The Case for Recycled Content Standards

Improving recycling to keep plastics out of our ocean

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” – James Wooden.

This quote came to mind as we at Ocean Conservancy launched our latest report, Recommendations for Recycled Content: Requirements for Plastic Goods and Packaging. After all, this was not the first time that Ocean Conservancy has looked at the issue of recycled content. When we published our Plastics Policy Playbook in 2019, we identified recycled content standards as a promising policy measure to improve recycling and keep plastics out of our ocean.

When Congress passed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act in 2020, we saw an opportunity to take a deeper dive. After all, Ocean Conservancy and its Trash Free Seas Alliance® successfully advocated for the legislation; now we could help implement it. SOS 2.0 instructs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide two reports to Congress: one describing economic incentives to spur the development of end-markets for recycled plastics and another assessing the economic and technical feasibility of recycled content standards in the United States. Our goal was to support these requirements with rigorous analysis.

The report generated many insights, some of which we anticipated, including:

  • Recycled content standards have multiple benefits—to both society and the environment from reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced extraction and processing to creating jobs and economic opportunity.
  • While many companies have voluntarily committed to including recycled content in their products and packaging, more efforts are needed. Mandatory recycled content standards would help to level the playing field by requiring all companies to follow the same standards.

Recycled Content Report cover

We also gleaned some new learnings, including:

  • Nearly one-third of American households lack access to curbside recycling. As a result, many materials that could be recycled are being landfilled or incinerated instead. Ambitious progress will depend on improving recycling access and collection across the country.
  • Our report lays out different scenarios on how recycled content could feasibly be scaled up in specific types of plastic packaging and durable goods over the next 10-20 years, but these scenarios are each dependent on increasing collection.

Two of the most important takeaways were similar to those found in our previous research:

  • No single policy measure can solve this problem. Recycled content mandates will improve the economics of recycling, but to be truly effective, recycled content standards need to be paired with complementary measures that increase supply. Policies like extended-producer responsibility (EPR) —which mandate that companies financially manage their post-consumer waste—can help ensure materials are captured for recycling. Combining measures across the plastics value chain was a topline finding of our Plastics Policy Playbook.
  • We cannot recycle our way out of the ocean plastic pollution crisis; however, the role of recycling is critical to mitigating the issue. In addition to the policies described above, we need more and faster progress to reduce our use of plastics, especially single-use plastics. To protect the ocean, we need to take a hard look at how and why we use plastics, with a special focus on eliminating those plastics that may have a useful life measured in minutes but persist in the environment for an unknown number of years.
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