How can we improve recycling rates in Illinois?

As we do each November, we recently celebrated America Recycles Day. It was a day that promotes the benefits of recycling for our environment and the economy. While it is great for us to recognize America Recycles Day and create awareness of the benefits of recycling, we should also be thinking about tangible ways consumers in Illinois can increase how much they recycle their food and beverage packaging.

There is still much more to do to help educate Americans about the benefits of recycling, clear up consumer confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, and make recycling more effective. At National Consumers League, we are doing our part through several initiatives.

The first is our website, Facts About Recycling, which is designed to increase consumer awareness and understanding about what happens to certain food and beverage packaging items once they go into the blue recycling bin, dispel common myths about recycling, and educate consumers on how to become more sustainable shoppers.

A key component of this work is dispelling some common myths about what products can and cannot be recycled in many curbside recycling programs. Our Facts About Recycling website includes an in-depth report on the topic of consumer confusion related to recyclability and food and beverage packaging. For many consumers, recycling symbols, particularly those that appear on food and beverage packaging, can be confusing, and at worst, misleading.

For instance, many consumers may be surprised to learn that the recycling triangle, or Mobius Loop, that appears on much of the food and beverage packaging on store shelves, does not necessarily indicate recyclability. While most items may have the recycling triangle, certain items, like those made of metal or glass, can be recycled infinitely. Other items, like those made of plastic, can be recycled only a few times before the product's quality degrades to the point it can no longer be used, or must be incorporated into a lower quality item.

So, what steps can we take to make our recycling system more efficient and effective?

As we look ahead to the 2024 state legislative session in Springfield, there is an excellent opportunity for lawmakers to increase recycling rates. One of those solutions is recycling refund programs, also known as beverage container deposit programs. State Sen. Laura Murphy a Des Plaines Democrat, introduced SB 85 that would create a recycling refund program in Illinois.

Already an important component of successful recycling systems in 10 U.S. states, recycling refund programs create an incentive for consumers to conveniently return their beverage containers and redeem a refund.

Recycling refund programs place a refundable deposit on beverage containers of different material types. Consumers pay the deposit at the time of purchase, and then return their beverage containers to receive their refund.

There are numerous benefits to these programs.

To name only a few, first, the states that have these programs have excellent recycling rates. For instance, in Michigan and Oregon, redemption rates on refunded containers are above 85 percent. Second, these programs could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Collecting more recycled containers helps manufacturers reuse materials, reducing the need to source and process raw materials.

Importantly, consumers like these programs. These programs also have strong bipartisan support in Illinois. According to one survey, 80 percent of Illinoisans support beverage container recycling refund programs. The support number jumps to 90 percent in states that already have these programs.

With this in mind, NCL is proud to support a set of guiding principles for successful and effective recycling refund programs, along with many other organizations including consumer advocates, environmental organizations, policy organizations, and industry organizations.

It's important for consumers to take the time to learn more about recycling, and lawmakers can make consumers' job easier by working together to consider bipartisan solutions, like recycling refund programs, that benefit all Americans by making recycling more effective and protecting the environment.

• Sally Greenberg is the chief executive officer of the National Consumers League, founded in 1899 to promote the interests of workers and consumers in the U.S. and abroad.

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