A critical review of recycled content legislation

Post, Charles M.
Michael Simpson, MS
Department of Environmental Studies
In the latter part of 1989, the California legislature took a series of steps that history will credit as the beginning of a fundamental change in the recycling industry. Prior to the passage of the nation's first recycled content legislation, the majority of the recycling focused on supply-side improvements. Tax credits, grants, technical assistance and market development programs all sought to improve the recyclability of certain secondary materials through enhancing their quantity and their quality. Recycled content legislation, on the other hand, sought to increase the recyclability of certain secondary commodities by increasing their demand. By legislatively requiring newspaper publishers to print on newsprint that contained recycled fiber, the legislature attempted to increase the demand for a secondary commodity, Old Newspapers (ONP), and thereby prevent their just getting thrown away. This legislation was unique and creative in that it sought to increase the demand for a product that contained recycled fiber, rather than attempting to solve the problem by manipulating the supply of post-consumer newspapers. This study seeks to provide a contextual framework for evaluating the effects of recycled content legislation on the waste paper industry. The relationship between virgin and secondary paper mills is addressed, as are the projected supply and demand curves for waste paper. A historical overview of the legislative activity that led to the current waste disposal crisis is presented. Additionally, the recent announcements of mill expansions are discussed. In conclusion, this study shows that recycled content legislation is an innovative approach that will solve many of the current problems in the field of recycling. However, there will need to be additional solutions in the future if recycling is going to overcome existing institutional barriers and truly become a self-sufficient industry.

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