The future ain’t what it used to be

Columns - Waste Watch

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September 13, 2018
Steve Simmons


It’s mid-August, the dog days of summer are upon us and for baseball lovers like myself, excitement is building as the playoffs near. As I sit down to write this with the state of the waste and recycling industries in mind, I can’t help but think about a quote from Yankees legend Yogi Berra that is appropriate for what we’re seeing today: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

It seems like only yesterday when the measurement of success for our recycling programs was the amount of material we sent to material recovery facilities (MRFs) instead of directly to landfill. In some cases, this manifested itself in waste being placed into recycling containers, causing operational problems in recycling facilities that were not designed for high levels of contamination.

At an industry conference this spring, I heard a waste industry CEO lament that garden hoses and deer heads were not recyclable, but they continued showing up in the residential single -stream feed.

Unfortunately, this type of contamination isn’t all that unique today. However, I like to think we’ve learned a little bit as an industry in the last decade or two. Where talk on the future of recycling used to revolve around how to increase volume, more people are instead focused on how to ensure recovered material quality, measure its true environmental benefit and increase its value as we transition as an industry.

“Where talk on the future of recycling used to revolve around how to increase volume, more people are instead focused on how to ensure recovered material quality, measure its true environmental benefit and increase its value as we transition as an industry.” -Steve Simmons

Our conversations on recycling also used to be filled with talk of how cheaply we could ship our material to China, Vietnam or some other magical place that wasn’t the U.S. But those countries no longer want our low-value discarded materials. More countries are shutting off waste material imports, and bales of mixed paper and mixed plastic are piling up here at home. The result is that tons of this material will likely end up being landfilled. This is surely not the future of recycling.

I believe we must rethink how we reuse or recycle our discarded materials in the U.S. The thought is not original to me, many others have espoused the concept for years, but in the past 12 months, new exporting constraints have put a renewed urgency upon recycling in the U.S. The realization of this concept where we reuse or recycle the lion’s share of our materials won’t happen overnight. It will require new consumer product designs, manufacturing processes and material supply chains, and our discarded material recovery and processing infrastructure will likely need to be rebuilt. The challenges will be great.

One new paradigm is the sustainable business park or resource park, where complementary businesses and industrial facilities interdependently benefit from the products and/or byproducts of other facilities sited nearby. Forward-thinking communities like Phoenix and Kent County, Michigan, are developing these specialty parks that not only house facilities to recover discarded materials, but are also home to intermediate material processors and product manufacturers, all on a single site. At these sites, truly nonrecyclable material could be processed for its energy content and used to energize the park. A system wherein discarded materials flow into one end of the resource park and new car bumpers for General Motors, for instance, come out the other end may not be a reality today, but it is a vision for the future I’d like to see.

The old recycling status quo of the past two to three decades is broken and unlikely to return. We will need to create many new ways of doing business to allow recycling to prosper in the coming years, which will take a team of visionaries to shape.

While the future of recycling ain’t what it used to be, with a little work, it could be brighter than it ever was.