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In the past several years, the solid waste industry has witnessed important changes in the business practices of the industry that is continuing to have a profound effect on the status of the solid waste industry.

According to Martin Vogt, president and chief executive officer of EFS-Plastics Inc., the import stop of solid waste to China is currently one of the biggest challenges facing waste and recycling companies. On July 18, China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would stop accepting shipments of some waste – such as waste plastic, paper, slag from steelmaking, waste wool, ash, cotton, and yarn. The ban is expected to take place by the end of 2017.

According to Reuters, China imported 7.3 million tons of waste plastics in 2016, valued at $3.7 billion, accounting for 56 percent of world imports. And the U.S. and Japan are the two biggest exporters of plastic waste to China.

“Cities, municipalities and private collectors may worry that there is nowhere to go with the pre-sorted plastic waste and slow down collection,” Vogt said. “But this challenge also brings opportunities for waste collectors and processers to work closer together.”

In addition to having “all eyes on China and their reluctance to import solid waste from the U.S., the solid waste industry is trying to meet the expectations of smarter, more connected clients with higher expectations for data and diversion.

“As more companies are setting measurable sustainability goals, data will become increasingly more important,” said Kristin Kinder, project lead at Ecova, a sustainability and energy management company. As of early 2017, 210 companies (including Proctor and Gamble, General Mills, and Kellogg) have set science-based targets for sustainability initiatives.

“Quality data will be the foundation for informing realistic targets and metrics to measure ongoing success,” Kinder said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge businesses face is changing their employee behavior to match regulations and their sustainability goals. From their internal program set up to their services at the curb and employee adoption of new solid waste programs, businesses will need to think comprehensively about their waste programs and foster a new culture to achieve their goals.”

Impact of Technology

While there are considerable advancements in high-end technology being used within the solid waste industry, one of the biggest advancements that Vogt is seeing take hold is the ability to convert ecological and economical efficient plastic waste into high-quality resin for the plastic industry.

“Most of our resins are better than wide spec resins already and are able to replace prime resin by 100 percent,” Vogt said. “Our recycling process generates less greenhouse gas emissions than the production of prime resin.”

As the solid waste industry continues to evolve, experts agree that the industry will need to get more efficient and stay on top of new developments – such as high-end plastic recycling. For example, Vogt predicts that prime resin will stay low for years to come and will keep margins low.

“Waste collectors and processors will have to work closer together by providing long term supply agreements and consistent quality,” Vogt said. “This will be the only way to keep the industry moving forward.”

And as companies set ambitious sustainability and zero waste goals, these companies are beginning to focus on waste reduction upstream, which will have a significant impact on the solid waste industry.

“For what’s still left in their waste stream, they will be looking to new technologies to capture unconventional recyclables and provide more convenience,” Kinder said. “For example, new technologies are emerging that can treat food waste onsite.”

In addition, waste to energy initiatives and technology – such as anaerobic digesters, on-demand service, circular economy measures, which includes buying the “energy” a client’s food waste produced – are all innovative technological advancements that will have a stronghold on the industry and the entities involved.

What’s more, as government and municipalities play a larger role in the future of waste recycling, the solid waste industry will be able to handle the task of collecting and processing the waste, but the cities and municipalities need to provide the regulations.

“It’s important that municipalities are talking to neighboring municipalities and cities, to provide the industry and residence with harmonized systems across states,” Vogt said.

And as these government regulations drive new waste programs and initiate significant change – both locally and nationally – consumers are taking notice and jumping onboard the proverbial “solid waste bandwagon” to participate in recycling and composting initiatives as they take hold. In doing so, they are paying attention to the data as it pertains to the industry.

As Kinder explained, food waste is currently receiving a lot of attention – at over 20 percent, it’s the largest contributor to landfills and even more important, it’s wasted resources nutrients.

“In 2010, over a third of the available food supply in the U.S. went uneaten,” Kinder said. “That’s 133 billion pounds worth $161.6 billion.” These are the stats that are grabbing the attention of consumers, municipalities, and government entities alike.

In late 2015, the USDA and EPA launched their first joint goal to cut our nation’s food waste in half. For the first time, they are approaching food waste holistically – examining all sources of waste in the process from the farm to the consumer – and poised to make a significant impact.  

Kinder noted that the State of California’s AB 1826 requires businesses that produce a certain threshold of food waste to recycle it rather than bringing it to a landfill. California has not only inspired restaurants, hotels, hospitals and other organizations to find solutions for separating this food waste, but this state legislation has also encouraged infrastructure change.

“Composters now have a business justification and the opportunity for a more predictable waste stream from businesses required to recycle their organic waste,” Kinder said.

Partners in Progress

According to Bob Craggs, department manager of the solid waste group at Burns & McDonnell, an international engineering firm, there is a growing interest in public-private partnerships to develop solid waste facilities. Part of that interest is related to the upfront capital investment municipalities must make with these projects. By doing a public-private partnership, there can be less financial and operational risk for them.

“For example, a county in Minnesota recently bought a facility from the private sector that takes solid waste and turns it into fuel,” Craggs said. “Why did they do this? Because it allowed them to have more direct influence over the flow of materials to their landfill and create additional opportunities to transition to other solid waste conversion technologies resulting in greater landfill diversion.”

There’s also more interest in regionalized facilities versus individual facilities to help communities to better manage risk and find opportunities to benefit from economies of scale.

“Throughout the last few years, we’ve seen more communities looking at ways they can increase their landfill diversion opportunities,” Craggs said. “Diversion of organics from disposal is a key focus for many solid waste management programs and now infrastructure is being put in place to help make that happen.”

Matt Evans, senior civil engineer in Burns & McDonnell’s solid waste group, added that aging infrastructure is another challenge the industry must address. Many communities have solid waste facilities that were developed more than 20 years ago. Now, communities are trying to determine how to best move forward including alternatives such as updating the solid waste facility, or going in a different direction with a new system to increase the amount of waste that can be diverted from landfills.

Streamlined Efficiencies

The economy and trends in packaging are also driving the trends within the solid waste industry, because the disposable items that impact our daily lives eventually end up in the waste stream. Lighter water bottles, smaller cardboard boxes from Amazon, and flexible packaging have made great improvements in how companies distribute goods, but also impact recycling centers and our systems for turning waste materials into new products.

As such, Kinder said that over the next few years, organizations and individuals will see more alternatives for dividing waste and recycling materials available for waste management.

“Compost infrastructure is expanding and many locations that currently have limited compost facilities will begin to see more processing facilities, especially in regions with food waste recycling legislations,” Kinder said.

Evans is also seeing a significant interest in automation. Driven by facility safety and efficiencies, companies are testing the use of robots at recycling facilities to sort materials. “It’s still in the development phase but the results so far are promising,” Evans said. “Landfills are also continuing to evolve and be technologically innovative. GPS-operated compactors and alternative daily cover materials have been in use for some time and operators are becoming more and more adept at using them and increasing airspace utilization.”

Industry experts expect to continue seeing more technology integrated into the collection process, which would affect every solid waste hauler. “In Minnesota, some cities are putting computer chips in new recycling bins so they can see who is participating,” Craggs said. “When the hauler tips the bins, the address is recorded automatically noting the household is participating. This increases efficiency and will help facilitate participation reporting.”

In addition, the growth of the flexible plastic packing market is expected to rise and that’s gaining the attention of solid waste industry players, especially recycling companies, who are looking at the actual recyclability factors involved in this packaging. Although touted for being environmentally beneficial because of less material being used, flexible plastic packaging is challenging for recycling companies because of its multi-layer composition. As this packaging becomes a bigger part of the solid waste stream in the next few years, recycling professionals are working with manufacturing companies on design specifications to help in the recovery process.

This is one example, on a system level, where the solid waste industry is beginning to connect all of the dots in our currently linear waste process – designers, manufacturers, packagers, and recyclers are beginning to work together.

“This could inspire the shift to a circular economy where companies design products for reuse,” Kinder said. “Then any waste created has a valuable second life as a resource for something else.”

Published in the September 2017 Edition of American Recycler News