The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, focuses considerable effort on providing tools and resources to improve community recycling programs across the United States. It’s worked with more than 1,000 communities to grow their recycling infrastructure. However, the nonprofit wasn’t as focused when it came to recycling policies and legislation.

Sarah Dearman, executive director, Circular Economy Accelerator

To expand in that direction, The Recycling Partnership launched the Circular Economy Accelerator in April as an independent initiative to help drive policy solutions for recycling and a robust circular economy in the U.S. The partnership appointed Sarah Dearman to be the accelerator’s executive director.

“The partnership has done a fantastic job in providing tools and resources to community recycling, but it stopped when it came to engaging with policy,” Dearman says. “By leveraging public-private solutions to drive sustainable investment in recycling infrastructure and implementing policies that incentivize recycling over disposal, we can put the U.S. on the path to a truly circular economy.”

Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, says she hopes the accelerator “will jump-start the critical conversations to advance the recycling system so that recyclable materials make it from citizens’ recycling bins back to store shelves as new products.”

Recycling Today connected with Dearman in late April to learn more about the Circular Economy Accelerator and its goals for this year.

Recycling Today (RT): How did you first get connected with The Recycling Partnership?

Sarah Dearman (SD): I’ve been a huge fan, supporter and a board member with The Recycling Partnership for many years. I just joined the team full time a few weeks ago. Prior to that, I led sustainable packaging at Coca-Cola for our North America business unit. There, I was working on their strategy to move forward with their vision for a world without waste. An integral part of that was the work they’re doing with The Recycling Partnership. For the last year or so, I have been serving as [the partnership’s] board chair. As this idea started to be developed, it was something I felt so passionate about and I’m so confident will make an impact on the industry that I decided that I really wanted to pursue this as an opportunity personally, as well.

RT: What made you passionate about working on sustainable initiatives?

SD: I have been interested in it, but typically I really like this intersection of businesses, governments and nonprofits working together. I feel like that’s where the greatest amount of good can be done. When all those forces come together, you can get exponential results. I think like a lot of people I can’t say that my career and journey has been a straight line, but I have been working in sustainability for more than a dozen years. Prior to [working at] Coke, I was with the state of Georgia in its sustainability division and worked on recycling and other sustainability opportunities at the state as part of the Department of Natural Resources. 

RT: What prompted the Circular Economy Accelerator’s start?

SD: This initiative is part of The Recycling Partnership, but it’s an independent initiative. The reason we structured it that way is that it is focused on policy.

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In the beginning of The Recycling Partnership days, policy was not one of the core areas that we were focusing on.

But with all of the challenges facing the recycling industry, [we recognized] that there’s a need for something additional to help get that sustainable funding, to help clear the way for the great work that the partnership is doing. Then policy was brought to the table by our leadership as well as by some of our board members. It was something we decided we really needed to pursue.

RT: What are some of the recycling policies the accelerator will address?

SD: We are advocating for solutions, so we will be very solutions-focused on opportunities to increase recycling and decrease contamination. There are some key ways we think that can be done that we’ll look at, like incentivizing recycling over disposal. We will be looking at sustainable funding for recycling infrastructure as well as education—we know that’s one of the things communities need right now. We’ll also be looking at practices and make sure that material is being recycled.

I would say the bulk of our work this year will focus on strategy and what the key models are, including developing some new policy models, that we want to move forward with.

There will be a lot of action from us as we start to ramp up legislative sessions early next year.

“While many communities are adapting and excelling, some are re-evaluating recycling.” – Sarah Dearman, executive director, Circular Economy Accelerator

RT: What companies have committed their support to advance the Circular Economy Accelerator?

SD: We started out by just inviting our current Recycling Partnership members to join us. We have more than 15 organizations and companies that have already stepped up and said they want to be part of this. It ranges from major brands to material companies to organizations. So, some of the big ones: Keurig Dr Pepper, Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Amcor, Carton Council and Tri-Arrows Aluminum.

RTWhat challenges prompted you to look more closely at policies at the federal and state levels?

SD: What we will be looking at is policy to help recycling. Those communities where we pursue policy solutions, we’ll be advocating for additional funding. That will certainly help programs. We will be looking at mechanisms to improve participation in programs and reducing contamination. With more sustainable recycling programs, together we’ll build stronger communities with less waste and more jobs. 

RT: What challenges prompted you to look more closely at policies at the federal and state levels?

SD: Some of the key challenges that really contribute are the global market shift, changing demand for commodities, communities facing higher [recycling] costs and disposal remaining cheap. While many communities are adapting and excelling, some are re-evaluating recycling. That’s a major challenge we want to be a solution on. You also have the changing packaging component adding complexity. And, overall, not a challenge but an opportunity, you have this enormous conversation that is rapidly increasing from companies to governments and organizations looking for solutions and committing to be part of it. We believe that effective policy solutions have the ability to accelerate the circular economy uniquely.

RT: What are your goals for this year?

SD: In the next few months, we’ll be engaging in early conversations where there’s still opportunity. One of the things I’m most excited about is tapping into all of these experts we have at the partnership and our other partners and really designing what does “ideal” look like for policy. Getting into the latter half of year, I expect to have those concepts and [to be] working on those and ready to implement those and advocate for those at the state level first, moving forward with testing a couple of mechanisms to improve recycling and circular economy. Next year, I hope we’ll be engaging directly with several states on what we will think will improve recycling systems.

RT: Are there many differences in recycling and sustainability policies in various states? 

SD: They can be very different. We have a range of policy out there. I’m not advocating for or against any, but as an example, there are landfill bans, mandatory recycling, landfill tipping charges, bottle deposits. And then as you get into materials, there are extended producer responsibilities (EPRs). 

RTWhat can recyclers and material recovery facility operators do to help with the Circular Economy Accelerator? 

SD: Everyone has to be a part of the solution—that’s the only way we’ll be successful. We’re continuing by the way of The Recycling Partnership by working together with everyone to figure out how we can make policy successful. I would welcome all ideas. A lot of people have been thinking about policy in this space for a long time. We want to leverage all those learnings and build on those so we can advance as quickly as possible. 

Sarah Dearman is executive director of the Circular Economy Accelerator. She can be reached by email at sdearman@recyclingpartnership.org.