communities through EJ organizations, communication is supported between anaerobic digestion facilities and residents. The results of the program will be shared with government and private sector sustainable materials management programs, anaerobic digestion companies and consultants, food waste diversion and recycling organizations, EJ organizations, and others.
NERC partnered with NEWMOA to develop a proposed project (for which we sought U.S. Environmental Agency funding) targeting disadvantaged communities to promote ending food waste and recycling for low-income multifamily housing developments. If funded, the project will create a coalition of community-based EJ and recycling organizations to support the development of community training programs and dissemination of resources.
Waste360: What do you see as the payoff in paying especially close attention to Environmental Justice communities?
Fontes: First off, efficient recycling can’t be achieved without engaging all communities, so it’s critical that efforts to improve recycling – particularly access to recycling – target historically underrepresented communities that lack access, or lack understanding about how to participate effectively and why it’s important.
With respect to reducing food waste, residents who may or may not be food insecure save on food costs. And by offering composting and recycling for multifamily housing residents, pests are reduced or more contained, resulting in a cleaner environment.
Though recycling at multifamily dwellings can come with its challenges, such as tied to pick up in cities where there is not a lot of room for haulers to access the bins. But it benefits the recycling system as a whole because it increases the supply of quality materials. Currently, the percent of multifamily housing serviced with recycling is extremely low (only 30-40% have access to recycling, The Recycling Partnership). So there is a lot of opportunity to work directly with these communities who may not understand or be aware of the benefits of recycling or know how to advocate to ensure they receive access if they are entitled. The goal would be to work with communities in states where they are entitled to have recycling services at their housing, as many do not. And the goal is to work with landlords to educate about benefits in states where recycling in multifamily is not mandated.
Waste360: What will be NERC’s major focus in the near future?
Fontes: We will continue to promote minimum postconsumer recycled content model legislation as a resource for states considering related bills and develop a strategy to share the supply side policy resource with entities across the recycling value chain.
We also plan to launch a series of seminars around solutions for clean recycled glass focused on different collection methods, processing upgrades, and measuring economic benefits. A seminar is being developed as well that looks at the impact of food scrap bans and container bans.
Later this summer, we will roll out a member directory that highlights member services and products, and categorizes members by function, specialties, and materials.
Ultimately, NERC plans to continue convening its members and state officials to share best practices, successes and/or learnings, new technologies and systems – to continue to foster innovative solutions for end market development and access to recycling to sustain quality and quantity of supply that can be sold at competitive prices.
This Q&A was edited for length.