Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling

GAO-07-37: Published: Dec 29, 2006. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2007.

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Although recycling can generate environmental and economic benefits, the national recycling rate has increased only slightly since 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While local governments have the primary role in operating recycling programs, EPA and the Department of Commerce (Commerce) have some legal responsibilities for encouraging recycling. GAO was asked to (1) identify key practices cities are using to increase recycling, (2) describe what EPA and Commerce are doing to encourage recycling, and (3) identify federal policy options that could help increase recycling. GAO interviewed recycling coordinators in 11 large cities about key practices and 13 additional recycling stakeholders about policy options. GAO selected both groups based on geographic representation and recycling expertise, among other factors.

Recycling coordinators with whom we spoke in selected cities across the country identified several key practices they are using to increase recycling in their cities. The three practices they cited most frequently were (1) making recycling convenient and easy for their residents, (2) offering financial incentives for recycling, such as allowing residents who produce less waste through recycling to use smaller garbage cans and pay lower fees, and (3) conducting public education and outreach. In addition, both recycling coordinators and the recycling literature identified other ways to increase recycling, such as targeting a wide range of materials for recycling and extending recycling programs to the commercial sector. As a part of its Resource Conservation Challenge strategy, EPA operates several national and regional programs that are designed to increase recycling and help EPA achieve its national municipal solid waste recycling goal of 35 percent by 2008. One of EPA's principal national recycling programs, WasteWise, creates voluntary partnerships with groups, such as universities, states, and businesses, to help them increase their recycling. EPA also provides competitive grants to support projects designed to increase recycling. The impact of EPA's programs is unknown, however, because the programs lack performance measures and comprehensive data on program performance. Although Commerce is required under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials, the agency is not currently taking any actions to do so in the United States. For example, Commerce is not identifying the location of markets for recycled materials, identifying economic and technical barriers to recycling, or encouraging the development of new uses for recycled materials in the United States. However, agency officials told GAO that Commerce supports increased international trade in recycled and recyclable materials as part of its general trade promotion responsibilities. The recycling stakeholders we interviewed identified various federal policy options that they believe could help municipalities increase their recycling rates. The three federal policy options cited most frequently were to (1) establish a nationwide campaign to educate the public about recycling, (2) enact a national "bottle bill" in which beverage containers may be returned for money, and (3) require manufacturers to establish systems that consumers can use to recycle their products. Other identified policy options included facilitating the sharing of recycling best practices among municipalities, expanding EPA research on the economic and environmental benefits of recycling, and providing additional grant money for recycling projects.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should establish performance measures and gather comprehensive performance data to evaluate the impact of EPA's recycling programs to ensure that the agency's available resources are utilized in the most effective and efficient manner.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established a performance measure to evaluate the impact of its recycling programs--pounds of municipal solid waste reduced, reused or recycled. The measure will be reported under the Government Performance and Results Act at least through fiscal year 2011. In fiscal year 2011, EPA's Office of Resource Conservation and Recycling shifted its approach from waste management to sustainable materials management. Recycling is only one component of this new approach and as such there is no performance measure dedicated to recycling alone. However, EPA has developed a new performance measure-tons of materials and products offsetting use of virgin resources through sustainable material management. Results from EPA's sustainable material management strategies will feed into this new performance measure and will include results from recycling efforts.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should develop and implement a strategy to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials in the United States to fully meet its responsibilities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act subtitle E.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Commerce Department has not developed and implemented a strategy to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials in the United States.

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