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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, waste material collection – specifically of refuse and recycling materials – is the fifth most dangerous job in the country, and incidents involving the transportation of waste are the cause of 40 percent of the injuries and fatalities.

There’s one thing we know – there will always be landfills. In fact, regardless of a tremendous effort on the part of state and local governments, companies and individual households, landfill usage has increased or remained stagnant in many areas across the U.S.

According to David McConnell, vice president for North America business development at Enerkem, a biofuels and clean chemicals producer that converts the carbon still contained in non-recyclable and non-compostable municipal solid waste (MSW) into methanol, ethanol or other renewable chemicals, MSW generation has continued to increase in recent years.

“Based on Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) data, 347 million tons of MSW were managed in 2013 versus 342 million tons in 2010. Landfill usage remains high as 64 percent is still being landfilled,” McConnell said.

Each year, the EPA produces a report called Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Fact Sheet, which includes information on municipal solid waste generation, recycling, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling.

According to the EPA’s most recent report, in 2014, in the U.S., about 258 million tons of MSW were generated. Over 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6 percent recycling rate. In addition, over 33 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery and 136 million tons were landfilled. And in 2014, 89.5 percent of corrugated boxes were recycled and about 61 percent of yard trimmings were composted.

“Overall in the U.S., recycling programs have had a minimal effect on landfill usage,” McConnell said. “However, effective residential and commercial recycling and composting programs can have a significant effect on reducing landfill volumes as demonstrated on the West Coast in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. In addition, landfill usage can be further reduced by using waste conversion technologies.”

These technologies, like Enerkem’s MSW-to-biofuels and chemicals process, can turn non-recyclable and non-compostable garbage into valuable products, hence enabling to achieve over 90 percent waste diversion rate.

Michael Benedetto, president and owner of TFC Recycling in Chesapeake, Virginia, said the more that gets recycled, the less is landfilled.

“I believe there are more corporate social and environmental responsibility initiatives to produce and landfill less or strive toward zero landfill waste, which is a major step in the right direction,” Benedetto said.

Waste management and recycling companies are responding to the increase in recycling programs.

“Landfills can be cash cows for certain companies,” Benedetto said. “Less volume equals less profit. But recycling is better for the environment and better for communities, creating more jobs, generating tax dollars and sustainability.”

Accelerated Efforts

Allison Skinner, certification project manager, sustainability, NSF international oversees NSF’s landfill free verification and Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) programs. Prior to joining NSF international, Skinner managed energy efficiency, renewable energy, and alternative fuel projects that helped individuals and businesses reduce their impact on the environment.

NSF International offers third-party verification of landfill free claims, granting recognition to companies demonstrating that they send less than one percent of waste to landfill.

“While NSF International can’t necessarily speak to what is going on across the entire country, we do know that our customers have significantly decreased the amount of waste they send to landfill,” Skinner said. NSF International customer West Liberty Foods alone has eliminated more than 55,000 tons of waste from landfills since they instituted the landfill-free verification.

For many companies, the bottom line is paramount in their decisions on landfill usage versus recycling initiatives. Landfill and recycling costs vary across the country, as do disposal regulations that are related to landfill usage.

“Here in Michigan, where NSF International is headquartered, a 2016 report on annual landfill and incineration stated if all the disposed materials were instead recovered and sold to the market, it would have an estimated economic impact of up to $399 million per year,” Skinner said.

Most materials that are typically considered “waste” are actually valuable commodities that organizations can sell to be made into new products, which can have a positive local economic impact.

“MillerCoors’ Milwaukee campus is realizing a savings of about $89,000 per year from landfill-free efforts and, as an example, they have been using recycled materials to make grills and coolers,” Skinner said. “As companies begin to look for ways to reduce their impact and waste generation, innovative ideas will come about and eventually become best practice across industries.”

NSF International customer SunPower invested in an industrial compost machine, which supplies compost for a greenhouse that provides fresh produce for the 1,300 employees on site.

“More and more companies are beginning to realize that generating less waste saves money on raw materials, energy and labor costs. Consumers prefer to buy products they perceive as having a lower impact on the environment and corporate investment in sustainability is higher than ever,” Skinner said. “For those looking to be leaders in environmental leadership and social responsibility, achieving landfill-free status is a significant accomplishment.”

Exploring New Avenues

Daniel de Liege, chairman of Alliance Bio-Products, Inc. said that while recycling and reuse of non-organic materials such as metal or plastic has become familiar and even mandatory in some cities to conserve space in landfills, recent technological advancements are now making it possible for the organic waste to also experience a second chance at life outside of the landfill.

As de Liege explained, some companies, such as Alliance Bio-Products, have found use in residential, commercial and agricultural waste through its ability to provide cellulose material used in the production of low-cost biofuels and other products including nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, carbon fiber nanotubes and construction products.

“Advanced cellulose extraction technologies that use a patented mechanical process known as Cellulose to Sugar (CTS), are enabling the transformation of waste which would traditionally take up significant space in landfills, into fuel and other products at a fraction of the cost,” de Liege said.

Moving forward, de Liege believes we’re going to see recycling and waste reuse play an even larger role at the residential level, giving local residents an opportunity to transform their waste into products for everyday use. One of the biggest opportunities de Leige sees is the concept of “grass to gas” where people will be able to transform yard waste, cardboard, wood and other green materials into bioethanol fuel for their cars.

“The industry is currently focused on technologies that transform waste into fuel at the commercial level however, it’s only a matter of time before we see the demand reach consumers who will require individual solutions,” de Liege said.

The use of residential waste in the production of ethanol will also be extremely important as it will pull green waste out of landfills, can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere both at the landfill and with reduced emissions once it’s transformed into fuel, and will provide an energy source that does not pull from the nation’s food supply.

“Simultaneously, with processes such as Alliance Bio-Product’s patented CTS process, ethanol producers will be able to reduce the cost of fuel to only $0.91 per gallon, making fuel cheaper for consumers while productively ridding counties of their unneeded waste. The bioethanol market in particular is expected to rise to $9,544 million by 2022, presenting those who are capable of identifying a solution that transforms waste into biofuel with a significant market opportunity.”

So what do these advancements in technology mean for the waste and recycling industry? Dawn Grimes, vice president of enterprise and business at RecycleForce said there’s no question recycle and landfill operations will increasingly overlap as both look to “crack the nut” on mining and processing landfills that are full of recyclable plastic and precious metals.

“Landfills stand to recapture land for re-fill or redevelopment while for recyclers – with the right equipment and processes – landfills could be the urban gold mine of the 21st century,” Grimes said.

Indeed, cities and municipalities that are focusing on achieving zero waste targets in future years and leveraging the full suite of technologies and best practices, including waste conversion technologies, will have a positive effect on reducing volumes to landfill.

“Landfill usage is more prevalent in the American South and the Central U.S., McConnell said. “But the increased adoption of innovative waste conversion technologies – that can produce valuable products such as liquid biofuels and chemicals – and complementary activities to upstream recycling will have a large reduction effect on landfill volumes. They also can contribute to the transition to a circular economy where the large majority of waste is used as a resource for the production of valuable products.”

Technological advancements and governmental regulations aside, industry experts recognize that the U.S. is a society created on convenience. “Items such as single use coffee pods (K-cups) are typically not recycled,” Benedetto said. “We need to change the mindset and stop creating an environmental burden on future generations. It starts with consumers.”

Published in the May 2017 Edition of American Recycler News