By Thomas Carper
EDITOR’S NOTE: On June 17, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing, “Responding to Challenges in the U.S. Recycling System.” Below is the opening statement of ranking member Sen. Carper as prepared for delivery.
Thank you for holding this hearing today, Mr. Chairman. As you and some of our colleagues know, recycling has been a lifelong passion of mine. In the last year or two alone, I have recycled just about everything you can imagine – a Ford Explorer, paint thinners, electronics, televisions, a bundle of outdoor tree lights, a dehumidifier and much more.
Recycling is a win-win-win solution: It saves our environment, grows our economy and creates jobs. For a small state like Delaware, recycling is particularly important because – to be honest with you – we just don’t have a lot of room for landfills.
As co-chairs of the Senate Recycling Caucus, Sen. John Boozman and I have collaborated on a number of efforts this Congress. We’ve held stakeholder briefings, passed a resolution to recognize America Recycles Day and asked Senate leadership to consider the recycling industry in future COVID-19 legislation. We are also working on legislation that would gather much needed data about our recycling system and explore the opportunity for the U.S. to implement a national composting strategy.
While I’m proud of the work that Sen. Boozman and I have done in recent years with the help of our staffs, I also know that we have more work to do. Much more. With a national recycling rate of 35%, recycling is not a silver bullet solution to our waste management problem. We must also incorporate solutions that address reducing and reusing materials.
That is also why our friend and colleague, Sen. Tom Udall, is here with us today – to highlight both the challenges that single-use plastics present to our society and potential solutions to those challenges. As we discuss recycling challenges facing the United States, we also need to focus on the challenges that plastics present to our recycling system, namely single-use plastics.
Since the mass production of plastics began in the 1950s, we have produced more than 8 million metric tons of plastics, half of which has been produced over the past 13 years alone. And of all of the plastic ever produced, only 9% has ever been recycled. If we continue down this path, the World Economic Forum predicts that we are on track to have plastic pollution outweigh fish in our world’s oceans by 2050. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a harbinger of this crisis. That mass of marine debris floating in our oceans is more than 300 times the size of Delaware. But we don’t have to voyage to the South Pacific to witness the world’s recycling crisis. That crisis is burgeoning right here in the U.S., oftentimes in our own backyards.
My wife and I live in Wilmington, which is located along the I-95 corridor. When I head for D.C. on session days, I oftentimes take an onramp near our home onto I-95 south and then head for our nation’s capital. Usually, a crew from the Delaware Department of Transportation picks up litter along that onramp, as well as along other onramps onto I-95. During the pandemic, however, those pickups have occurred less and less frequently, leaving an unsightly mess that is, in a word, infuriating.
For the past month, the mowing crews have stopped showing up, too, until the grass grew to a height of a more than a foot. Until last week, that is. And when they did show up a week ago, they not only cut the grass, they shredded aluminum cans, plastic bottles, Styrofoam, trash bags, diapers and more. With that, I decided to do something about it.
This past weekend, I found an old DelDOT Adopt-A-Highway yellow fluorescent vest in our garage, put it on, grabbed a couple of large 45-gallon trash bags, climbed into my like-new 2001 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, headed for a place to park not far from the onramp and went to work. Two hours later, the right-hand side of the onramp had been cleaned up. I loaded the bulging bags into the back of my minivan and vowed to return next weekend to finish the job.
As I drove home, I couldn’t help but think about how concerned many of us in our neighborhood, in our state and our country are concerned about a great garbage patch in the sea on the other side of the world, even though we have a sea of garbage just a mile or so away from our own backyards. I also couldn’t help but think about how recycling just one of those scores of Coors aluminum cans I’d picked up would have yielded enough energy to run a TV for three hours.
Litter like I’ve just described is not just an eyesore. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful to our environment, and by not recycling properly, we miss an opportunity to do something good for our planet and its inhabitants.
The amount of waste winding up on the side of roads in Delaware is, sadly, not unique to the First State and – in a lot of places in America – it’s about to get worse. Prior to 2018, the United States shipped enormous quantities of scrap recyclable materials to China. That came to a halt when China imposed new restrictions on certain imported material coming from other countries, including the U.S.
As we grapple with the fallout of China’s policies and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the price consumers will have to pay for curbside recycling services is likely to rise, not fall. That means many consumers will be forced to make a choice – a Hobson’s choice – either pay for recycling services or put their money toward other basic needs.
No American should have to debate whether they can afford to recycle, especially amid a pandemic that has caused great economic hardship and whose effects are exacerbated by air pollution.
When municipalities are no longer able to afford recycling, the collected recyclables are oftentimes incinerated or piled up in landfills, leaking toxins into the air we breathe. Burning plastic or allowing plastic to melt at landfills not only contributes to climate change, but also pollutes the air we breathe.
We can’t afford to breathe toxic air even in the best of times, and we sure can’t afford to breathe it during a respiratory pandemic. And if you happen to be African American, the news is even worse. Black Americans are three times as likely to die of asthma-related illnesses and are dying from coronavirus at three times the rate of white Americans. Three times! None of us who profess to believe in the golden rule should turn a blind eye to a public health disparity of that magnitude.
Neither can we afford to turn a blind eye to those who will be most affected by the global uptick in virgin plastic production and our country’s lack of recycling collection – low-income communities, indigenous communities and communities of color that cannot afford to handle more waste.
As we examine the challenges facing America’s recycling efforts today, I hope we will begin a new discussion – a robust discussion – not just focusing on those challenges but on the opportunities they bring with them to make planet Earth a better home for all of us – and for God’s creations – who occupy it together.
Thomas Carper, D-Del., is the senior Delaware U.S. senator.