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Arizona should take steps to reinvigorate recycling

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By Erin Murphy, Miranda Bernard, Infynity Hill, AlexTunas-Corzon and Levi Helm

A healthy recycling sector can contribute to the economy and improve human and environmental health. Unfortunately, U.S. recycling was destabilized in 2018 when China enacted the “National Sword Policy,” banning the import of most recyclable waste. Recycling is viable because many materials — plastics, paper, glass and metal — have value after they are discarded.

These materials can be sold, re-processed, and manufactured into new products. China’s ban created a gap in the market, making it difficult for recycling programs to find buyers for their materials, thereby reducing profits. In fact, many municipalities have been forced to limit, and even eliminate, their recycling programs.

To better understand how the changing recycling landscape affects Arizonans, we interviewed municipal recycling coordinators from 12 counties across the state. Like the rest of the U.S., our recycling programs have been affected by China’s policy.

However, we found that state-level policy and budget decisions pose additional challenges to recycling in Arizona.

Arizona collects solid waste landfill disposal fees to pay for landfill management and finance a state-administered recycling fund. The Legislature established this fund to create grants that support municipal recycling programs. However, over the last decade, this money has been diverted for other uses. As a result, recycling programs across Arizona have lost over $1 million. Additionally, the state enacted a policy that prohibits municipalities from developing their own legislation for auxiliary containers. Municipalities are responsible for managing their solid waste, but this expansive regulation has prohibited them from implementing policies that would significantly reduce their costs. These state-level policies, coupled with changes in the recycling market, have forced the majority of municipalities interviewed to increase fees, cut services, or eliminate recycling altogether.

Despite these challenges, coordinators noted that their constituents value recycling services and want to see them continue. The recycling sector creates jobs and keeps material out of landfills, leading to economic, environmental, and social benefits. The current gap in the recycling market left by China has created an opportunity for domestic companies. Some recyclables once sold internationally are now being sold to companies in other states. Coordinators believe investments in the recycling sector would attract domestic recycling companies to Arizona, bringing revenue to the local economy.

In a policy memo summarizing these findings, we outlined three actions state legislators should take to support recycling in Arizona.

  1. Fully finance the recycling fund. Funding this grant will enable municipalities across the state to maintain and innovate their recycling programs. This could ultimately lower the cost of recycling for municipalities and their constituents.
  2. Repeal A.R.S. 9-500.38, which has prohibited municipalities from implementing policies that would decrease the cost of recycling, such as legislation for auxiliary containers or recycling mandates. The state requires municipalities to ensure waste management services are available. Therefore, municipalities and their constituents should have the autonomy to implement policy at the local level.
  3. Incentivize the creation of end-markets in Arizona. Currently, Arizonans pay to send valuable materials to other states and countries. Incentives would encourage businesses that process or use recycled materials to expand in the state, keeping these resources in Arizona and creating a local industry.

These three actions would allow municipalities to innovate, making their recycling programs more expansive, cost-effective and profitable. We urge the Arizona Legislature to recognize the needs of municipalities and support their efforts to revitalize Arizona’s recycling sector.

Erin Murphy, Miranda Bernard, Infynity Hill, AlexTunas-Corzon and Levi Helm are graduate students at Arizona State University.

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(Photo by Ellen O'Brien)

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