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Episode 134: The Road from Collections to Sustainability (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:27] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Ty Rhoad, Regional Director America with TOMRA. Hi, Ty, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:38] Ty Rhoad: Hello, thank you for having me.

[00:00:41] Liz: Ty, to set the stage, I'd love to know a little bit more about your background and how you found your way to TOMRA.

[00:00:48] Ty: Yes, definitely. I've been in the waste and recycling world now for a little over 10 years. I started with Rehrig Pacific. Was more of the collection side, obviously with the manufacturing of carts and solutions. Spend some time there, really learning the industry, and then made a stop at a company, ONM Environmental, which I really worked more on the post-collection side of things, specifically in the odor issues. We had technology and solutions for them.

Then now, just recently, this year back in May came to TOMRA, and now focusing a lot more on the recycling side of the business. I've made my way from collection, post-collection, and now getting into the nitty-gritty of recycling.

[00:01:54] Liz: That's great. You really have a good perspective. You've seen, especially with your background, the waste stream has certainly changed over the last decade or so. What are you seeing with the waste stream and how you're tackling that?

[00:02:08] Ty: Yes, for sure. You can even make the argument, especially obviously with a pandemic, it changing even more here from the consumer standpoint of things. The one thing I've learned-- the many things, but one of them I've learned in just joining TOMRA is more of the global aspect of the waste stream, and seeing how having the benefit to see how different countries in different places attack their waste issues.

The different stream from country to country, especially here in the US, from just region to region. I think that's what makes this-- getting your hands around waste management. Interesting and difficult is just seeing the differences in the waste stream, and then finding solutions to try to attack that.

[00:03:06] Liz: That makes sense. I'd love to hear your opinions since now you're on the recycling side of things and your previous background. What do you think about the current recycling infrastructure here in the US?

[00:03:18] Ty: That's the interesting point of it. Again, going back to what I-- learning by seeing the different parts of the world. The US infrastructure, especially since the China ban, we're behind. Especially in this last couple of years, making the infrastructure here more on US soil and building it up in North America is quite critical. Just seeing what's taking place, the investments that are going on right now is amazing, and obviously much needed.

The infrastructure here is growing, which is good, and quite honestly it needs to. We've seen different aspects of that in other countries, but I think the US especially, is catching up and even though it has a way to go, I think the progress is starting. There's a couple of different reasons for that.

The circular economy is coming into place. Sustainability is a hot topic right now. I think you see these companies focusing more on recycled material, and needing this material. I think that infrastructure is now just being built specifically in the US to support that.

[00:04:34] Liz: Definitely, I'm with you. I know that you spoke at Sustainability Talks last June on recycling, and you and Nick talked a lot about how the technology needs to be in place to take the pressure off of consumers a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about that?

[00:04:56] Ty: Sure. That's the one thing-- it's funny looking back at the expo, I was pretty green, to say the least, walking into there, but again, just seeing what technology has done. I would say even in the last 10 years, what it can do now, and what it could do back then, is just amazing.

I think relying on that is something that we need to focus on more instead of putting it so much on the consumers. I think the big thing, what TOMRA has done, and it was just released shortly after the talks that at WasteExpo was the Holistic Resource System, and what that can do, and basically relying on technology a lot to have this success in the circular economy.

[00:05:53] Liz: I saw that white paper on the Holistic Resource System. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

[00:05:58] Ty: To take a step back. TOMRA looked at this, basically, from a greenfield. Something that's not set up, but ideally what can we do to optimize reduction of CO2 emissions? This study was done and is being currently done in different countries around the world, but it basically breaks it down into three different elements of collection.

The first one being a separate collection. Separating your organic, paper, textiles, and your e-waste, electrics, and batteries. Having separated collection from that standpoint. The second one being a deposit returns to system. This is where I'm TOMRA started from back in 1972, was having a reverse vending machine, but taking back beverage type packaging, like PET and aluminum.

We have found out that that's actually the best and cleanest way to have that deposit return system because basically, it comes down to incentivizing the return, and you're getting very much clean, obviously clean material because it's direct. The last, and this is where the technology takes place, is the mixed waste sorting.

This is where-- In the separate collection I didn't mention plastics, but in this mixed waste sorting, we have found that actually everything else can go in and it just comes down to having the technology to sort, and then to wash. It's very, very basic. In the mixed waste sorting, once that's sorted and when that plastic is basically hot washed, it can be turned into flakes, extruded, deodorized, and then go right back into the circle of economy.

With these three steps of separated collection, the positive return, and mixed waste sorting, those three elements, the studies have shown that we have reduced CO2 emissions up to 3 billion tons a year. It is just amazing of this greenfield that this can be put into place what this can do.

Now, quite frankly, this is obviously in a perfect world. There's definitely existing infrastructure out there, so it can be adapted, and it will have to be adapted to certain places, but if you just look at this from an open and, again, we call it a greenfield. These are the systems that would be in place.

[00:08:43] Liz: Absolutely. Now, are you going to do case studies like that, Ty, in the US or was part of that in the US as well?

[00:08:50] Ty: Yes, exactly. It will have to be adapted locally to what the US has, but yes, it will be. There's talks about that coming. Of course, again, in a perfect world, that's what it is. Obviously, the DRS system is big over here in the States. There's already separate collection, but adapting that, and, again, that mixed waste sorting is where the technology takes place.

Quite frankly, what we're seeing is everything else left over, even when you separate it. Even in other parts of the world, separation isn't the end all be all. There's still things being hit into the residue waste stream, which is mixed waste sorting. That is being taken to either landfill or, mainly in Europe, it is being incinerated. To get that material out of that waste stream is very, very key, and I think there's a study that it's almost-- doubles. We can get all the double of that of just separating at the collection point.

[00:10:03] Liz: Sure. That makes sense. Sorting technology has come a long way, yes?

[00:10:06] Ty: It's one of those things. When I got into the waste, even the waste business, you don't really, as a consumer, you put it out on the street, put out on your curb and it's gone. It's amazing what takes place after it's there. It's even more amazing of what we can do now with recycling, closing that loop, turning it around, and do the circular economy.

[00:10:34] Liz: Definitely. This is a question I've been asking a lot of my podcast guests just because it varies depending on your experience and what you're working on, but what does a circular economy look like to you?

[00:10:46] Ty: The biggest thing that we have to look at right now is the material. To me, the circular economy looks at, we always say, reduce, reuse, and recycle. How can we have this material we have right now, and continue to use it?

At the basic form, the circular economy to me means, reusing this material, recycling this material in the best way we can. I see it as, if you have a bottle that's not going into the ground, that's not being burnt, and causing more pollution. That's not being thrown, seen on the beaches, seen in the oceans, that is being used again. The very simplest form to me, the circular economy means using the material that we have because we have--

As you see more studies come out. We have a very limited resource and materials here on the Earth. By reusing that, and closing that loop will make things better. To me at the very basis the form is, it's going to those three steps and essentially just closing the loop. 

[00:11:55] Liz: Absolutely. That makes perfect sense. I know TOMRA, just along with a lot of companies within our industry, has some solid sustainability targets for 2030. Are you able to talk about those at all?

[00:12:10] Ty: Yes, of course. Our goal by 2030 is for 40% of plastic packaging to be collected, and then 30% of plastic packaging to be in a closed loop. Very, very ambitious goals by 2030, as we turn our page to 2022 here.

I think that's the unique thing about TOMRA, is we started off as a collection and sorting company. Now we have a total division dedicated to the circular economy. They're going out and consulting with these big brand name companies and the retail side of it to close that loop, to give suggestions, to help them out because it is. It's a huge hot topic keyword, and has to be, is to work with these companies.

I think you see it every day that these big brand company companies are coming out and are issuing these goals by some as early as 2025, I've seen, to use a percentage of recycled material in their packaging. TOMRA, I think it's very clear, and something I learned very quickly here is you practice what you preach. I think that's the very good things without a better use of a word that coming to a company like TOMRA it's not just, "Hey, do this", or, "Do that." We're actually showing it and doing it, and it goes back to that the whole holistic resource system, and investing money to seeing how we can do things better.

[00:13:56] Liz: Definitely, and what's great, you have that influence from Europe, and the innovation there. I love that.

[00:14:03] Ty: Yes, for sure. With that too, none of this can be done without partnerships. Even in Germany, we're partnering with a couple of companies, Borealis and Zimmerman, on showing how we can on the mixed waste sorting side and showing how we can do that. It hasn't been easy, but the investment from our partners are huge, and you mentioned coming to the US that is something that I think we all quickly learn, is no one can do this by themselves. The partnerships that we aligned with, the avenues we go down has to be together. I think that's the only way we'll move forward, is together.

[00:14:50] Liz: Absolutely. That's across the board for all of us. I had Christine- have you seen the expedition crew? The women who crew, who has sailed and TOMRA has sponsored? Do you know about that crew?

[00:15:05] Ty: A little bit, yes.

[00:15:07] Liz: It's so interesting. I just love that TOMRA is part of that as well. I feel like you guys have your hand in a lot of interesting things beyond this business, which is cool.

[00:15:18] Ty: Exactly. I think that's-- and kind of going back to practice what we preach. I think it's easy to say, "Hey, we're going to do this", or, "You should do this. We have this goal", but what actually are you doing about it? Again, being seven, eight months here in TOMRA, you could actually see it. The people here are very, very passionate on what they do, and at the end of the day it's finding ways to make this Earth better. It's something that's not just coming here, and I think it's just natural that when you're in the United States, you just see what goes on here.

It's a big country, even though is America, per se, but getting the visuals, and learning what it is globally, because TOMRA it's such a big company, it's fascinating on what's going on across the world, and to your point being a part of those things. 

[00:16:24] Liz: Oh, it is. It's great. I know on Waste360, we shared that TOMRA was doing interesting wood recycling. Are you part of that Ty? Or is that a separate group?

[00:16:37] Ty: Yes, definitely part of that. We are investing a lot into that as well. That is kind of the focus right now, or another focus, I should say. Is on the wood. Again, very big in Europe, and trying to find ways to recycle that, but yes, it is. We've just brought on a new person to head that specifically, the wood segment. That is going to be the focus. Then coming over here to the Americas, Canada is definitely a spot where that can be focused on. California, I know are coming out with more legislative rules and laws with wood. Yes, that is kind of the next segment focus, I should say.

[00:17:34] Liz: Very cool. Well, keep us posted on that. Because I know there's challenges there, with the size of the wood. It's C, and D, and the types of wood. It'll be very interesting to follow that process.

[00:17:46] Ty: Exactly.

[00:17:47] Liz: We talked a little bit-- well, a lot about sustainability, and you talked about TOMRA role in it. What do you see is the waste recycling industry's role in sustainability, and finding solutions to so many environmental challenges?

[00:18:02] Ty: I think we have to be the leader. I think that's what it comes down to. Again, this all works with partnership. I think specifically here recently, we've seen a lot of, again, brand ownership creating positions, creating whole segments to sustainability. 

I think as part of our industry, working with those owners and understanding what is needed. It's not going to be a quick fix. You mentioned that the infrastructure here, again, is being looked at, is being built. Right now, one of the biggest issues is just collecting that material. There's so much material out there that find ways to get that material is the key thing. We can talk about recycling, and putting it back into products, but how are we getting that material? I think that's what it comes back to the infrastructure, the technology, and what we can do in working together.

I think our industry really needs to be a leader in partnering with these companies, and understanding what works, what doesn't. There are systems in place, again, I think it's going to be not a one-size-fits-all. It's very, very local, and understanding what's working right now, and making it better I think is the key. I think the knowledge that this industry has, and over the many, many years of it progressing, I think now is the time to take that next step.

[00:19:45] Liz: Yes, I think so too. I think the idea of the industry-leading is where it's at, because the knowledge is there and we can have definitely steered this conversation and the action plan, which is great. 

[00:19:57] Ty: Yes, exactly.

[00:19:59] Liz: So Ty, I know you're a member of Phila, and work with a lot of young leaders in the industry. Do you have any advice for the next generation of professionals getting into our industry and/or sustainable?

[00:20:13] Ty: Yes. First of all, Phila has been a great organization to be a part of. The people I've met in the organizations I've been able to be introduced to is awesome. A couple of years ago took a trip to Germany, and that was my first time seeing something else. So just the exposure that offers is unbelievable.

My advice, the one thing which is great as I talk to the younger, the next generation coming in, well, I make myself feel old right now, but this next generation coming in is the passion. The passion that they have, just so much more aware of the social responsibility and what's going on not only here locally, but also globally. That harnessing that passion, and understanding what that can do for personally, and more for everyone, but yes, really harnessing that passion and just taking that next step and walking with people.

Going back to that again, the only way we're going to get to this and meet the goals that we need to meet is working together. The advice to that next generation is harnessing that passion. Networking, being a part of these organizations, working together, and I think the options are limitless.

[00:21:49] Liz: That's great advice. You covered a lot of areas, and I think that's great advice really for any age too.

[00:21:55] Ty: Yes, exactly, it does. I still do that every day, but I guess it's really neat to see as I get out, and talk to people, and see people, and be at certain events. Just the focus in the 10 plus years that I've been in the industry is so much more focused on, what can we do next and what can we do better?

[00:22:25] Liz: Love that. I mean, we talked about a lot. Sustainability goals. We talked about the new wood recycling initiative. What else is happening with TOMRA? What's next for you?

[00:22:37] Ty: Yes. It's interesting, as we go down this road, we're, again, what can we do to make things easier and better? I would say right now, a lot of talk has been on what is the next? We've kind of started off on the technology side. Start off with color, and then moved into NIR, which is material. Now kind of that next step is the AI artificial intelligence, and deep learning. The object looking exactly at objects and recognizing that through technology. I think the AI is kind of that next step. Not only seeing a bottle, but what kind of bottle that is not material-wise, but is that a certain brand of bottle as well?

Taking that data and collecting it. Once you have-- this data has been such a keyword, everybody wants this data, but then actually taking that data and putting it to use. I think that's the next step on the data side. We have TOMRA insight, which actually can show you what is going through your facility, as far as material, it's color. Then you can respond to what kind of material is going through. Again, at the end of the process, that only gives you a better output to see what's coming in and then what's going out. I think that's kind of that next step. That AI data, and using that data to, again, basically improve our material and improve our efficiencies.

[00:24:24] Liz: Yes. Absolutely. It's great to have that data to make those decisions like you're saying.

[00:24:28] Ty: Exactly. Yes. I think as technology evolves, and we mentioned this earlier, but on that mixed waste sorting 10 years ago, we wouldn't be able to do this. Just throw that residue material into a stream and be able to pick things out, and then wash it and close the loop. Now we're doing that. I think the opportunities in the next five to 10 years are, again, just limitless.

[00:24:58] Liz: They really are. It'll be exciting to see. Where can listeners connect with you or learn more about TOMRA?

[00:25:05] Ty: Yes. Looked me up on LinkedIn, TOMRA. We are growing here in the Americas. We're essentially all over the place, but on LinkedIn, on all the social media outlets, basically Facebook or Instagram. Yes, love to talk, understand what currently is going on in everybody's world, and how they're using or not using technology sorting on the recycling side, but again, basically just talk about kind of that next step, and the processes, and the systems that we're moving forward to that circular economy and that closed loop.

Looking forward to getting out. I know it's been a rough last couple of years, being closed in. Hopefully, things go the right way with the world, and we're out at shows again, and see each other, and having that human connection. TOMRA is out there and available. You can ask any questions or anything. That's answered, ask any questions.

[00:26:22] Liz: I love that. Thanks for being so open to that. We look forward to keeping in touch, and watching how this all unfolds, and your journey continues. So thanks, Ty, for your time today. We learned a lot.

[00:26:34] Ty: Yes. Thank you for having me, and it's been a pleasure.

[00:26:39] Liz: Thank you. Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast, and if you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun, Nothing Wasted podcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.

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