December 20, 2021
EPA's NRS provides a multi-pronged roadmap for transforming American industry into a circular economy
On November 15, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the National Recycling Strategy (NRS), a multi-pronged roadmap for transforming American industry into a circular economy. NRS identifies the formation of a circular economy as a key step towards reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the production of raw materials feedstocks, estimated to account for more than half of material-related GHG emissions. The release of NRS increases the potential for regulatory oversight of end-of-life materials management. The strategy's focus on promoting new markets for recycled materials and better educating consumers on recycling is also likely to reshape product design and engineering through market forces at various levels of the supply chain.
NRS, which builds on the 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System, was developed with public input from 156 public and private organizations. It prioritizes the establishment of policies, markets, and standards for enabling a circular materials economy, where traditional end-of-life waste products are reprocessed into raw materials within the same industry or into feedstocks for other industries.
The key objectives of NRS as stated in the 2021 strategy document are to:
- Improve markets for recycled commodities through market development, analysis, manufacturing, and research.
- Increase collection of recyclable materials and improve recycling infrastructure through analysis, funding, product design, and processing efficiencies.
- Reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream through outreach and education to the public on the value of proper recycling.
- Enhance policies and programs to support recyclability and recycling through strengthened federal and international coordination, analysis, research on product pricing, and sharing of best practices.
- Standardize measurement and increase data collection through coordinated recycling definitions, measures, targets, and performance indicators.
An overarching goal of NRS is to raise the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030, up from today's rate of 32.1%. Recycling rates can vary considerably across materials, with some supply chains achieving recovery rates exceeding half of their input materials in 2018, including lead from lead-acid batteries (99%) and paper (68%). By contrast, other supply chains exhibit markedly lower recycling rates, such as glass (25%) and plastic (9%). Even within a materials class such as aluminum, the recycling rate of certain products like containers and packaging (34.9%) can be significantly higher than the material's total recycling rate (17.2%). Accordingly, recycling rates capture a wide range of disparate techno-economic factors governing a class of materials, including import/export tariffs, natural abundance, product form factors, availability of collection points, and the efficiency of current chemical and physical processing.
Transitioning to a circular economy as envisioned by NRS will require understanding the properties of materials both as individual classes as well as in relation to materials with which they are integrated, creating a wealth of challenges — and opportunities — for suppliers, manufacturers, and product designers across the supply chain. Materials designed for the circular economy will need to meet existing performance and regulatory standards alongside new metrics for materials recyclability, the performance indicators of which are still under development. Consequently, input from interested stakeholders from industry, consensus standards organizations, and local and state governments will continue to play a critical role as NRS evolves from a strategy into specific policies.
How Exponent Can Help
Exponent is equipped with the scientific and engineering expertise to support our clients as they navigate the transition to the circular economy. Specifically, Exponent can assist clients with all aspects of product stewardship including:
Understanding the impact of potentially divergent material properties between pristine and reprocessed materials — such as in post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics — on materials reprocessing streams for specific end uses.
Managing consumer electronics materials that NRS identifies as "key components of the [municipal solid waste] stream that must be responsibly recycled by companies suited to receive those materials."
Evaluating the potential effects of evolving regulations and standards on their products' performance and life cycle by leveraging our integrated expertise across electrical engineering, materials science, chemistry, toxicology, and ecology.