At Wastecon and other recent industry conferences, a notable dialogue has been to push forward paradigm shifts toward the circular economy and zero waste as solutions to challenges associated with solid waste management in the U.S. The circular economy implores the waste industry to design its way past the traditional linear “make-take-dispose” model. Zero waste dictates that 90 percent of waste material generated could and should be diverted from disposal through aggressive increases in waste reduction and recycling.

With these buzzwords flying around the industry, it is easy to imagine incorporating these concepts and technologies, but our current national and state policies and economic landscape do not support these widespread changes. Two fundamental factors are holding back the circular economy and zero waste from widespread implementation in the U.S.

First, as a matter of federal policy, the U.S. lacks the framework of incentives and regulatory drivers to lead or force the shift toward a circular and/or zero waste economy. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is the regulation by which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can provide legally enforceable requirements for waste management.

Under RCRA’s Subtitle C, hazardous waste is regulated from cradle to grave, including generators, transporters, treatment, storage and final disposal facilities. Under RCRA’s Subtitle D, nonhazardous waste landfill disposal is regulated to ensure technical and financial viability. Subtitle D does not have robust mechanisms for the widespread shifts that proponents of circular economy and zero waste concepts are calling for.

Second, solid waste management decisions are made locally and often are based on cost-effectiveness of the proposed solution. About $1 out of every $3 spent on waste management is for disposal. In the U.S., landfill disposal cost currently hovers at $50 per ton. In comparison to the advanced processing and conversion technologies associated with circular economy and zero waste practices, the cost of landfilling undercuts the costs of these practices by a wide margin.

The infrastructure that could provide the diversion called for by circular economy and zero waste advocates is technically viable and becoming more proven through its implementation in European nations but struggles to gain traction in the U.S. for economic reasons.

Buzzwords like circular economy and zero waste are important for driving change; however, current U.S. policy framework and national infrastructure support an industrial economy that encourages linear materials management.

The circular economy and zero waste visions are admirable; but, without policy and economic drivers in place, the dream of a widespread paradigm shift in solid waste management in the U.S. is far from reality.

The circular economy and zero waste visions are admirable; but, without policy and economic drivers in place, the dream of a widespread paradigm shift in solid waste management in the U.S. is far from reality.

These shortcomings in the U.S. make me ask what the best solution is moving forward. I personally prefer economic and market-driven approaches.

The big topic of discussion in the media as I write this is the proposed tax reform bill. Could part of the tax reform equation be a tax on waste? In the U.K., landfill taxes are as high as $100 per ton, and they are experiencing a boom in material recovery.

Maybe we should be placing disincentives on things we don’t want, such as waste, so that we can provide incentives for what we want: jobs, income and efficiency. National policy drivers could help drive the circular economy forward. If our national policy doesn’t change, we are left with hoping that states and private businesses will come forward with better policies.