Chairman Carper’s Opening Statement: Hearing on Promoting a Circular Economy

WASHINGTON, D.C. Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing on the challenges facing domestic recycling programs and the need to transition to a circular economy.

Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“I call this hearing to order. Let me start by thanking our distinguished panel of witnesses for their willingness to join us today as we discuss an issue—and an opportunity—of great importance—the transition to a circular economy. A warm welcome to Elizabeth Biser, Roberta Elias, Brian Hawkinson, and Billy Johnson. We look forward to hearing from each of you this morning.

“I love the idea of a circular economy, where things—and the materials they are made of—can be reused over and over again instead of ending up in a landfill somewhere. As an avid recycler and composter, I have always believed in environmental stewardship since my days growing up as a Boy Scout in Danville, Virginia. Over the years, I’ve come to feel ever more strongly that it is our moral duty to leave behind a cleaner, healthier planet for our children and the generations beyond.

“But, let me make one thing clear—driving toward a circular economy is not just doing something about the disdain or disgust of seeing that trash that litters too many of our highways and streams—it is an essential part of the solution to a series of crises facing our nation and globe today—escalating climate change, overflowing landfills, and oceans choked with a mass of plastic greater than the weight of all the fish in the sea.

“The actions that put us in this mess are not the fault of any one person. That is why it is up to all of us to work together on finding solutions. This is an “all hands on deck moment!”

“Over the past few weeks, several of our Senate colleagues and I—including Senators Capito, Boozman, Whitehouse, and Merkeley—have joined me in engaging with a host of stakeholders in a series of roundtable discussions on the concept of a circular economy, and what that concept looks like in practice across a multitude of industries and levels of government.

“What we heard was in part sobering, but also—I’m happy to report—encouraging.

“We heard from solid waste workers about the challenges they face with contaminated recycling streams and the impact of China’s National Sword Policy on their ability to effectively manage domestic waste, especially plastic.

“We heard about the need for better product design and infrastructure upgrades so that companies can have their products returned to them in good condition to be reused.

“And, we heard about the devastating impacts of the fashion industry on our environment. Did you know that every second, almost a dump truck’s worth of textiles goes into our landfills? And that the fashion industry is responsible for ten percent of global emissions, more than the aviation sector and maritime shipping combined? I didn’t, and I suspect that most of our colleagues and our staff members didn’t either.

“Fortunately, we also discovered that with awareness and motivation, we can do a great deal to address the obvious need and change these damaging behaviors.

“One of those products that stood out was aluminum. Few of us realize, for example, that 75 percent of aluminum ever mined is still in use today. That is important because aluminum products made from recycled materials use 95 percent less energy than it would take to create them from first-use material. Indeed, in most cases, recycled products are more energy-efficient, which translates directly into reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

“That is the power of a circular economy.

“The roundtables also taught us more about the potential we have to recapture and recycle the critical minerals found in lithium-ion batteries. Of course, that capacity helps our nation in many ways—driving us and our transportation fleet to a carbon-neutral future and relieving us from uncertain and oftentimes hostile foreign sources for those critical minerals. 

“Finally, we also heard great success stories from industries that have stepped up to take more responsibility for the full life cycle of their products. I am glad to see Mr. Hawkinson from the paper industry here today.

“With a national recycling rate for all products of just 35 percent, the paper industry’s recycling rate of over 60 percent stands out. The paper industry shows how companies can, and should, help the cause by ensuring that their products can live on by being recycled into new products.

“Companies must step up and take greater responsibility for reducing, reusing, and recycling their products. While we can’t make industry successful in this effort, we can help make it possible for industry to succeed. We know that if industry—along with environmental advocates and all levels of government—join forces to reach these inspiring and essential goals, the return on our investment will be exponential.

“And that is our challenge to you the witnesses before us today. Please tell us what our government needs to do to better ensure that you succeed in your efforts to establish a circular economy. One that helps bring our solid waste problem under control, reins in unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions, reduces our overall consumption, and meets this critical moment in our history.

“Someday, I expect to be asked by our three sons and their children ‘What did you do to stop climate change and help save our planet when you had the chance?’ And I want to be able to tell them that we did everything we could. To me, today’s hearing is an important step in enabling this country of ours to do just that. 

“Let’s seize this opportunity. Let’s convey a strong sense of urgency and embrace the chance to create a circular economy that allows us to be our better selves—respecting our planet, taking care of each other, and not wasting the precious resources that our creator has bestowed upon us.

“Each of you, as witnesses here today, bear a larger than average share of the responsibility to get us to that better place. You have the knowledge, the skill and—I believe—the will to do so. With apologies to the late Jim Morrison, help us light your fire so that—together—we can prevent many of the wildfires that have been engulfing large swaths of our throughout much of this year and last.”