In 2022 Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that requires manufacturers to meet minimum requirements for the recyclable content of certain containers and packaging sold in the state. It went into effect Jan. 18 of this year.
The law represents the latest twist in the recycling process, which was radically altered in 2018 when China enacted its “National Sword” policy that halted the importing of massive amounts of recycled plastic and other materials.
The new state statute specifies levels of recycled packaging content in new products offered for sale in the Garden State. Under the law, the state Department of Environmental Protection will establish benchmarks for how much of a packaging manufacturer’s products must come from recycled content.
The law reads, “By requiring manufacturers to utilize postconsumer recycled content, markets for such materials are enhanced as demand shifts from virgin to recycled sources.” Enhancing markets for recycled materials has been a goal since China closed its doors to such material. China was, up until 2018, the major U.S. market for recycling, but was finding too much contamination in the materials.
Up until the shift in China’s policy, recycling in Cape May County was a revenue-producing activity. China was paying for recycled materials from around the world; when that market suddenly closed, the global market for recyclables virtually shut down.
The impact in the U.S. and in Cape May County was immense. With the cost of recycling no longer hidden by the Asian market, towns in the county took a variety of short-term paths to a new future.
Recycling remained, supported by state statute, but contracts between the municipalities and the county Municipal Utilities Authority moved from multiyear arrangements to a series of one-year deals to reflect unknown future variability of costs.
At least one municipality, Cape May City, saw too great a hike in private recycling bids and moved recycling in-house. For all towns, more contaminated recycled materials went to the local landfill.
For many professionals involved in the national recycling process, the move by China shed light on problems long overlooked. For years, recycling had been as much an aspiration as a reality. High levels of contamination led materials to landfills and incinerators in China instead of in the U.S.
More attention was since paid to how much of the recycled material was ever really recycled. Statistics had more to say about recycling collections than actual reuse of recycled materials.
The new law comes at the problem from a different perspective. It is forcing a look at the actual levels of recycled material contained in new packaging products. It not only seeks to energize new markets for recyclables but also requires an increasing percentage of those materials in new containers and packaging.
The definition of containers and packaging includes things like rigid plastic containers, plastic beverage containers, glass containers, paper and plastic carryout bags and plastic trash bags. The required percentage of recycled content required in these products starts this year and increases every three years thereafter.
How long a manufacturer has to reach stated levels depends on the product; for example, 50% of recycled content is required in rigid plastic containers by 2036 and in plastic beverage containers by 2044.
Supporters of the new law laud it as among the most ambitious such recycled-content laws in the nation. They see it as a boost to the recycling economy.
Douglas O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said, “Recycling as an industry is in crisis, and we need to look at recycling close to home and create markets for it.” He added that the policy direction now is “about increasing recycled content over the course of this decade.”
The impact of the bill will be on packaging manufacturers who now have to meet the new requirements. A number of manufacturers have called the regulations “complicated,” making implementation more difficult. A group of companies opposed the bill in 2022, including the Consumer Brands Association, the Food Industry Association and the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
A principal worry was an alleged lack of adequate market analysis. Manufacturers expressed concern that goals might be too high compared with market supply of materials.
The DEP has been given the authority to review and update any recycled content requirements based on availability of recycled material to support the manufacture of new products at appropriate content levels.
The hope is that the new law will help reduce the amount of potentially recyclable materials that go to the landfill and that it will develop a market for recycled materials that protects municipalities from some the impacts of a volatile recycling industry.
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at firstname.lastname@example.org.