The waste and recycling industry has evolved over the years as new technology has helped improve systems and promote safety for many companies in the U.S. Automation, anaerobic digestion, compressed natural gas and other alternative fueling options and driver management technologies, to name a few, have allowed the industry to work more efficiently and raise the bar on quality.
Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the NWRA, has been involved in the waste and recycling industry for more than 25 years. She previously served as the chief of engineering and technology for the Delaware Solid Waste Authority for almost 20 years.
Germain has been with the NWRA for two years and sat down with Waste360 to discuss technology in the waste and recycling industry.
Waste360: What new technologies are emerging in the waste and recycling industry?
Anne Germain: The industry continues to adopt and develop waste management solutions. The private sector has embraced single-stream recycling to provide convenient solutions to homeowners. Landfills continue to develop new beneficial-use options such as landfill gas as compressed natural gas for vehicle fuel.
Emerging technologies include anaerobic digestion for organics. A lot of the technologies work really well on a bench scale, but it’s translating it up to full scale that presents a lot of challenges. It depends on how proven the technology is and how flexible it is with its feedstock. The simplest technologies are landfills and you can put a lot of different things in them. You don’t have to worry about you are not producing stuff so you’re not worried so much about what your energy needs are, or exceeding your maximum throughput, and you are not as worried about moisture. Those things are relevant to landfills there just not as critical as they are for some of the other systems.
Then you have what I consider the next best flexible system, which is a waste-to-energy facility. They are usually pretty flexible but once they reach their max amount of energy then they are not going to take anymore material. They are usually sensitive to things like moisture in the waste because if it’s particularly wet they are going to add more waste to it. You start adding some complexity from there.
Waste360: What are the most popular technologies?
Anne Germain: Anaerobic digestion is probably the most popular technology in the waste industry. When you get down to the newer technologies, anaerobic digestion is pretty well understood. As long as you can keep the bugs alive and happy it’s workable. You are probably looking at targeted waste streams rather than just mixed waste so generally it will be something you can isolate. For example, food waste or some other targeted waste stream that is able to be handled. It has been used for some other targeted waste streams by other industries. For example, the various ones that just handle wood waste or ones that just handle waste from a farm like a turkey processor might have an anaerobic digestion facility or a wastewater treatment plant. It’s just a matter of adjusting for those.
Some of the other newer technologies, it’s not that they don’t have promise, it’s just that they’re going to be pretty expensive and you are probably going to have some failures along the way. The question is do you want to be the person who spends a lot of money and has a failure or do you want to have something a little bit more proven. A lot of people are risk-averse. They want to make sure they hit it out of the park the first time and anaerobic digestion has the best chance. And that’s not saying it doesn’t have its own risks, it just has fewer than the other technologies.
Waste360: Which technologies have led to the greatest successes or outcomes?
Anne Germain: Economically-viable projects have the best chances for success in this industry. When you look at waste management as a whole, you really have to look at what it’s competing with. You start off with the basics so you have a landfill. Landfills are never going to go away completely. You have to have them for when you have these conversion technologies. If the plant goes down for a few weeks, the trash doesn’t stop. You always have to have a fail-safe, which will end up being your landfill.
As a result, landfills exist and are competing for that same material that everyone else is competing for so it ends up being based on cost. The costs are the tip fees that you are going to pay to drop your material. Landfills generally are the cheapest. The tip fees range across the country. The northeast tends to be the highest as far as tip fees are concerned. There’s always a possibly that people direct waste to a higher cost facility, so some facilities are being built and charging higher fees. But in general, they have to be cost-competitive with the other technologies that are in existence.
Waste360: What trends is the NWRA seeing as far as technology goes?
Anne Germain: Increased diversion is the focus for many municipalities. Therefore, trends are leaning toward more diversion–potential cautions arise due to high risk and high costs associated with these projects. The reason diversion is the trend is because of a real strong awareness of our availability of resources.
In 1970, we had the initial Earth Day where there was a spike in environmental awareness. But I think as time has gone by there’s been an ever-increasing awareness of environmental responsibility and stewardship. A lot of people are just becoming more aware of all of these things. They expect to be provided with options and solutions. There’s a lot of pressure on municipalities to help provide solutions for people who are looking to reduce their environmental footprint.
Waste360: Anything else you'd like to add about technology in the waste and recycling industry?
Anne Germain: The waste and recycling industry is always evolving. We are evolving the way the rest of the world is evolving. The way your parents managed things and what they threw away–just imagine what was in their home and the packaging and what went into the trash–is a lot different than what it is today. We try to work with manufacturers and other companies and ask that they design for reuse or recycling. There’s only so much we can do, and ultimately we end up having to manage all of the material that ends up coming to us in the waste and recycling industry.
The packaging design is always evolving; therefore what you were managing before and its primary components are changing. The biggest example is paper. Paper is by far the largest portion of consumer waste. It comes in the form of newspapers, magazines, office paper and cardboard or paperboard, which includes boxes from all of the packaging from things you buy. It also has been the largest material recycled.
That’s changed dramatically since the turn of the century. Since 2000, paper has been steadily declining. Newspaper readership is off dramatically. People are turning to electronic devices for more and more of their media consumption. A lot of manufacturers are turning to alternative packaging. There’s a lot more plastic packaging over the paper packaging. Soups are now coming in plastic bags whereas they used to always come in cans. The packaging is a lot more complex. These packages have three or sometimes as many as five layers. People still would like to recycle this. A five-layer package is more difficult and complex to recycle than an old soup can from years ago.