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Recycling Programs, Nuclear Power Still in Turmoil

July 30, 2021
UPDATES: After China's withdrawal, 33 U.S. states have shifted the recycling cost burden onto plastics manufacturers. Meanwhile, scandals in Ohio continue to plague the nuclear industry.

Last October, I wrote about the challenges being faced by recycling programs, particularly for plastics. Since then, the outlook for recycling in the U.S. has not improved and many localities have abandoned residential recycling programs which – unlike commercial recycling – are typically paid for by taxpayers.

Beginning in the 1970s, we were told that recycling was going to help clean up the environment and save us money. And when most recycling systems were mixed (multi) stream, meaning different recyclable materials went into different containers, it worked well. That all changed at the turn of the century, when demand, combined with China’s lax environmental regulations, shifted global recycling from mixed-stream to single-stream. People put all their recyclables into one bin, which was collected and then sent to China.

That all stopped in 2018, when China, banned plastic imports of anything with more than 0.5 percent contamination.

Most recycling programs in the U.S. are now single stream, with typical contamination levels of 25 percent!

Without the Chinese market for recyclables, costs of recycling became unsustainable and many municipalities reduced or eliminated their programs, and large amounts of plastic waste ended up in the ocean, where they breakdown into fish- and bird-killing microplastics.

In an effort to solve this serious problem, 33 states have enacted extended producer responsibility programs (EPR). This requires manufacturers and importers of products to bear a significant degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products, particularly the packaging, throughout the product lifecycle. Taking the lead in innovative approaches, Maine – where packaging products covered by the law make up as much as 40 percent of the waste stream – is requiring producers to cover 100 percent of its municipalities’ recycling costs. A key component of their law is incentivizing packagers to adopt recycling-friendlier designs and materials.

Nuclear Power Woes

A year ago, on the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, my brief review of the current state of the nuclear power industry included the scandal (and criminal prosecution) of the $1.5-billion bailout for two nuclear power plants in Ohio.

Now, FirstEnergy, the Akron, OH-based operator of the plants, has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice over its alleged scheme to bribe state officials in order to have taxpayers subsidize the company’s continued operation of the two nuclear power plants. FirstEnergy, in order to settle those charges, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and pay a $230-million fine.

According to the charges, the utility gave as much as $61 million dollars to a tax-exempt organization created by Ohio’s Speaker of the House, Larry Householder, which he then used to help elect legislators that would support the bill. The US Attorney had alleged, at the time of Householder’s arrest, that as much as $10 million was spent to defeat a petition drive that would have put the bailout to a public vote.

Last February, FirstEnergy stopped collecting the state money in order to settle a lawsuit filed by Ohio Attorney General David Yost. The company also refunded a portion of that revenue back to customers.

Stay tuned for more, on both these stories, in the months ahead.

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A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. Contact him at [email protected]