Category Archives: Environmental News

Something might be missing in that sustainable packaging playbook.

As we embark on 2017 a number of companies have rolled-out their packaging sustainability initiatives. I have to wonder, what the heck are some of them doing?  Last I checked the major problem is still the environmental impact that plastic waste is having on our planet – right?  I assume so, considering the latest projections estimate more plastic waste in the oceans (by weight) than fish by 2050. Which is plausible since production is through the roof and expected to double in the next 20 years, while we continue to struggle with dismal recovery rates and an antiquated view of recycling.

You might have also noticed an increase in the demand for clean, renewable energy.  With the world needing to greatly increase energy supply in the future, especially cleanly-generated electricity, this has become a top prioritySo, with that being said, how is it that the major producers of single-use plastic packaging seem to be unable to truly define the most common means of disposal and the value that can be achieved by simply complying with this fact?  Instead, they continue to irrationally demonize an asset that sits right under their proverbial noses.

Let’s try this exercise together. Let’s say you’re one of the giant producers of plastic packaging (Unilever, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, Pepsico, Kraft) and I were to ask you, what’s the most common disposal method of the plastic packaging you produce?  The collective and honest answer, albeit extremely basic, is a landfill. However, before panic sets in over this fact, let’s take a moment to define this a little more accurately.  Because today, 85% of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. actually ends-up in well-managed and heavily regulated anaerobic environment that controls and converts biogas into clean renewable energy. This is a fact and these facilities are generating power for communities and businesses, providing heat for homes and fuel for vehicles.

Can we stop pretending that this is a mystery? Recognize the innovations around how we manage waste and see what’s happening today. GM harnesses landfill-gas-to-energy for its 2.08-million square-foot facility reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 5,000 tons a year!  Tammy Giroux, manager of government relations for GM said, “(It’s) good for the environment, good for business and good for the community.” Waste Management’s landfill-gas-to-energy facilities power the equivalent of 470,000 households, offsetting 2.5 million tons of coal and 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. At the 2016 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans, David Steiner (former CEO of Waste Management) specified, “When you combine state-of-the-art landfill gas-to-energy systems with best-in-class recycling…That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck environmentally.”  So why aren’t these major producers of single-cycle packaging including energy recovery as part of the overall “recycling” efforts and ensuring performance compliance with this asset?

Please don’t tell me that the molecules that make-up my bag of chips are far too valuable to waste and that it would make more sense to collect, sort and process this material into a worthless commodity rather than ensuring its removed from the environment and converted into energy.  Or worse, jeopardize both product stability and performance (including the ability to recycle) to achieve performance compliance with the least common disposal method that offers no end-of-life value.

According to the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), consumers are generating 6 lbs. of waste per day. It would take heavy-handed regulations and stiff government subsidies to program consumers into becoming hyper-vigilant garbage sorters.  For the foreseeable future, the political atmosphere does not appear to be conducive for such tactics.  We need to be smarter about the options before us and increase the value that can be derived from our existing infrastructures.  When high recycling rates are touted around the world, they usually include waste-to-energy.  Yet, too many companies still manage to overlook this valuable resource, disregarding the intrinsic environmental and economic benefits that it offers.   Hopefully, as we set forth into a new era, more emphasis will be placed on using LCA’s and factual scientific data to address the sustainability challenges we face.

Landfill Gas-to-Energy Turning waste into energy.

ENGINEERING MARVELS
Advanced Disposal’s landfills are impressive engineering structures that offer proven protection to the natural environment while providing a vital service to governments, businesses and residents. They are managed and operated meticulously, providing a safe and cost-effective disposal option for community waste.

Advanced Disposal engineers and designs its facilities with the latest technology in the waste industry. We incorporate state-of-the-art systems that include: Bottom Liner Systems, Leachate Collection Systems and Gas Collection Systems for our municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.

ENERGY CONSERVERS

Landfill gas collection systems are how modern landfills deal with gases created within the waste. The landfill gas that is collected contains approximately 50% methane and is either destroyed by combusting it in a flare or is diverted to an on-site treatment facility for the conversion of this gas to energy. The conversion of landfill gas to energy is an effective means of recycling and reusing this valuable resource.

Here’s how the process to convert this valuable resource to energy works: as landfill cells are filled with waste, methane gas, a byproduct of any decomposing material, is collected from within the waste through a system of vertical wells and pipelines and directed to a separate on-site treatment facility. The treated landfill gas is either pumped off site to a manufacturer near the landfill to supplement or replace their natural gas usage or is used to generate electricity right at the landfill that is delivered to the electrical grid.

Another benefit of the destruction or utilization of this landfill gas is that it prevents the raw methane in the gas from escaping into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. At some Advanced Disposal landfills, the installation of these collection systems to destroy the methane in the landfill gas is done on a voluntary basis, and thus, we receive credit for reducing the impact of this greenhouse gas on the environment. Advanced Disposal is a registered participant with the Climate Action Reserve and upon completion of a thorough verification process established by the Reserve, Advanced Disposal is awarded carbon offset credits that can be sold to other consumers or utilities that desire to offset their greenhouse gas generation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has endorsed landfill gas as an environmentally friendly energy resource that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. Advanced Disposal is an active participant in landfill gas-to-energy projects at our MSW landfills and continues to look for smart solutions for solving our community’s needs.

To read the original article click here: http://www.advanceddisposal.com/for-mother-earth/education-zone/landfill-gas-to-energy.aspx

Power Packed Plastic Packaging

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ENSO’s technology provides a value investment in sustainable packaging. Our material is added to standard resins (including biopolymers) at a 1% load rate during the manufacturing process, just like a colorant. There are no changes in processing parameters or any performance characteristics. However, it ensures proper performance compliance within our anaerobic waste environments. Anaerobic digesters, bioreactors and today’s modern landfills continue to be the single-most common disposal method of plastic packaging and all contribute to the energy revolution that is upon us.  Within these active infrastructures we have an opportunity to reduce environmental plastic waste and recoup end-of-life value.

Waste-to-Energy (WtE) is an active and growing resource, available throughout the developing world. In the U.S. alone, ENSO’s technology provides an immediate 85% capture rate to reduce greenhouse gases and over 75% conversion of biogas into clean alternative energy. The returns are significant, measurable and applicable to greenhouse gas initiatives, energy recovery efforts and the environmental waste problem.  Plus, it provides intrinsic value for consumers as well. With both world and U.S. energy demand expected to increase in the future, America’s energy resources will only grow in importance. Ensuring today’s plastics will be tomorrow’s energy is inseparable from America’s larger prospects for improved economic growth, job creation, security and quality of life.

For less than the average price fluctuation of raw material, pennies on the dollar, ENSO can put real power in your packaging. It is the most efficient way, both economically and environmentally, to elevate the end-of-life value through energy recovery.  Get it out of the environment and into the grid, join the energy revolution!

To learn more, please contact ENSO Plastics.

Renewable Energy: GM Plant Using Landfill Gas to Produce 54% of Its Electricity

A General Motors (GM) assembly plant based in Lake Orion, Mich., is ranked as the eighth largest user of green power generated onsite in the United States among the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership (GPP) partners. Over half of the automaker’s plant is powered by methane captured from a nearby landfill.

Orion Assembly, where GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV is built, saves $1 million a year by using renewable energy. The plant also is home to a 350-kilowatt solar array that sends energy back to the grid.

The EPA launched the GPP in 2001 to increase the use of renewable electricity in the U.S. It is a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use, according to the EPA website.

Waste360 recently sat down with Rob Threlkeld, global manager of renewable energy for General Motors based in Detroit, Mich., to discuss the company’s use of renewable energy.

Waste360: What is the process or technology used to capture the methane?

Rob Threlkeld: Landfill gas wells are installed in the landfill to capture the methane. A vacuum pulls the gas from the well through a pipe system. The gas is compressed and dried and sent to GM Orion Assembly to generate electricity. The compressed landfill gas is burned in on site generators to make electricity.

Waste360: How much energy is created and how is it used?

Rob Threlkeld: Orion Assembly generates up to 8 megawatts of electricity from landfill gas and that electricity powers the plant. Orion is producing 54 percent of its own electricity instead of buying it from a utility.

Waste360: Which landfills does the methane come from and what are their histories?

Rob Threlkeld: The landfill gas used at Orion Assembly comes from two nearby landfills, Eagle Valley, which is owned by Waste Management, and Oakland Heights Landfill, which is owned by Republic Services.

We’ve been pulling landfill gas from both landfills since 2002 to generate steam for heating and cooling. We’ve since reduced steam loads to the plant by improving the facility’s energy efficiency. In 2014, we started producing electricity from landfill gas on site. Fifty-four percent of the site’s electricity consumption comes from landfill gas. Both landfills are still open.

Waste360: Why did GM decide to become an Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership Partner?

Rob Threlkeld: We decided to become an EPA Green Power Partner to help show our leadership position in the renewable energy space and demonstrate the benefits of using renewable energy, including reduced energy costs and reduced CO2 emissions.

Waste360: How does the program benefit GM?

Rob Threlkeld: The GPP provides a third party stamp of our leadership in the renewable energy space to address climate change and reduce energy costs. We’re also eager to promote the use of renewable energy and make the case that other corporations, big and small, can use it, too. Being a Green Power Partner also provides tools and resources like communications assets, trainings and opportunities to connect with other partners.

Waste360: How many other GM plants use renewable energy?

Rob Threlkeld: Twenty-eight facilities use some form of renewable energy. Several sites, like Orion Assembly and Fort Wayne Assembly, source multiple types of renewable energy. Both of these facilities use landfill gas for electricity and host solar arrays. Combined, our facilities promote the use of 106 megawatts of renewable energy globally.

GM is a member of the Buyers Renewables Center and the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance. These organizations aim to accelerate corporate renewable energy procurement to help address climate change. As a member of these groups, we can share best practices in renewable energy procurement with others who are looking to scale up.

Megan Greenwalt | Aug 02, 2016

Read the original article http://www.waste360.com/gas-energy/gm-plant-using-landfill-gas-produce-54-its-electricity?utm_test=redirect&utm_referrer

Turning trash into energy makes good business sense

Many people probably don’t think their local landfills are more than a final resting place for waste. But companies like Apple and General Motors are using them as a source of renewable energy that reduces their costs and impact on the environment.

On average, Americans throw away five pounds of trash per person per day. Despite widespread efforts to encourage recycling and reuse, a Yale University research team found Americans only recycle about 21.4% of their waste. The resultant constant supply of decomposing trash makes landfills the third-largest human-created source of methane emissions in the US.

Methane as a greenhouse gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Unregulated and untreated, it can lead to smog, contribute to global warming and even cause health problems. But there’s a silver lining: generating energy from methane offers benefits like improved air quality and reduced expenses and waste.

To that end, a landfill gas energy project captures 60% to 90% percent of methane generated in the dump. It also avoids the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that would have been used otherwise.

Trashy transformation

Here’s how that food wrapper or hole-filled sock you threw away turns into electricity.

1 After nearly a year of sitting in a landfill, bacteria begin to break down the waste and generate methane as a natural byproduct.

2 As sections of the landfill are filled, they are capped and closed off to additional garbage. Methane collection wells are added.

3 Methane is collected in wells or trenches that are connected to piping. A vacuum or blower system pulls the gas through the pipes to a collection head, which sends the gas to a treatment system.

4 The warm landfill gas cools as it travels through the collection system. The gas is treated to remove water condensation as well as particulates and other impurities, keeping the system clear so that energy recovery is not disrupted.

5 The methane passes through another filter where it is compressed.

6 The gas is then piped to a plant where electricity is generated, powering the facility’s engines or turbines which generate the power.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 0.67 megawatts of electricity is produced for every 1m tons of solid municipal waste. Landfill gas helps to manufacture items we use every day – such as aluminum, electronics and vehicles. Landfill gas can also be sent to a boiler to generate steam for a building’s heating and cooling system.

Companies benefit while helping the planet

GM invested in electrical generation equipment in 2013 to convert landfill gas to energy, making it the first automaker in North America to invest capital to create its own electricity. The equipment at GM’s Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Orion, Michigan, assembly plants together generate more than 14 megawatts of electricity from landfill gas. This helps the company avoid producing more than 89,000 metric tons of CO2 per year – equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 18,542 passenger vehicles.

It’s a strong business case: GM saves several million dollars annually at these facilities. It also acts as a long-term hedge against volatile energy prices. Both plants rank on the EPA’s Green Power Partner list of top onsite generators of green power.

Apple recently secured an agreement with North Carolina to build a facility that generates electricity from landfill gas. Although all of Apple’s US operations are completely powered by renewable energy, the project supports the company’s new subsidiary, which sells surplus power generated by its solar farms to other companies.

Landfill gas projects are on the rise. Their number increased by 300% since 1995 in the US, according to the EPA. Today, 648 operational projects create 2,099 megawatts of energy. An additional 400 candidate landfills have the potential to support such projects.

The EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) provides assistance for companies that are thinking about adding landfill gas to their renewable energy portfolios. EPA LMOP connects businesses, agencies, organizations and governments to experts.

“EPA applauds organizations’ demonstrated use of green power as a means to reduce their own carbon footprint,” said James Critchfield, manager of EPA’s Green Power Partnership. “Organizations are increasingly realizing meaningful environmental and economic benefits, particularly when they engage with new renewable energy projects.”

With so many active projects found in the US and around the world, the use of landfill gas as a resource is expected to grow. Germany, the world’s top producer, generated enough electricity this way to power 3.5m homes in 2009. Methane may also be purified to create the liquefied or compressed natural gas that powers many garbage trucks and city buses.

“Capturing landfill gas for energy makes sense from a business perspective, but the biggest benefit is to the environment,” says Rob Threlkeld, GM’s global manager of renewable energy. “If we can capture a greenhouse gas and prevent it from entering the atmosphere while generating a cost savings, that’s a win all around.”

Read the full original article found on theguardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/general-motors-partner-zone/2016/sep/07/trash-landfill-generate-energy-methane-greenhouse-gas

The Top 10 and Not a 1?

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This diagram represents the top ten producers of plastic packaging. The vast majority of the plastic applications that are produced by these brands become waste. All the film packaging, pouches, diapers, detergents, hygiene products, wrappers, coffee bags, food containers and much more, that’s produced by these 10 companies accounts for an astonishing amount of the plastic waste that is certainly not being reused or recycled in any meaningful way.

We hear a lot that environmental pollution is a consumer problem. We get told how to prepare our waste for recycling. “Put this here and put that there. No! Not that, this. Well, sometimes that, but probably not. Maybe, use water and wash it out. No wait – water..? Take it here or actually take it someplace over there.  Otherwise, it may need to be shipped somewhere..?”  And when you stop to take a look at the results of all this effort, you’re left wondering, are you kidding me, is all this even environmental? Enough already!

News Flash: In the last 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in how we manage waste and the infrastructures we utilize. They’re very impressive works of innovation and they’re regulated for environmental efficiency at the highest level. In fact, today 85% of all U.S. municipal solid waste ends-up in an environment that converts biogas into clean energy, generating a valuable alternative resource for our growing energy needs. Some of these companies are actually using the same means to power their own manufacturing facilities! Yet, accountability for this aspect in packaging design is scarce. How is this being overlooked?

We’re now dealing with decades of plastic waste that’s been left in our environment; we see the devastating repercussions and the projected damage it will cause. Plastic production has surged to 311 million tons and is expected to double in 20 years. Currently, plastic packaging accounts for nearly a third of the total volume of plastics used, and unlikely to be recycled. By ignoring the single most common disposal method of this material, valuable energy is being wasted and continues to compound the environmental problem.

If these 10 companies took one simple step to ensure packaging design for disposal compliance, the impact would provide tremendous and measurable value, for company and community. Getting plastics out of our environment and into the grid falls on the shoulders of producers not consumers.

Ensuring energy recovery should be paramount in packaging design, it’s the only opportunity to recoup value and it should be the top consideration in packaging sustainability initiatives. It’s the missing link to creating circularity; it’s recycling at its highest peak. With an immediate 85% capture rate at the fingertips of corporate sustainability leaders, what are you waiting for?

A Look at the Largest Landfill Gas-To-Energy Project in Georgia

The three new plants, combined with Republic’s Hickory Ridge landfill operation, establish Republic and Mas Energy’s landfill gas-to-energy portfolio as the largest in Georgia.

Republic Services Inc. recently unveiled a new renewable energy project with partner Mas Energy LLC that will serve the Metro Atlanta area, generating 24.1 megawatts of electricity, or enough renewable energy to power 15,665 households.

“The energy will be supplied to Georgia Power for distribution throughout the local electric grid. In all likelihood, Georgia Power’s retail electric customers in Metro Atlanta will utilize the energy,” says Michael Hall, principal and chief development officer for Mas Energy based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Their agreement, which also includes partners Georgia Power, I Squared Capital, Crowder Construction Company and Nixon Energy, is for 20 years and will convert methane captured from three local landfills at gas-to-energy facilities in the cities of Buford, Griffin and Winder. Those landfills combined have an approximate daily volume of 7,000 tons.

The three plants, combined with Republic’s Hickory Ridge landfill operation, establish Republic and Mas Energy’s landfill gas-to-energy portfolio as the largest in Georgia,” says Michael Meuse, general manager for Republic Services in Atlanta, Ga.

Landfill gas-to-energy projects like these involve capturing methane, a byproduct of the normal decomposition of waste, from the subsurface and routing the methane to a series of engines. These engines convert the methane into electricity, which can be distributed to the local power grid.

“Methane is a greenhouse gas that is naturally produced as organic waste breaks down anaerobically in landfills,” says Meuse. “Methane gas is recovered by the gas collection systems. Gas wells are driven into the waste mass and powerful blowers are used to create a vacuum to draw out and pipe the gas to the energy plant.”

The system then converts the methane gas into a clean-burning fuel.

“The power generation facility utilizes internal combustion engines fueled by the collected and treated landfill gas to produce electricity, which is then delivered to Georgia Power’s transmission and distribution system,” says Hall.

The partnership was fueled by Georgia embracing renewable and clean energy projects within state lines.

“In 2006, Georgia’s Public Service Commission established the ‘QF Proxy Unit Methodology’, whereby qualifying facilities in the state of Georgia were eligible to enter into power purchase agreements (PPA) with Georgia Power that recognized the full value of renewable and clean energy to Georgia consumers,” says Hall. “Mas Energy secured its PPA in early 2014 and brought Republic Services a proposal to build plants at Republic’s Atlanta sites.”

Republic and Mas Energy had previously collaborated on a project at Republic’s now-closed Hickory Ridge landfill site.

“Based on that positive experience, the agreements were made between Mas Energy and Republic Services to develop the (recently announced) projects,” says Hall.

Meuse says that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculations, energy produced from landfill gas-to-energy facilities will offset the equivalent of: carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 127,795,779 gallons of gasoline; carbon sequestered by 930,919 acres of U.S. forests; and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 6,090 railcars’ worth of coal burned.

“Projects such as these reduce reliance on non-renewable resources (coal and natural gas), reduce methane emissions from the site, and eliminate emissions from flares previously used for gas destruction,” he says.

Read original article in Waste 360 written by Megan Greenwalt @ http://beta.waste360.com/gas-energy/look-largest-landfill-gas-energy-project-georgia?utm_test=redirect&utm_referrer=

Alameda and Palo Alto, CA, Use Landfill Gas as Reliable Source of Renewable Energy

One of California’s largest renewable energy projects, a landfill-gas-to-energy station at Republic Services‘ Ox Mountain Landfill in Half Moon Bay, has been generating renewable energy for the cities of Alameda and Palo Alto. The annual electricity generated by the Ox Mountain project prevents the release of 71,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. That is the equivalent of taking 11,800 cars off the road.

Alameda Municipal Power purchases 85 percent of its power from renewable energy resources. The Ox Mountain plant alone provides approximately 11 percent of the electricity consumed in the East Bay community. This new facility is one of four landfill-gas-to-energy resources presently powering Alameda. As a result more than 20 percent of Alameda’s power is being generated by landfill-gas-to-energy plants.

As a result of its utility’s power portfolio, Alameda ranks among the lowest in greenhouse gas emissions in California. Known as “The Greenest Little Utility in America,” environmental responsibility has been a major criterion in power resource selection and development by the utility since the 1980s. “The landfill-gas-to-energy project at Ox Mountain allows us to offer our customers another carbon-free source of power, and continue our quarter century commitment to renewable energy,” said Ann L. McCormick, P.E., President of the City of Alameda Public Utilities Board.

The nearby city of Palo Alto similarly had adopted goals of meeting 33 percent of its electric needs by 2015 with new qualifying renewable resources like the Ox Mountain Landfill. Palo Alto’s share of the project was projected to supply about 4 percent of the city’s electric needs. “Making use of this renewable energy resource reduces the amount of market power we have to purchase, which reduces the need for fossil fuel-powered electric generation in California,” said Peter Drekmeier, former Mayor of the City of Palo Alto. “By burning methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, this project has the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the landfill.”

Landfill gas is created when organic waste in landfills decomposes, producing methane–the primary ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas. The landfill gas to energy plant captures the methane and turns it into electricity for use by residential and business customers. Converting landfill gas to energy prevents the release of greenhouse gases and creates electricity from a renewable, affordable source—reducing the need for power created from fossil fuels.

“The commissioning of this significant renewable energy resource for the people of California is another example of Republic’s commitment to the environment,” said Jeff Andrews, Senior Vice President West Region, Republic Services, Inc. “This is a larger plant in terms of renewable electricity production from landfill gas, and also represents the current best available technology for emissions controls, making it an extremely clean renewable energy source.”

Read the original message here: http://beginwiththebin.org/innovation/landfill-gas-renewable-energy

Recovery Cannot be Ignored in a Circular Economy :

Hierarchy

There’s about 78 million tons of plastic waste produced each year that is non-recyclable, non-reusable, already light-weighted and unavoidable. The next feasible option we have to “cycle” this material at its highest level possible is in energy recovery.  Fortunately, the vast majority of this material is already entering a waste-to-energy facility and there’s no need for infrastructure or behavioral changes. For this to happen, these applications simply need to be designed conducive for anaerobic environments.

The recovery of Landfill Gas-to-Energy provides predictable results and a better value proposition for single-cycle applications than any other disposal method we have available today.   As we embark on creating a “Circular Economy” we need to harness the resources available to us.  The idea is to recoup, or recover, the greatest value possible within a products life-cycle, including disposal.  Plastics cannot be recycled perpetually, it is not an end-of-life solution.  In order to get plastics out of the environment and into the grid, it falls on producers, the brands and manufactures, to ensure its applications are designed to comply with this disposal method.

A collaborative approach is vital, yet there are still some companies, even ones who’ve pledged their commitment to creating a circular economy, that scoff at the idea. Unwilling to design for disposal and dismissing the returns of alternative energy, they stay committed to a recurrent single strategy for nearly half a century.  Is it because consumers won’t understand?  I doubt that, but using consumer comprehension as a litmus test in harnessing innovation may not be the best idea.  Besides, as a consumer myself, I’d prefer an honest approach that provides intrinsic benefits, and less of my own involvement, to being misled that anything’s really being done at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Recycle More? Or…Recycle Better?

Guest Blog by Susan Robinson, Senior Public Affairs Director for Waste Management

The other day, two colleagues from the waste and recycling world asked me to help settle a dispute. These two very smart people—one with a Ph.D.—were debating the composition of a plastic microwave tray and how it might be recycled…or not. Should they just toss it in the bin for the recycler to deal with? Municipal guidelines were unclear, but it felt wrong to just throw it in the trash. In the end, they tossed it into the single-stream recycling bin and hoped it would be recycled.

The episode left me wondering. If even we in the waste management world are so confused, what does this mean for the success of recycling in general?

Changing Habits, Changing Waste

Remember newspapers? Once common in American households, newspapers are increasingly a relic, as more and more of us read our news on computers or portable devices. The result? The United States generates a whopping 50 percent less newspaper than we did a decade ago, and 20 percent less paper overall. That’s a huge decrease for a ten-year stretch.

While paper use has declined, the use of plastics has exploded, with new resins and polymers allowing for new possibilities in packaging. Changing demographics—especially the large Baby Boomer and Millennial generations —mean that more consumers are choosing convenient, single-serve packages for meals and snacks.

At the same time, an emphasis on fresh, healthy, and convenient foods is driving a boom in plastic packaging, which can reduce food waste to the tune of preventing 1.7 pounds of food waste for each pound of plastics packaging. However, there is a loss of recyclability on the back end, after those packages have served their use. Today’s recycling materials recovery facilities were built to process approximately 80 percent fiber and 20 percent containers, not the 40/60 or 50/50 mix that we are seeing today. The new mix of inbound material is leading to increased processing costs.

Prevalence of Plastic in Packaging: Saving Grace or Problem Child?

Plastic packaging is both a boon to the environment and a challenge. It’s lightweight, great at protecting and preserving goods, and as a petroleum-based product, in the current global marketplace, it’s cheap. Flexible plastics packaging—also called “pouches”—offer new levels of convenience and freshness, especially in the food industry.

Plastics offer environmental benefits, too. When you look at the entire lifecycle of many types of plastic packaging, they require far fewer raw materials and less energy to manufacture than do other packaging alternatives. Over the years, as the use of plastics has grown in consumer goods and packaging—increasingly crowding out glass, metals, and some paper—society has reaped these benefits. Yet, if there is a downside to plastics, it’s that they have had a dampening effect on recycling quality.

It’s extremely confusing for consumers to understand how to recycle plastics. For starters, there are all the numbers—1 through 7—each with their own, distinct chemical properties, uses, and recyclability. In addition, many manufacturers are including additives to color their packaging, resulting in low-grade plastics that can’t be recycled. So, for every plastic container that can conceivably be recycled—where facilities exist—there are scores that can’t.

So, what do the numbers mean? Here’s a sample consumer plastics recycling guide from Moore Recycling Associates.

Plastic Resin Codes

Is it any wonder that consumers are confused?

As we all know from experience, it can be mighty challenging indeed to determine how and where to properly recycle these materials. Many of us simply toss plastics into the recycling bin—and hope for the best.

Contamination of the Recycling Stream

The mixing of non-recyclable plastics into the recycling stream—called contamination—is a common occurrence. Types of low-grade plastics are not recyclable, while plastic bags are typically only recyclable by returning them to grocery or retail store for recycling (not curbside), so their presence increases contamination and the cost of recycling across the board. In most communities, an inbound ton of waste now has an average of 17 percent contamination, while some loads can contain as much as 50 percent non-recyclable material.

Lightweighting Adds to the Mix

Lightweighting—using lighter material for a product or reducing the weight of the material itself—is becoming a common practice, especially with water bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate). With lightweighting, a typical water bottle now weighs about 37 percent less than it used to. Lightweighting has many benefits, like reducing the amount of plastics used and therefore produced, and helping to lower freight costs during transport of products. But lightweighting challenges the current economics of recycling.

For example, in the current recycling commodities market, recovered PET plastic feedstock is sold by weight, not volume. This means that we need to process 35,000 more bottles than we used to, in order to create one ton of PET feedstock. Using this formula, we would have to process 3.6 billion more water bottles each year to get the same weight of material that we sold a decade ago. Since our costs are currently based on volume and our revenue based on weight, lightweighting drives up our costs and dampens the long-term economic feasibility of recycling and recovery programs.

The Troubled Economics of Recycling

For the past several decades, our primary customer for many types of recyclables has been China, whose booming economy required an almost constant supply of raw materials. However, as China’s economic growth has slowed, they have started to limit the kinds of recyclable feedstock they will accept, shrinking the marketplace and reducing demand for this material.

At the same time, the strong U.S. dollar makes U.S. recyclables more expensive, and therefore less attractive, on the global market. Low oil prices also make virgin materials more attractive than feedstocks derived from recycled content. In other words, the market for plastic feedstocks is shrinking—just as the costs to create those feedstocks are rising (our next blog will talk more about this).

What Is the End Goal?

As a society, we used to think that if recycling is good, then more recycling is better. We made recycling convenient so we could collect more recyclables and achieve our weight-based goals. In the process of pushing for higher recycling weights, however, many have lost sight of the actual goal: to lessen the overall environmental impacts of the waste we produce. If we go back to this larger picture, we see that success doesn’t necessarily mean recycling large percentages of material based on the weight of the waste stream; rather, success means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or raw materials extraction. Recycling is one way to achieve this goal, but it is not the ultimate goal. As we all strive to achieve our overall environmental goals, recycling is just one tool in our toolbox.

The popular, newer, non-recyclable plastics test the very goals of recycling. No one wants to put more plastic in a landfill, but when you look at the true environmental impact of different plastic products and uses, the results might surprise you. For example, an EPA lifecycle study looked at different types of coffee packaging to see which consumed the most energy, emitted the most CO2 equivalent gas, and produced the most municipal solid waste. The researchers found that both the traditional recyclable steel can and the large plastic recyclable container performed worse than the non-recyclable flexible plastic pouch. The lightness and flexibility of the plastic meant such savings in transportation and efficiency that it had a smaller environmental footprint overall than did the recyclable materials.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Flexible plastics aren’t going anywhere, so consumer education is crucial to preventing contamination at recycling facilities. This is why recyclers and cities are devoting large amounts of resources to help people understand what’s recyclable—and what’s not. We will eventually figure out how to recycle flexible plastics. However, we also need to rethink what our goals really are—and how best to measure them. Is measuring recycling percentages based on weight the best way? Or is it time to find a new way to gauge our success?

At Waste Management, we believe that it is time to change our collective thinking around this critical issue. As the waste stream is increasingly filled with more energy-efficient and lighter weight materials, it’s simply not sustainable to continue to set recycling goals that are unrealistic and fail to capture important environmental benefits like overall emissions reductions.

Perhaps the time has come to shift to a new metric: a “per capita disposal goal” that can better account for the full value of waste reduction. That’s to say, what if the focus weren’t just how much you recycle, but how much greenhouse gas you avoid? Instead of recycling for the sake of reaching a weight target, the goal would be to achieve the best overall result for the environment.

Such a measure, reflecting a lifecycle approach to managing materials, could go a long way toward accurately capturing the full picture of materials use, and send the right signal for truly sustainable materials management practices.

Additional comments by Danny Clark, President ENSO Plastics

This was a very informative blog by Susan Robinson.

The biggest issue that I see in the industry and with talking to sustainability managers and consultants across the board is that many of them have mistakenly fallen into the trap of going with the “flow” or “public think” about how to implement sustainability for the plastic materials used in products and product packaging. The knee jerk thought that we should recycle everything approach is based more on a feel good response and not on any science or data.

Its only after our first decade into the “green movement” that we are realizing the key to developing solutions that make sense is to use science and data to our approach to determining what will minimize our environmental impact.

ENSO Plastics is all about the science and data and LCA studies show that we can reduce our carbon footprint with plastics that are designed to be landfill biodegradable. Over 74% of all municipal solid waste is being disposed of into landfills that are already capturing the converting landfill gas to energy. The LCA studies of converting plastics into landfill gas that is then converted to energy reduces the carbon footprint significantly.

As a society we’ve seem to have been pushed into a direction of demonizing landfills while at the same time promoting the notation that recycling everything must be good for the planet. Some of us are just now realizing that the science and data do not support that environmental folklore approach. Its time we get out of our way and rethink the way we address our plastic waste because what we are doing now does not and will not work in the long-run.

Read the original blog here: http://mediaroom.wm.com/recycle-more-or-recycle-better/