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Episode 108: Insights from a Lifetime in Waste & Recycling

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In our latest episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Chaz Miller, industry veteran and longtime former director at National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA). Now semi-retired, Miller has spent 40+ years in the waste and recycling industry, 30 of them with NWRA.

We chatted with Miller about the need to acknowledge that we will never be perfect recyclers, how far the waste industry has come in diversity and technology, what’s next, and more.

Here’s a sneak peek into the discussion:

Waste360: I know you had two interesting calls this morning talking about the markets. We’d love your insights on paper; plastics; what you’re seeing as we’re coming out of the pandemic.

Miller: Yes, right now, markets for paper are very good. You’re seeing national prices for corrugated boxes (OCC) running at $90+ per ton. And mixed paper is up very nicely—in the high $30s/low $40s per ton. This is largely driven by more demand in this country for recycled paper, packaging, and I think it’s going to stay at least for a while. The price of virgin pulp has gone up in the last couple months, which gives recycled content room to grow. The reality is that some of the companies that make boxes are predicting prices for OCC to increase by $30/ton throughout the year and that will increase the price of mixed paper by $5-10. Barring the unexpected.

Waste360: You’ve talked about the importance of acknowledging the fact that people aren’t perfect recyclers. Have you seen any consumer-education programs that are really working well?  

Miller: Seattle does it very well. They’ve been consistently above 50% for some time but are struggling to meet their 60% goal. And yet they’ve done very well and have strong markets and good collection. That tells you something: that there is a limit out there, and I think it’s possible we’re trying to recycle too much. In our understandable desire to recycle as much as possible, we’re overestimating what people are capable of recycling, and making the recycling too damn complicated. I mean, I think I’m a pretty sophisticated recycler, but I sometimes have to double-check on what goes in the bin and what doesn’t. We may want to reassess what is achievable and in what time frame.

Waste360: You’re always the first to say recycling isn’t the end all, be all. There are so many benefits to diversion, reuse… What are your thoughts on refillables?

Miller: I love refillables; I think they’re great and wish we had more. But Americans love convenience, and I think that refillables—t0 really make a breakthrough in this country—have to home in on the convenience factor and make it very easy to reuse. I look forward to the day when I can get my cold-brew refilled in Starbucks without having to buy a cup every time.   

Waste360: What has surprised you over the years in this industry, and what do you think about where technology is heading?

Miller: Let’s start with technology. I think you’re seeing extraordinary innovations at MRFs. I remember when optical sorters were first discussed for glass. We hoped it would work but there were a lot of doubts. Now optical sorters have really found a place, though ironically less for glass than other materials. If you look at a brand-new MRF today...if it has the management and money to keep it up to date, in five years, you’ll see a significant change in equipment with increased artificial intelligence, more effective robotics, and more. And that’s good because MRF jobs can sometimes be dangerous jobs. Right now I think the biggest problem is the lithium battery and the fires they are creating. But the industry is doing a good job of moving forward and protecting the public health and our country.

Read transcript here.

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