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5 Challenges to Address the U.S. Recycling System with Technology

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The pandemic has made the planet more aware of how precious clean water and sanitation are for health, safety, and a better quality of life. Unfortunately, the United States is lagging behind other civilized nations in a very basic area -- the lack of a strong recycling system, along with a reporting system that is transparent and driven by key performance indicators that matter. The U.S. is known as one of the most wasteful developed countries — producing over 292 million tons of trash yearly, or approximately 4.9 pounds per person per day.

There are five looming challenges that need to be addressed to ensure we have the best possible chance at building the best possible recycling and reporting system.

  1. Supply chain challenges
    Manufacturers are having trouble getting the right type of plastic that is easily recyclable when producing and shipping products. Any delays result in tons of plastics that cannot be recycled, ending up in landfills for years to come. Clean recovery of plastics from recycling plants needs to be improved in order to enable and power the closed loop system.
  2. No actionable data

The core issue that the recycling industry is facing today is the lack of actionable, robust data to drive informed decisions. Currently, the industry is governed by mandates rather than data to show what is or is not really working.

  1. Updated measurement metrics
    Currently recycling outcomes are reported by tonnage rather than by object count. Packaging technology has evolved and now tends to be lighter and therefore is not reflected in a tonnage reporting system. In the last 45 years, the 2-liter plastic soft drink bottle has gone from weighing 68 grams to just 47 grams today, representing a 31 percent reduction per bottle,  according to the American Chemistry Council. That saved more than 180 million pounds of packaging in 2006 for just 2-liter soft drink bottles and the 1-gallon plastic milk jug has undergone a similar reduction, weighing 30 percent less than what it did 20 years ago. Beverage manufacturers are actually doing far better in recycling efforts if the actual number of bottles recycled is counted and reported.
  2. Looming labor shortage in waste management

The human labor shortage has left no industry untouched and many companies are resorting to looking at less traditional hiring pools. In addition, the sheer volume of recycling products in this country makes it impossible for recycling plants to handle demands without the use of automation. The use of automation is paramount for the industry to meet recycling recovery metrics and goals.

  1. Investment in automation is paramount.
    Startups working to solve the waste management and recycling sector received the equivalent of 0.125% of what has been spent on funding ($80B) self-driving cars. Currently, the technologies that the recycling industry is using are outdated as the machinery and as a result recovery often fails. The move to automation will ensure capital projects are investing for the long term as it relates to infrastructure within the facilities themselves. Automation equipment should adapt to the changing packaging materials in near real time and only AI can make that happen.

Silicon Valley funding flows easily for the next new gadget or gizmo for entertainment but it can be slow to support innovation and creativity that can make the world a better and healthier place as we work to address climate change. We need more funding for startups that are solving recycling industry problems because they are actually solvable with current technologies. Although nearly 70% of the waste we produce every day is recyclable, less than a quarter of it is actually recycled.

The good news is that technology and innovation are hard at work in this industry, many national and international brands are in trials to make better packaging for their products that are easily recycled. It is refreshing that the world’s biggest brands are taking the cradle to grave viewpoint for packaging and production for a long-term, sustainable solution to the lack of effective recycling that is impacting our landfills.

The time is now to leverage data to identify what works and what doesn’t, and build automated products to handle the burgeoning volume of objects in our recycling system and most importantly build a truly connected system that allows waste companies, recycling companies and manufacturers to assess, react and better respond to escalating issues.

Along with the entire industry, we are working towards the ultimate goal: No Recyclables Left Behind.


JD Ambati, is the CEO and Founder of EverestLabs.ai and an entrepreneurial executive with over 20 years of experience in building and scaling startups from infancy to successful exits. Prior to starting EverestLabs, JD held leadership roles in product development, sales and strategy at RocketFuel (IPO), Fandom (acquired by TPG), Martini Media (acquired by Evolve Media) and 24/7 Real Media (acquired by WPP). JD has been evangelizing the benefits of AI since 2000. He has a Master’s degree in Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence) and Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering.


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