How reframing recycling systems can protect people and the planet

Two people stand on an elevated walkway overlooking a recycling plant

Recycling plays a crucial role in protecting our environment. The goal of recycling is to ensure that the products and packaging we use every day—whether made from plastic, paper, glass, metal, or another material—don’t end up as trash in our landfills or our oceans, and instead end up as material circulated back into the system to be used again.

Recycling, in conjunction with reducing and reusing our materials, is a critical solution to shifting away from our current “take, make, waste” approach to a more sustainable, circular one. But in practice, we’re falling short. Not all Americans have access to recycling. Right now, so many recyclable products and packaging end up in landfills because it’s often cheaper to trash them than it is to recover and recycle them. And according to WWF public opinion polling, 86% of Americans believe that the recycling system for plastic in the US needs improvement.

Advance plastic pollution policies

Ask your Congressmember to support strong federal policies to drive changes in the way we use, recycle, and dispose of plastic.

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The US Environmental Protection Agency has set a target for increasing recycling rates to 50% by 2030—an ambitious goal that will require meaningful, real change to address the way the US recycles and the state of recycling in the country today. But the good news is that there is a tangible solution at our fingertips, and one that works for both people and the planet: Extended Producer Responsibility, also known as EPR.

EPR is a program that is designed to reframe how recycling systems are funded and managed. Right now, the burden falls on individuals to sort household waste for recycling and on communities to fund and operate recycling programs. Under EPR, this responsibility is transferred to the companies that use these materials for their products and packaging. This responsibility would incentivize companies to keep the materials in the system, transforming not only the way the US recycles, but also the way we create, use, and reuse plastic and other packaging.

How does this transformation happen? Under this program, each packaging producer must pay a fee based on how much material they produce and how much it costs to collect, sort, and recycle that material. These fees are used to fund and expand recycling, supply recycled content, and identify and eliminate materials and packages that don’t get recycled. EPR also incentivizes producers to remove packaging that is easily littered or can’t be recycled by assessing additional fees. Importantly, producers are held to standards for system performance and government and public oversight. 

EPR improves the recycling system, enabling used products and packages to become new products and packages, and mandates private sector investment in recycling systems. It is an important tool—along with reducing problematic plastics and increasing reusables—for keeping plastic out of nature. That’s why environmentalists, companies, and local policymakers alike all support national and state EPR as a key step to improving our country’s recycling system.

EPR passed in the state of Colorado in June 2022, sending the signal that Americans are ready to embrace this solution. It’s time for other states to act, and for Congress to consider federal legislation.

You can build momentum for recycling improvement by showing your support for EPR—and don't forget to keep recycling at home!