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Weighing the next 40 years of recycling

By: Catherine Kavanaugh

September 4, 2013

Editor's Note: This story appears in Waste & Recycling News' commemorative issue, "40 Years of Curbside Recycling."

Recycling at high-rise apartments offers a great opportunity to collect a large amount of materials from one location, but containers that tenants empty their household bins into can fill fast, especially on weekends.

Instead of toting the potential commodities back to their unit, some residents trash them.

Overcoming the hurdles to convenient recycling at multiple-family housing needs to be addressed, said Steven Thompson, executive director of Curbside Value Partnership, a non-profit group that works with cities and states to increase participation.

"You have to have architects designing multiple chutes on the 30th floor instead of just one for trash," Thompson said. "That's going to take a lot of work and a lot of time."

He hopes it is one of the changes that come about in the next 40 years for curbside recycling.

"There are conundrums the industry doesn't have its head around, like rural areas," Thompson said. "It's very hard to cost-effectively recycle when you have three miles between mailboxes."

The 40th anniversary of curbside recycling begs the question: What will it be like in the next four decades? What quandaries will be cleared up? What new ones will pop up?

Waste & Recycling News asked some of the leaders in the industry to look into their crystal balls and offer a glimpse of what may be in 2053.

The predictions, aspirations and cautions ranged from boosting the recycling rate beyond 34% to finding profitable solutions to problems and to this warning: Without more attention to quality control during processing, the pendulum could take an ugly swing backward to manufacturers using virgin material.

Steve Miller, CEO of Bulk Handling Systems, sees several trends moving forward, such as more mixing of materials, better technology to extract materials, and higher quality of extracted materials for reprocessing today's common recyclables.

There will be less left to waste if advances in refuse-derived fuel take some big steps forward in the next four decades, he added. All eyes and many minds are on the organic fraction of the waste stream and anaerobic digestion.

Miller expects the industry to next go after materials like used paper plates, tissues and towels, and plastic films.

"[They're] not in sufficient quantity to have a commodity value to them but when thought of as an energy source they have a high-caloric value to them and could be utilized that way," Miller said. "When you go forward I think there will be much more work in that area."

Contaminated paper products, which can't be recovered as a fiber source, and other components of the light and high-energy fraction could become a refuse-derived fuel that helps utilities power plants now using coal or natural gas.

Thompson also sees more waste-to-energy facilities on the horizon and his fingers are crossed the option doesn't deter recycling.

"Waste-to-energy needs to be thought through so it doesn't become a reason not to recycle," he said. "People might say, 'Oh we don't need to do that. We'll just burn it.' There are ways they can co-exist nicely and have a high functionality but it needs to be carefully designed and implemented."

For now, the industry is stumped as to how to remove the so-called "frozen fuel" of plastic film — grocery bags, dry cleaners bags, and the clear packaging for men's dress shirts — that gets intertwined with recyclables.

"That material is substantially more than what people think," said Nathiel Egosi, owner and founder of RRT Design & Construction. "It's problematic to process because it's difficult to remove in an automatic fashion."

Egosi expects those pesky flexible plastic packages to be sorted in some systematic way in upcoming years.

"It's not a desirable material in bales of plastic and other types of commodities," he said. "The whole industry is working to develop a technique to get that plastic film out."

MRFs will evolve to process more materials and do so more economically in the next 40 years, said Bill Moore, president of the consulting firm Moore & Associates. In the 1990s, a big MRF cost $1 million to build and handled 100 tons of material a day; today, $20 million MRFs process 1,000 tons daily, he said.

"I suspect we'll grow that with more regional facilities," Moore said. "MRFs will continue to look like sophisticated manufacturing operations. They bring in raw materials and process it. That's the mindset. They are manufacturers creating value out of product."

Mick Barry, a board member of the National Recycling Coalition, is rooting for dual-stream recycling to win out over single-stream. He's concerned about commingled recyclables causing impurity problems with the finished product and turning off buyers.

Barry, who also is a materials broker, points to China's "Green Fence." The crackdown on imported waste is more than a short-term awareness campaign about sub-standard scrap, Barry said. He sees it as a long-term, quality-control initiative that affects one of America's top exports.

There is no longer a ready market in China for impure bales of plastic, paper and other recyclables from the U.S. and Europe.

"We've got to clean up our act," Barry said. "The [United Kingdom] sent too much junk in with plastic and they finally cut the U.K. off. They sent a message to the world: Hey, enough is enough. Don't dump on us and blame us for being the garbage guys of the world."

It's critical that all U.S. recyclers remember their bottom line is creating a raw material from a used material and not simply recovering things from the waste stream, Barry said. His message: Have some pride of ownership.

"If we don't go back to that, we will lose our position as the primary source of materials for manufacturing product back to the virgin base," Barry said.

Kate Krebs, a former director of the NRC, envisions a future with no waste at all.

"Waste to me is a design flaw," she said. "If you design a product correctly, you factor in not only the form and function but end of life. That thinking is permeating through our global manufacturing side. That helps us shift. If we really got the consumer marketing going and we continue to spread end-of-life strategies to the makers of product, looking ahead 40 years we should have a much more efficient, simple system."