Industry professionals wrestled with key challenges facing the recycling sector in the U.S. during the first full day of the 2016 Waste360 Recycling Summit. Some of the topics tackled in panels included sustainable materials management, the state of mixed-waste processing, municipal contract best practices and other topics.
Here are some key takeaways from Tuesday’s sessions.
1. The conference kicked off with a keynote panel on sustainable materials management. It was moderated by Sharon Kneiss, president & CEO, the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA). It also featured Jennifer Gerholdt, senior director, environmental program, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation; Sara Hartwell, the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition (SMMC); and Lisa Carlson, environmental supervisor, Solid Resources Commercial Franchise Division, City of Los Angeles.
2. Gerholdt focused on what the U.S. industry must do to move to a true circular economy. “The linear model is no longer viable for progress in the 21st century,” she said. The circular economy is all about "keeping molecules in play” and figuring out how to keep resources in circulation for as long as possible. “The circular economy at its core is an economic innovation opportunity,” she said. “It’s about rethinking business models and choices we make in which products can be reused and re-manufactured.” She cited an Accenture estimate that shifting to a circular economy could unlock $4.5 trillion by turning waste into wealth. Lastly, she said that a circular economy is not just about recycling and takeback programs. “It’s a fundamental rethink of products, components and materials,” she said. “The opportunity will be lost if we just look at it just from lens of recycling.”
3. Hartwell, who formerly worked for the EPA, outlined the SMMC’s focus on establishing, “an explicit, overarching materials management goal to reduce the environmental impact of materials use across the entire lifecycle.” This would include the EPA rethinking what’s reported in its annual Sustainable Materials Management report for the U.S. The coalition has identified some areas to expand and clarify the data in those reports, including:
- Accounting for the ultimate fate of discards from MSW
- Tracking the evolving ton within MSW
- Describing the economic costs and environmental outcomes of different collection systems
- Providing historical market data
“We need to understand how MSW has changed so we can understand how it might change in the future,” she said.
4. Lastly, Lisa Carlson outlined the City of Los Angeles’ waste reduction program. It currently recycles cans, bottles, plastics, glass, newspaper, other paper, cardboard, styrofoam, wire hangers, film plastic and plastic bags. She put the city’s current recycling rate at more than 76 percent. To meet its 2025 goal of 90 percent recycling, however, the city must reduce landfill disposal by 1 million tons annually. Carlson said the city’s establishment of a commercial solid waste franchise zone system is meant to help meet that goal. The city will incentivize the behavior it wants—increased recycling and processing of organics—by charging businesses a solid waste rate based on how much trash is in black bins. Unlimited recycling and organics will be included. “Since solid waste collection will have a cost for business, it’s an incentive to reduce their bills,” Carlson said. But she added that the city will monitor bins closely to make sure people just aren't tossing everything into recycling bins to lower their waste bills.
5. The mixed-waste processing discussion pit speakers against each other that have divergent views on the technology. Rich Reardon, regional sales manager, BHS, and Hilary Gans, manager, South Bay Recycling, spoke in favor of mixed-use processing. Shawn State, senior vice president, southern region, recycling division, Pratt Industries, spoke against. And J.D. Lindeberg, president, RRS, laid out his firm’s research findings on mixed-waste processing.
6. “Mixed-waste processing has a bright future,” Reardon said, as he outlined some recent innovations from BHS that have resulted in lower residual rates and cleaner processed materials.
7. Gans talked about how South Bay Recycling processes its waste. “How will the status quo change?,” he asked. “Organics will be banned from landfills. The value for green energy will increase.” Gans said South Bay is looking at anaerobic digestion of food waste. It will take its organics to a nearby wastewater treatment plant, where a digestion facility is already functioning. “Mixed-waste processing is the gateway to accessing what's in the waste stream,” he said. “You then have product you can do something with.”
8. State, meanwhile, spoke firmly against mixed-waste processing. Pratt is the largest buyer of recycled paper in North America and State pointed out materials processed at mixed-waste facilities at the very bottom of the firm’s list. "You can't unscramble an egg,” he said. Paper from those facilities will include contaminants that make the material inferior to what Pratt can buy from many other sources.
9. Lindeberg, meanwhile, backed up State’s point by saying that, according to its assessments, there are no buyers of residential mixed-waste processed paper in the U.S. “Mixed-waste processing revenue is highly dependent on how much you recover and how much residue you have left,” he said. And one of the fundamental challenges is that as you move through the waste stream you get to harder—and more costly—to process materials. “The marginal cost for processing the next ton recovered is always going to be higher than the previous ton.”
10. A discussion of The Limits to Recycling, included McKenna Morrigan, Cascadia Consulting; Anne Johnson, principal & vice president, RRS; and Bradley Kelley, senior project engineer, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton.
11. Morrigan used the City of Seattle to illustrate some of the limitations of using weight-based goals as the main metrics for measuring recycling success. In Seattle, even as the recycling rate has risen to 74 percent, contamination rates have remained flat. And other metrics have actually gotten worse. “The Seattle experience is a microcosm of the evolving ton,” Morrigan said. The amount of MSW disposed per person has fallen dramatically from 2002 to 2014. Moreover, the addition of food waste to the recycling stream accounts for the city’s rate jumping from 58 percent to 74 percent. Meanwhile, the lightweighting of packaging and plastics creates the illusion of stagnation in other areas. “The evolving ton demands that we change the way we define and measure progress,” Morrigan said. “Lightweighting and voluming of materials makes it impossible to use weight-based goals to evaluate programs.”
12. Johnson highlighted the challenges faced in some parts of the waste stream on hard to recycle items. “There are categories that we don't have good solutions for,” she said. “What do we do about PVC Christmas trees? Cat litter in bags?” The industry’s focus first ought to be optimizing the 40 percent of the waste stream that can be more easily recycled. “A lot of communities are not doing that well. We can make money off that 40 percent. We're moving into organics, which is more expensive…. As you move into other categories, the incremental costs get expensive. You have decisions to make.”
13. A session on municipal contract best practices included Bob Anderson, regional business development manager, ReCommunity; Harry Hayes, director, Solid Waste Management Department, City of Houston; and Mitch Kessler, president, Kessler Consulting. The speakers reached a consensus that municipalities and haulers need to be equal partners in sharing both the upsides and the risks when it comes to provide waste and recycling services.
14. “One of the narratives out there is that recycling is free,” Anderson said. “We can't assume recycling is free. When commodities markets are strong there is a value that can be passed back to a community. But in a depressed commodities market there needs to be economic equity.”
15. Hayes said that cities need to be willing to pay haulers for the service they provide. “These things have to sustain themselves if we want to live in a green environment,” he said. “That means just like you pay for other services, you need to pay for this, too. It's a quality of life issue. … We've made the determination that recycling is more important landfill. We've made the determination that we want to get to, I hate to say it, zero waste. … It's a partnership that will get us there. When will the markets recover? Who knows? We want to think about that. I look at the cycles and can't recall a high profitability period that's lasted more than four to five years. Need to be mindful of that as we enter contracts.”
16. Kessler pointed to some of the challenges prevalent in existing contract discussions.
17. He also laid out the industry could move forward: