CHICAGO — Sharon H. Kneiss is approaching her first anniversary on the job as leader of the Environmental Industry Associations.
The president and CEO of the trade group, which includes both the National Solid Wastes Management Association and the Waste Equipment Technology Association, was recently the keynote speaker at the Residential Recycling Conference in Chicago. Kneiss recently took part in a question-and-answer session about the role private solid waste management companies play in recycling.
Some comments have been edited due to space limitations.
Q: One word: Recycling. What does that mean to you?
A: I'm proud to be representing the industry that's leading the way in providing and promoting recycling. We're building large facilities with state-of-the-art technology and high efficiencies. The industry has 80 percent of capacity for recycling. Primarily [recycling] is a partnership among our industry, municipalities and the public. Tremendous benefits, it includes conservation, energy savings and other environmental benefits; It's also expanding technology. It's extracting value from materials and expanding markets.
Q: What is your broad assessment of where the nation is at currently in terms of recycling?
A: We've come a long way. Since the 1960s, rates have increased more than five-fold. Recycling rates continue to increase, although at a lower rate of increase.
What's most amazing is the technology improvement. Tremendous improvement in technology along with education and better access to recycling, including curbside recycling. And these have produced significant increases and efficiencies in the process. And I think we're going to see more efficiencies. We've expanded markets for recycled material, and we see opportunities for further expansion.
There is an evolution, actually, of the mix that's in the bin. And some of this is due to improvements in the system, some of it's due to expanding markets and some of it is actually due to the actions of retailers to change packaging. So were seeing more plastics than glass. We're seeing less paper and, of course, some of that is due to the electronic age.
But it is a changing situation. And we're seeing major corporations focusing their efforts on recycling and that has an impact on the market.
Q: What are the challenges you see moving forward in advancing higher levels of recycling?
A: I see some of the challenges as well as … opportunities. The recycling of organics, that's challenging. It's a big opportunity as well.
And of course, the issues, there are the economics. And some physical issues like odor control, moisture, how do you collect it effectively, things like that. But that's the next big frontier for recycling.
Other challenges are fluctuations in the commodity markets and market demand. And, of course, we saw that significantly last year.
The regulatory climate, whether it promotes private industry efforts in recycling or it serves as a detriment. And then education, the importance of education in recycling.
Q: And what are the opportunities? What does the future hold?
A: Sixty-three percent of households have access to curbside recycling. … I think there's the possibility of expansion. … Continued technology improvements. The improvements to technology are amazing in optical scanning, sorting, and as a result, line speeds have significantly increased with greater accuracy.
Improving the economics in organics processing and then energy generation. Especially some of the larger companies are looking at all kinds of exciting opportunities in energy generation.
And, of course, a lot of private haulers are moving their fleets to CNG-powered fleets, which is pretty exciting.
Q: How has the private sector helped push recycling volumes higher over time?
A: Private industry is responsible for 80 percent of the recycling capacity in the United States. They are building highly efficient facilities and very large facilities so they can serve the needs regionally.
They also contribute to the education of recycling [and] collection technology development. When I entered this industry, I was fascinated by the rapid pace of improvements in technology on the recycling side.The technology is changing and improving rapidly.
Also the bottom line is easier access for collection, and one of the biggest contributors to that was single-stream recycling.