The Apex Landfill in Las Vegas is the largest in the United States, spanning approximately 900 hectares of land. A huge black hole with a 250-year lifespan and a capacity of 50 million tonnes of waste. And it’s not alone.

There are currently some 1250 landfill sites throughout the US, mostly located in the Midwestern and Southern states. Approximately 55% of the 300 million tonnes of municipal solid waste generated by US citizens – almost one tonne per capita – ends up in these sites. Recent estimates have suggested that half of all emissions of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – derive from the organic component of landfill waste. This amounts to the same CO2eq emissions as almost 21 million vehicles and exceeds the fugitive emissions derived from the extraction of natural gas through fracking.

The crux of the issue is that recycling rates remain essentially unchanged while the amount of waste generated continues to rise, driven by a renewed post-pandemic hyper-consumerism, which continued to grow in 2023, undeterred by inflation and the increasing cost of the dollar.

For years now, environmentalist organisations have denounced the US’s failed approach to the recycling of both urban and industrial waste materials. The United States are the pariah of the circular economy due to the absence of federal collection systems. There are currently over 9,000 collection schemes but there is no EPR at the federal level and very few examples exist at the state level. The Biden administration launched the first efforts to define a national circular economy policy. Still, the problems are often at the state and county level, where even recycling has fallen into the mire of Democrat vs. Republican ideological clashes. Furthermore, recycling is still often seen as something for progressive tree-huggers.

“The US Congress’s commitment to reinvent and reinvest in recycling is embodied in new legislation, new initiatives, and unprecedented funding. This support guides and models the vision and direction of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery (ORCR) toward a circular economy,” an EPA spokesperson explained in a note released to the author for Renewable Matter magazine. The initiatives mentioned by the EPA include the Save Our Seas 2.0 law from December 2020, which aims to reduce plastic pollution and offers subsidies for investors in recycling plants, and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, approved in November 2021, which provided considerable funding to empower the work of the ORCR and the implementation of the 2021 National Recycling Strategy. These are steps forward compared to the Trump administration. However, they are still completely insufficient due to the absence of a federal extended producer responsibility framework in various sectors, starting with packaging. This is a country known for its overconsumption of single-use fast food containers and with a recycling rate for plastic that is stuck at 5%.

Corporate Circular Economy

Regular attendees at Circularity, organised every year by GreenBiz, will have discovered that while the public sector moves at a glacial pace, the potential of corporate America is heightened by the influence of the world of academia, design, and architecture. Stopping by one of the event’s many coffee breaks and networking spaces highlights how many big names are involved: Target, Dell, Apple, Lockheed Martin, Amazon, Google, Unilever, Walmart, Waste Management, Terracycle, 3M. Many have become affiliated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation network. Apple is adopting solutions to reduce mineral extraction and increasingly innovative processes to repair and refurbish its devices, although these efforts have not always been successful. Electronics retail giant Best Buy has set up an internal programme for the collection of over 5 million electronic devices and the management of WEEE; its “Geek Squad”, made up of over 20,000 experts, promotes repair to extend products’ lifespan as a business model. “We really want electronic devices to remain in use for as long as possible, and this can happen thanks to our repairs department,” said Alexis Ludwig-Vogen, Best Buy’s head of corporate responsibility and sustainability, during a previous edition of Circularity.

Even Mountain View colossus Google has developed the Circular Google project to eliminate toxic components from its products. And there’s more: big data are the key to making the concept of waste obsolete. “Waste is a data problem. We want Google to become circular in a system that must be completely reconfigured, where all waste is a resource and where we can maximise the reuse of finite resources through data. Artificial intelligence will play a key role in the circular transition,” says Kate Brandt, head of sustainability at Google.

In Las Vegas, the big players in the hospitality industry have changed course. “Las Vegas has become a leader in food waste management,” Yalmaz Siddiqui explained in an interview with the author. Siddiqui is the Vice President of Corporate Sustainability for MGM Resorts International, which manages some 40,000 rooms and 400 restaurants in the city. “Every item of waste is upcycled and sent to the correct destination. We have eliminated straws and many single-use plastics, we have reduced waste by optimising buffet management, reducing plate sizes, and many other initiatives.” At a corporate level, since 2007, MGM Resorts International has diverted over 250,000 tonnes of food waste to food banks and for the production of biofuels, compost, and animal feed for pig farming.


Democratic states taking the initiative

A glimmer of hope for recycling still remains. “Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation is appearing in more and more US states. There is a lot of energy around these policies, which require producers to contribute to the costs associated with recycling the packaging they put on the market,” says TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaki in a GreenBiz editorial.

In 2023, six US states controlled by Democratic governors have an active EPR system or similar laws on packaging: California, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington.
Maine was the first state to enact EPR legislation on packaging, approving a law to support and improve municipal recycling programmes and save taxpayer money in July 2021.

Oregon followed soon after in August 2021, with Colorado and California following suit in June 2022. Packaging legislation in Washington and New Jersey is currently focused on post-consumer recycled content, but Washington has proposed legislation that falls directly within the field of EPR. Other noteworthy EPR schemes focus on paint in Illinois, batteries in Washington State, tyres in Connecticut, and hazardous domestic waste in Vermont.

Currently, there are approximately 40 legislative proposals linked to EPR in various contexts in 18 states, including Maryland, New Hampshire (which created a state-level commission that will submit a draft proposal on packaging by 1 November 2023), and Hawaii (whose Hawaii Zero Waste Initiative proposal was blocked in the Senate in January 2023). In New York State, Governor Kathy Hochul announced her support of EPR earlier in 2023 and there are currently three draft proposals that would make producers responsible for funding the end-of-life management of packaging. The proposals prohibit producers from charging a fee at the point of sale to recoup costs, ban specific toxic chemicals, establish minimum recycling rates and minimum levels of recycled content, and require advisory councils to supervise producer responsibility organisations.


An article written by Emanuele Bompan and Valeria Pagani