For years, cities, states and companies have focused on weight- and volume-based goals when it comes to sustainable materials management and waste reduction. But now, some in the industry are questioning whether more systemic, lifecycle-centric goals might be more appropriate and effective.
Focusing on weight ends up emphasizing management of certain materials in the waste stream, such as glass or paper. Doing that may mean focusing resources on recycling products that may have less net benefit than trying to manage other, lighter materials.
Weight-based goals may not take into effect factors such as the energy that goes into producing certain materials or the complexities and costs inherent in recycling them. It also leaves out of the equation the potential roles producers could play in making products that are less problematic to recycle.
Advocates for new metrics argue that by taking a more systemic approach and developing different kinds of goals could lead to changes in policy that may ultimately have greater environmental impacts, conserve resources and reduce costs. And focusing on lifecycle management could take some hard-to-recycle products out of the stream entirely.
States including Oregon, Maryland and Washington and academic institutions such as the University of Florida have also begun to explore different performance metrics that may lead to better reuse of materials.
“Over the past few years, cities, states and academic institutions have begun to recognize that they can gain access to more information and data, which allows them to look more holistically at both the package and the product, the benefits of protecting the product and how important that connection is in terms of a higher-level, broader environmental impact that happens when we look at the whole lifecycle of both the packaging and the product,” says Susan Robinson, public federal affairs director at Waste Management.
Waste360 recently spoke with Robinson about Waste Management’s approach to sustainable materials management and how new performance metrics could better sustainable materials management in the future.
Waste360: What is Waste Management’s approach to sustainable materials management?
Susan Robinson: We decided to change our approach in 2015 after our former CEO was interviewed for an article that was published in The New York Times. We came away from that interview determined to improve the company’s environmental impacts and services offered. Ultimately, we realized that we can do anything customers want us to do, but there’s always going to be a cost associated with it.
Since 2015, we have been digging very deeply into the waste stream to improve our environmental impact and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy as proxies. We have also been working on using more data and marrying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s sustainable materials management model with some of our cost information to come up with a cost per ton of greenhouse gas emissions reduction in our industry. By doing this, we’re able to look at how we can prioritize getting the best environmental benefits we can possibly get from materials in the waste stream.
Two years ago, markets for materials were under pressure, and we continued to look at recycling and at how important recycling truly is. Lifecycle thinking lets you see how important recycling is because there are significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction benefits. There are many opportunities for us right now to do a good job in recycling materials, and we really need to focus on that as we move into the future.
Waste360: In 2016, Waste Management reduced 30.34 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. What are some of the efforts that made that possible?
Susan Robinson: Recycling materials such as plastics, metals, organics and paper played a big role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At Waste Management, we have a goal of recycling 20 million tons of material by 2020, and in the future, our goals will likely have more of an environmental component to them opposed to just a goal based on tonnage, which is what we have always had in the past.
Waste360: In a recent presentation given at the 19th Annual Joint PWIA - SWANA Fall Conference, you brought up a point about whether cities are making the right recycling goals. Tell us a little bit about that and what you think is realistic/unrealistic and why.
Susan Robinson: When you look at the recent changes in the waste stream, we have more material that weighs less because we are using more complex plastics. We are transitioning away from packaging made from paper, metal and glass and moving toward lighter-weight plastics that often meet our environmental benefits by using fewer resources, protecting the product better and making the packaging more efficient to both transport and ship.
All of those benefits are great; however, when you measure weight-based goals, you don’t have the ability to measure the value of reduction or lifecycle. Some cities are almost swimming upstream to achieve some of their weight-based goals that they set in the past because the waste stream is shifting around them.
Waste360: Do you think weight-based measurement is the way to go or could the industry use another effective method of measurement?
Susan Robinson: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. My “a-ha moment” was really when I started to understand that you need to create goals based on environmental attributes for burden reduction, which could be an energy reduction, a percentage reduction, a greenhouse gas emissions reduction, etc. But when you’re measuring your success to achieve those goals, you want to make sure you’re going to actually capture reduction. You can use weight as a metric to measure your success, but you want to make sure that you do it from a per capita perspective so that you’re actually capturing reduction.
Your per capita reduction should be a combination of disposal, recycling, composting, waste-to-energy, etc., so that you can truly see how that per capita reduces year over year. This is really the best way to understand the reductions you’re seeing across the board. In addition, you should make and track your environmental goals based on per capita. One of the reasons why we find that the greatest greenhouse gas emissions reductions benefits come from recycling is because you are reducing the amount of raw materials that need to be used. The environmental impact is in the mining and production of those raw materials so reducing the need for those raw materials is really where the vast majority of the benefits come from.
The city of Seattle held a workshop on November 2, where it discussed a range of options for its future goals, with sustainable materials management and lifecycle thinking playing a key role in the dialogue. The state of Washington is also looking at its plan and how the metrics might look different in the future.
In 2017, we have so much more information to work with, and what I am seeing is that the goal itself will perhaps be a different type of goal in the future. It could be an energy reduction goal or a recycling goal, for example.
The state of Oregon has a recycling goal of 52 percent by 2020, which is a very reasonable goal. The state has created specific material goals around recovery and reduction, and its food waste goal is really a good example of that. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has released a strategic plan for preventing the wasting of food, which highlights the value of packaging in food waste reduction and why it’s important that we don’t disconnect the two. The report also reveals that “preventing one ton of food from being wasted, for example, results in six times larger lifecycle greenhouse gas benefits, on average, than recycling one ton of food through composting. Compared with anaerobically digesting one ton of food, prevention results in seven times larger GHG benefits.”
Waste360: What are some of the biggest challenges that the industry is facing right now when it comes to sustainable materials management?
Susan Robinson: The market and what’s happening with China right now are certainly placing a focus on the quality of materials. I think the China ban could be a real opportunity for the U.S. to refocus, and I think the material that has the highest level of quality will find a home if China stops accepting certain materials.
The ban will provide the U.S. with an opportunity to look at the materials it’s managing to ensure that it is focusing on recycling the right materials and doing it well. Quality is important, and it’s something that the U.S. will really need to focus on both now and in the future.
Waste360: How are the States of Oregon and Florida shifting toward better sustainable materials management?
Susan Robinson: The state of Oregon is driving the change in the state, but the University of Florida is actually driving the change is Florida, which is very unique and important to note because it’s pretty rare that an academic intuition leads an effort like bettering sustainable materials management in a state.
In the state of Florida, there’s a lot of industry interest in improving sustainable materials management, but the effort is not coming from the state itself. The University of Florida has been using waste characterization studies to look at what materials are in its waste streams and to identify where the environmental impact or potential environmental impact is. By doing this, the university has suggested goals based on where the environmental benefits actually are.
While the states of Oregon and Florida are leading efforts in different ways, the process of incorporating sustainable materials management is very similar in both states.
Waste360: How can other states step up to the plate and develop effective and efficient sustainable materials management processes and goals?
Susan Robinson: This can be done in many different ways: Some states may develop a new plan for sustainable materials management, others may make sustainable materials management part of new legislation and some states may build a plan for sustainable materials management into their existing regulatory or legislative frameworks that they have currently.
Each state has an opportunity to look at how it manages materials to determine the right environmental perspective on how to better manage materials. For example, the Maryland Governor Larry Hogan recently issued an executive order to replace the state’s existing goal with a new sustainable materials management goal. Since June, the state began the process of creating a work group to push that effort forward. That is just one example of another state making the effort to better improve sustainable materials management.