Beyond the Resource Conservation Recovery Act

Dec 08, 2016
Hawkinson_Brian-WebBy Brian Hawkinson
Executive Director, Recovered Fiber

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) serves to advance a sustainable U.S. pulp, paper, packaging, tissue and wood products manufacturing industry through fact-based public policy and marketplace advocacy. We work to provide information that will support sound policy decisions that take into account the current and expected market dynamics of paper recovery and manufacturing and thereby advance the paper industry’s sustainability and competitiveness.

A significant influence on the paper recovery industry is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which is the public law that creates the framework for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste. Significant changes have taken place in both paper collection and paper manufacturing since RCRA was established in 1976 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidelines for federal purchases of products containing recovered materials in 1988.

Today, EPA is hosting “RCRA Next: A Stakeholder Forum” to discuss the future of the law. In one segment, EPA is asking forum attendees for thoughts on what government leaders and policymakers need to do to make a case for better management of recyclable materials.

It is important that policy makers understand the market trends that affect paper recovery and the utilization of recovered fiber in new paper products so that the federal government’s sustainable procurement policies align with market realities and actually achieve their intended goals. Policies based on limited facts about the complex and dynamic nature of the recovered paper market is likely to result in unintended, negative economic and environmental consequences for multiple stakeholders.

For example, RCRA should eliminate the distinction between “pre-“and “post-consumer” content in federal procurement guidelines. The distinction distorts the marketplace, inhibits the system from finding the highest value use for all recovered papers, is not meaningful and should not be used in government policies.

When Congress passed the 1976 law that included a section that defined “post-consumer” separately from other types of recycled content, paper was an underutilized resource. This policy to mandate the use of “post-consumer” fiber for printing paper was not for inherent environmental reason, but rather to divert waste paper collected through municipal recycling programs from being land filled.

Signaling out “post-consumer” fiber as presumably “better” or environmentally superior to other recovered fiber in the supply chain creates a distorted view of the advantages of using all recovered fiber. This is an outdated historical distinction that is no longer relevant and should be eliminated as a paper procurement preference. Separating out “post-consumer” fiber as the only materials “that count” devalues “pre-consumer” fiber and prevents other recovered paper sources from being used to make printing paper.

Working with stakeholders, EPA should use newer, more comprehensive and more dynamic tools to evaluate the environmental and economic impacts of materials’ use.

In addition, the federal government can advance their objectives by focusing on improving quality and quantity of recyclable materials recovery through education and partnerships with businesses, communities and governments. This would help to ensure the long-standing goal of eliminating reusable and recyclable materials from landfills and making them available for use in new products.