Category Archives: Recycling

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.

Is recycling the key to sustainability?

graphThe 2015 U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate posted a slight decrease of 0.6 percent compared with 2014, according to the figures released by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the 26th annual “National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report.” At the current and projected rate of production, a plateau like this should ring alarm bells!  The data clearly shows we are not going to recycle our way to a sustainable future.

As someone who’s actively engaged in the sustainable management of plastics, I pay close attention to companies that are managing our waste. These companies are on the frontlines of managing the recovery and disposal of solid and hazardous waste materials, which include landfills and recycling centers. I strongly believe that integrating the advice from these groups and working with them hand-in-hand should be an integral aspect to any sustainability program.

For example, at the recent 2016 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans, CEO of Waste Management, David Steiner, specifically pointed out that in order to achieve the “biggest bang for the buck” environmentally, coupling recycling with landfill gas-to-energy offers the greatest return value. This is the “environmental” recommendation from David Steiner, not a shareholder perspective. And Waste Management should know, they are after all the ones actually doing all the work in collecting, processing and managing the vast majority of the our waste.

His shareholder perspective is profitability, as it should be.   In a recent interview with Bloomberg, David Steiner explains that when you look at the various commodities that are recycled, there are some that are profitable. Those are primarily fiber (paper) and metals. Once you start moving into organics (plastics) and glass, they become less profitable (and in most cases over the past few years, they have lost money). In places like California they’ll do things to subsidize those types of materials to ensure Waste Management makes a profit, and then people can recycle those materials… Elsewhere, this does not work economically and understandably so. However, Waste Management will do what the municipality wants, just not at the expense of its bottom-line.   They’ll be happy to recycle everything; it’s only a matter of how much you want to pay for it. But buyers beware if the commodity prices do not cover the processing costs, recycling becomes an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, if the municipalities are willing to pay (increase taxes) for this exercise, Waste Management will be happy to oblige. They will “recycle” it, collect it, sort it and they will process it. For Waste Management, processing costs and a little profit are baked into the contract. If there’s no market, no problem for Waste Management, this material will end up disposed into a form that is not recycling.

Recently at K 2016, Patrick Thomas, chairman of the European trade group Plastics Europe, said that “every tonne of plastic that goes to landfill is a waste. It is too valuable a resource to go that way.” Really, if it needs to be subsidized by the government (tax payer money), what value is he referring to and is it sustainable?

Where exactly is the value? Last year the average bale price of recycled bottles fell by 31%, meaning that the bottles were less valuable last year than the year before. Couple this with oil prices dropping by 47% and the result is a compounded decrease in the “value” of recycled plastics.

Today, 80 million tons of non-reusable/non-recyclable plastic packaging is produced annually. This volume is expected to double in 20 years. If this 80 million tons were simply designed to comply with the primary disposal method (a.k.a. modern landfills), this material could provide enough energy to power 30 million homes for a year!

Nearly 50 years has passed since the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, today only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Meanwhile, in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight].  What are we doing?

There’s a pervasive attitude that we must recycle everything at all costs, this is not sustainable by any definition. Plastics, unlike aluminum, can only be recycled 3-4 times; eventually it will find its way into our waste streams and into our environment.   Although recycling does provide us the option to extend the life of some plastics, it is not an ‘end-of-life’ solution. We cannot recycle our way out of the environmental waste problem plastics are causing. If companies continue to ignore performance compliance with todays’ primary means of disposal, facilities that actively control and convert biogas into clean alternative energy (intrinsic return value), progress will remain stagnate. The science and data validate David Steiner’s recommendation; including landfill gas-to-energy provides an environmental and economic value higher than any other option.  We can take the advice or not, Waste Management will come out ahead either way, but will we?

Orange County is packing power in Landfill Gas-to-Energy

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Do it for the OC! Can you imagine the concentration of plastic packaging that’s accumulated in Orange County alone?   Beyond standard recycling, did you know that Orange County has installed four Landfill Gas-to-Energy facilities? The most recent $60 million dollar investment will power 18,500 homes. Altogether, the four facilities will produce 400,000 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power more than 50,000 homes. These projects are turning our waste into clean energy all over the country and right now they’re the single-most common disposal environment of plastic waste. Ensuring energy recovery in packaging design offers the greatest value in full-scale recycling. Get it out of the environment and into the grid, make today’s waste, tomorrow’s energy!  Design for disposal.

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?

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/

Finding Circularity with Single Cycle Packaging

Let’s look at the issue of plastic waste and how we can use the circular economic model to resolve some of the problems that we face, that’s ultimately spilling into our environment.   Some 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured globally each year and “plastic packaging” accounts for about 78 million tons of it. That’s 172 billion pounds of non-reusable, non-recyclable and unequivocally unaccounted for plastic waste. This includes items such as flexible packaging, films, foamed material, small items, contaminated material, complex/multi-layer applications and anything colored, where recycling and reusability are practically non-existent.  These are single use, single cycle, applications.  Also, there’s unanimous agreement that the vast majority of all these applications are destined for a landfill. And these are not the demonized landfills from days gone by; I’m talking about today’s modern landfills that are now energy generating power plants.

This discussion is not for the consumer, this is for the difference makers, the sustainability managers, the leaders that can make a difference. They’re the companies that, according to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), are to be held accountable for the post-consumer aspect of its products and packaging. I’m talking about companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, P&G, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Unilever and all the brands under them.

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We all know, or the data tells us, that this is the single most common disposal method of all this material. It should also be known that waste-to-energy has proven to be one of our greatest resources for alternative energy.   Whether it’s an anaerobic digester, a bioreactor or today’s modern landfills, most plastic packaging is ultimately ending-up in a unique anaerobic environment that is controlling and converting biogas into clean energy. Some of these companies utilize the energy from landfills, yet they haven’t put the pieces together to figure out that the very trash that their products produce could be the feedstock for the alternative energy resource they’re already harnessing. Too often, the end-of-life aspect is ignored or swept under the rug with theoretical contemplations about disposal methods that simply don’t exist and senseless confusion.

Yet, nearly all 50 states include landfill gas-to-energy as part of their green energy portfolios. It’s recognized by the United Nations, the EPA, as well as dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government organizations that all utilize energy from landfills.  However, the dots just aren’t being connected.   I recently asked the Director of Sustainability for one of these 10 companies about this topic and they honestly said that they’ve never heard of such a thing and can’t imagine that we’ll ever get our energy from slowly decomposing waste. Yet, three years ago this same company won top honors by the EPA as one of the largest on-site green power generators because of its use of Landfill Gas-to-Energy (LGE) to power its manufacturing facilities! Seriously, why the disconnect between what companies are doing and what companies should and could be doing to think more circular? Imagine if you will, this same company implementing landfill biodegradable packaging and then using the energy from landfill gas.  This is true circular economy thinking, especially when energy needs will increase 50% in the next couple decades.  Without requiring any change to the infrastructures in place today and without modifying consumer behavior, these single use applications can be designed to cycle at a higher level.

I’ve heard the idea that plastics should be made NOT to biodegrade in a landfill because one day we might want to mine for this material. This is completely asinine and assumes that we’ll have a need to mine for this material within the next couple hundred years.  The reason being, plastic will eventually biodegrade, we just won’t be able to capture the gases produced if we wait too long. Instead, if these applications were designed to biodegrade within the managed timeframe of these anaerobic environments, for every million pounds of plastic waste that enters a LGE facility, it offers the equivalence of over 422,000 pounds of coal, 52,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 1100 barrels of oil, which is used to power homes and factories, as well as fueling vehicles!

The technology is readily available to make most any polymer application anaerobically biodegradable, or commonly referred to as Landfill Biodegradable.   The technology does not change any processing parameters, there’s no change in any performance characteristics, and it’s not expensive. In fact, for about the price of a Tall Cappuccino, tens of thousands of Starbucks Coffee cups can be designed to biodegrade in a landfill.   These multi-layer applications are not being reused or recycled, but they are going to a landfill. So what gives, is it because of the misguided concept that landfills are bad? Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the integral role of this disposal method that rely so heavily on; a lot has changed since the 80’s. In fact, you could say that we’re now diverting 75% of all MSW away from landfills, because the type of landfills that are being vilified are becoming obsolete – quickly.

A single loop system for handling our plastic waste is impractical, circularity does not mean singularity, there’s too much at stake, too much potential, and the infrastructure is already in place so there’s no need to implement Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” tactics to change consumer behavior. Besides, the fact that none of this material can/will be recycled is not because of consumer behavior, its feasibility and market demand, and it’s just not there. A company wanting to take accountability for its packaging needs to answer one candid question: What is the common disposal method of the application? Then, do what can be done to take advantage of this fact and understand the value in having our waste integrate into our waste infrastructures instead of working against it. The facts, the science and all the data, prove that there’s an enormous opportunity being overlooked.  I believe the circular economic model can work for plastics, but not if it’s simply a rebranding of the last 40+ years of rhetoric.

Are we recycling too much of our trash?

Thomas Kinnaman – Professor of Economics, Bucknell University

A recent credible study suggests the amount of waste Americans dispose in landfills each year is over twice what the EPA had been estimating.

Although this news may not surprise the country’s disposal facilities (who already knew the quantity of waste they take in), the study may strike an old nerve for many Americans – that our society generates too much garbage. The answer, we have been repeatedly told, is to recycle our waste. In fact, plans for zero waste or 100% recycling have been hatched in places including Berkeley, California and Indianapolis, Indiana.

But is more recycling always better than less recycling? Is it conceivable that society can recycle too much? What does the research say about the costs and benefits of recycling?

Unfortunately, not much is available. We may sense that more recycling is better than less recycling, but we really do not know. Our recycling habits developed not in the wake of a scientific understanding of these matters but perhaps, as John Tierney describes in his recent New York Times piece, on a leap of faith.

Last year, I coauthored a research study to estimate society’s optimal recycling rate. Results surprised us – society’s best recycling rate is only 10%. And only specific recyclable materials should be included in that 10%. What drives these results?

The literature on recycling

First, dozens of published economic studies from across the globe estimate that landfills depress neighboring property values, although this negative impact appears to diminish for small landfills. Second, a growing number of published life cycle analyses suggest that mining raw materials is damaging to the natural environment, and manufacturing goods with recycled materials rather than their virgin counterparts can be beneficial to the environment. But the magnitude of these benefits varies across materials.

Finally, the economics literature suggests recycling requires more economic resources than simple waste disposal. The value of the extra energy, labor and machinery necessary to prepare materials for recycling can double the value of those resources needed to dispose the material in the landfill.

Our study made the first known attempt to combine these various costs and benefits into one analysis to estimate what recycling rate is best. Our conclusion was that recycling up to 10% appears to reduce social costs, but any recycling over 10% costs the environment and the economy more than it helps. The environment and economy suffer as we transport some recycled materials to destinations as far afield as China.

It’s generally cheaper to send household garbage to a landfill than to recycle because there are lower processing costs.

These provocative results certainly require confirmation from future independent and objective research before broad policy goals can be adjusted. Also, many of the benefit and costs associated with waste disposal and recycling vary across regions of the country and world, and thus optimal recycling rates may also vary. For example, we used municipal cost data from Japan for this study because the United States and most European countries do not keep such data.

But if these results hold for other developed countries, then society should collectively rethink how to approach recycling.

Detailing the costs of waste and recycling

This paper identified several factors that help justify possible reductions in the recycling rate.

First, the environmental damages associated with both modern landfills and incineration plants turn out to be less than traditionally imagined. These facilities certainly depress neighboring property values – on average each ton of waste deposited in a landfill or incinerated is found to reduce property values by about US$4.

But modern disposal facilities in most developed countries are required to abide by strict environmental standards, and air and water pollutants such as methane and carbon generated by these facilities (and the carbon monoxide and consumption from the trucks transporting waste to these facilities) appear less than previously expected. These environmental standards have increased disposal costs (tipping fees) paid by waste generators by as much as $50 per ton, but the remaining external costs have fallen to roughly $5 per ton disposed. Thus, collectively waste disposal facilities generate just $9 per ton in external costs borne by society ($4 from depressed property values plus $5 from remaining air and water pollutants). Economists had once imagined external costs of $67 per ton to as much as $280 per ton.

But because these costs do not appear on the balance sheet of the disposal facility, the assessment of a corrective tax of $9 per ton disposed is necessary for disposal facilities to consider these costs when making decisions. Once this tax is in place, then laws requiring municipalities to recycling can be lifted.

Municipal programs have greatly expanded recycling in the US.

Second, recycling is rather costly to municipal governments. The cost for New York City to process one ton of materials for recycling markets is about $300 more than the cost of simply taking that same material to the landfill, according to the recent New York Times article. In many cases, the travel itinerary for recycled materials, which increasingly includes final destinations in developing countries, exceeds by large margins the distance that garbage is transported.

Third, we found the primary benefits of recycling accrue not from saving landfill space but from generating materials that, when used in production, are less costly to the environmental than mining those materials from the earth. Our study concludes that using an average ton of certain recycled materials in the place of a ton of virgin materials generates environmental spillover benefits of as much as $400 per ton.

By the way, this monetary estimate (and all dollar estimates associated with environmental considerations) is calculated using two processes. First, the life cycle analysis identifies the physical quantity of carbon, sulfur, nitrates and other pollutants associated with the entire life cycle of waste and recycling systems. Second, the economics literature has developed per-dollar estimates of the impact each unit of pollutant costs society. Each ton of carbon, for example, has been estimated to generate $25 of damage to the natural environment.

Targeted recycling

But the substantial environmental benefits outlined above of using recycled materials in production vary substantially across materials. Aluminum and other metals are environmentally costly to mine and prepare for production. Paper, too, is costly to manufacture from raw sources. But glass and plastic appear relatively easy on the environment when manufactured from raw materials.

These differences are vital. Although the optimal overall recycling rate may be only 10%, the composition of that 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source of fiber. Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero. To encourage this outcome, a substantial subsidy offered only on those materials whose life cycles generate positive environmental benefits should be applied.

In the end, the economy and the environment, speaking in one unified voice, may wish for society to reduce the overall quantity of waste recycled. Perhaps recycling efforts need to surgically focus on only those specific materials that really matter to the economy and the environment. Other materials can be simply disposed of in modern facilities.

Read original article at: https://theconversation.com/are-we-recycling-too-much-of-our-trash-48724

Is it time to rethink recycling?

Updated by Amy Westervelt on February 13, 2016, 10:00 a.m. ET

Originally published on Ensia.

Criticize recycling and you may as well be using a fume-spewing chainsaw to chop down ancient redwoods, as far as most environmentalists are concerned. But recent research into the environmental costs and benefits and some tough-to-ignore market realities have even the most ardent of recycling fans questioning the current system.

No one is saying that using old things to make new things is intrinsically a bad idea, but consensus is building around the idea that the system used today in the United States, on balance, benefits neither the economy nor the environment.

In general, local governments take responsibility for recycling. The practice can deliver profits to city and county budgets when commodity prices are high for recycled goods, but it turns recycling into an unwanted cost when commodity markets dip. And recycling is not cheap. According to Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman, the energy, labor, and machinery necessary to recycle materials is roughly double the amount needed to simply landfill those materials.

Right now, that equation is being further thrown off by fluctuations in the commodity market. For example, the prices for recycled plastic have dropped dramatically, which has some governments, many of which have been selling their plastic recyclables for the past several years, rethinking their policies around the material now that they may have to pay for it to be recycled. It’s a decision being driven not by waste management goals or environmental concerns, but by economic reasons that could feasibly change in the next couple of years.

Not only that, but in some cases recycling isn’t even what’s best for the environment.

The solution, according to economists, activists, and many in the design community, is to get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials and shift responsibility away from local governments and into the hands of manufacturers.

Material world

Because most people dispose of used aluminum, paper, plastic, and glass in the same way — throw them into a bin and forget about them — it’s easy to think that all recycled materials are created equal. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each material has a unique value, determined by the rarity of the virgin resource and the price the recycled material fetches on the commodity market. The recycling process for each also requires a different amount of water and energy and comes with a unique (and sometimes hefty) carbon footprint.

All of this suggests it makes more sense to recycle some materials than others from an economic and environmental standpoint.

A recent study by Kinnaman provides research to back up that assertion. Using Japan as his test case — because the country makes available all of its municipal cost data for recycling — Kinnaman evaluated the cost of recycling each material, the energy and emissions involved in recycling, and various benefits (including simply feeling good about doing something believed to have an environmental or social benefit). He came to the controversial conclusion that an optimal recycling rate in most countries would probably be around 10 percent of goods.

But not just any 10 percent, Kinnaman cautions. To get the most benefit with the least cost, we should be recycling more of some items and less — or even none — of others. “Although the optimal overall recycling rate may be only 10%, the composition of that 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source[s] of fiber,” he wrote in a follow-up piece in the Conversation. “Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero.”

Kinnaman’s assertions about plastic and glass have to do with the cost and resources required to recycle those materials versus the cost and availability of virgin materials. But he’s not without his critics, particularly on the plastics front, given that he describes the environmental impact of making virgin plastic as “minimal,” a conclusion based more on the emissions and energy required to recycle plastic than the fact that the stuff persists in the environment forever. Still, Kinnaman’s point — that we need to be choosier about what we recycle — has resonated with environmentalists and waste management experts alike.

The commodities conundrum

Cardboard is among the materials for which recycling is most economically and environmentally beneficial.

We may also need to find a way to decouple recycling from the commodities market. What’s happening with plastics right now is a good example of why. In the eastern US, to cite just one example, prices for recycled PET plastic fell from 20 cents a pound in 2014 to less than 10 cents a pound earlier this year, while recycled HDPE prices dipped from just under 40 cents a pound in 2014 to just over 30 cents per pound today.

That’s thanks to a confluence of factors: Oil prices have dropped from US$120 in 2008 to less than US$35 a barrel today; growth in the Chinese recycled goods market dropped from its typical steady, double-digit annual growth to 7 percent in 2015; and the dollar is strong, which makes American recycled materials more expensive than their European or Canadian counterparts.

“The price drop has come at a time when a lot of cities have severe budget constraints anyway, so some communities are beginning to look more skeptically at recycling,” says Jerry Powell, a 46-year veteran of the recycling industry and longtime editor of the recycling industry trade publication Resource Recycling. “But three years ago, when we had record-high prices, they were expanding their recycling efforts.”

Powell adds that changing technologies can also play a role in determining what does or does not make sense from a recycling standpoint. Recycled plastic, for example, was largely used in carpeting 15 years ago, but these days more of it is making its way back into beverage bottles.

“Nestlé has really led the way on this — they knew they needed more recycled material and so they have invested in processing infrastructure and agreed to pay slightly more for recycled plastic,” Powell says. “Fifteen years ago there was zero recycled plastic going toward making new bottles. Now more is going into bottles because the technology has improved, we’re collecting more plastic, and consumers are more aware and are asking for more recycled content.”

If not recycling, then what?

Although recycling may not be an optimal fate for plastics, neither is landfilling. As a result, governments and businesses are looking into options such as reducing use and returning used materials to the source.

That type of “closed loop” thinking is where solutions to today’s recycling woes tend to be focused. Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, laws for packaging would require manufacturers to take back the plastic, cardboard, and form-fitting foam their products come in, ideally with the purpose of recycling and reusing it in future packaging. Such policies essentially assign manufacturers the task of collecting and processing the recyclable packaging materials they produce.

Companies can set up any sort of recycling system they want — they can continue to fund curbside pickup and pay a recycler to process the material, or they can switch to some sort of drop-off method and opt to do the recycling in house — the only stipulation being that they have some sort of a take-back and recycling program in place.

EPR not only lets local governments off the hook for paying for recycling but also effectively divorces recyclable materials from the commodities market: Companies could opt to sell the recycled material they collect and generate, but they would also have another use for the materials (producing more packaging for their own stuff) should the commodities market crash.

Currently, several European countries — including Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland — have EPR laws, as do Australia and Japan. In Canada, the province of British Columbia has province-wide EPR laws, while Ontario EPR laws cover about 50 percent of disposable goods.

Germany’s EPR laws for packaging have been in place the longest (since 1991) and offer the clearest picture of the impact these laws have on waste management. According to an in-depth case study of Germany’s EPR system conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the country’s EPR laws were credited with reducing the total volume of packaging produced in the country by more than 1 million metric tons (1.1 million tons) from 1992 to 1998 alone, representing a per capita reduction of 15 kilograms (33 pounds).

“Significant design changes were made to reduce the amount of material used in packaging,” the report notes. “Container shapes and sizes were altered to reduce volume, and thin-walled films and containers were introduced.”

The overall market showed a noticeable shift away from plastics as well, with a reduction in total volume from 40 to 27 percent. Germany is one of the European Union’s top recyclers, with 62 percent of all packaging being recycled.

Efforts to pass EPR laws for packaging in 2013 in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Rhode Island met with opposition from the consumer packaged goods industry. But according to Matt Prindiville, executive director of the nonprofit Upstream (formerly the Product Policy Institute), which has long led the charge for packaging EPR laws in the US, the current commodities crash in recycling is making EPR more attractive to local governments.

“The conditions for recycling in the US have only gotten worse,” Prindiville says. “Commodity markets have collapsed, and the revenue cities were used to getting to offset the cost of covering recycling have dried up. That’s driving the conditions for EPR.”

The goal with EPR is to balance the needs of all stakeholders, from companies to recyclers to citizens. If implemented correctly, Prindiville says, it should actually benefit companies, not threaten them. “This is not a tax on your products, it’s about figuring out how to get stuff back and do something with it, and you figure out the financing yourself,” he says. “It is a market-based system.”

Burning — and better

Meanwhile, according to a 2012 report from the nonprofit As You Sow foundation, some $11.4 billion worth of valuable PET, aluminum, and other potentially useful packaging materials are being landfilled each year. A more recent report, published this year by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, finds that 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material alone, worth $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.

While Kinnaman makes the case that landfilling those materials doesn’t cost as much as once thought, it’s hard not to see those materials as wasted if they’re just sitting in a hole in the ground. Plus, the MacArthur Foundation report points out that plastic packaging generates negative externalities for companies, such as potential reputational and regulatory risks, valued conservatively by the United Nations Environment Programme at $40 billion.

“Given projected growth in consumption, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget,” the news release accompanying the MacArthur Foundation report states.

That’s precisely why some countries — Sweden, for example — have come back around to the idea of incinerating garbage now that technology has evolved to reduce emissions from incinerators. Thirty-two garbage incinerators in Sweden now produce heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 homes.

The US plastics industry has been pushing for a similar strategy for dealing with plastic waste — particularly the latest class of thinner, lightweight plastics that don’t fit into existing recycling streams — but critics note that burning plastic still emits toxic chemicals. Instead, Prindiville says he’d like to see the US work toward building a circular economy, as many European countries are trying to do. “Forward-looking CEOs are really drilling down and questioning what is the role of these materials? What’s the role of packaging? And how do we ensure a cradle-to-cradle loop instead of wasting resources?” he says.

Bridgett Luther, founder of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, says that while legislation might help, it’s when companies also see the value in these materials that things will really change.

To that end, some companies have already created their own take-back programs, motivated by innovation and market forces rather than regulation. Luther points to the carpet industry as an example, with companies such as Shaw Floors and Interface routinely taking their carpet back to recycle it into new carpet. In the beverage industry, Coca-Cola made a commitment to use 25 percent recycled plastic in its bottles by 2015, a number it had to downgrade due to high cost and short supply of recycled material. Walmart is in a similar situation, currently struggling to find the supply to meet its goal of using 3 billion pounds (1 billion kilograms) of recycled plastic in packaging by 2020.

“That material is as good as virgin,” Luther says. “There’s a lot of interesting innovation that could happen and could happen very quickly if groups of industry got together and said, ‘We’re going to come up with our own take-back program.’”

The ultimate solution, according to Prindiville, the MacArthur Foundation team, and Luther, is better design of products and packaging further upstream to plan better for end of life and avoid the waste issue altogether. “You can regulate all day long but it’s easier to incentivize,” Luther says. “And much more interesting.”

Read the quoted article here: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/13/10972986/recycling

A final thought, by Danny Clark – President ENSO Plastics:

Its confusing and sometimes funny to think about the efforts we humans go through trying to solve the problems of the world. The solutions usually range from the simple to the extremely complex. What I find amusing is how many so called “professionals” push for the extremely complex and costly solutions that require legislation and subsidies to make work, when in the end many of the simplest solutions work much better.

How long do we continue to debate the issue of how to handle our waste, and how many billions more do we have to spend before the realities of the “recycle everything” religion comes to the fact and science based conclusion that we should be making our materials integrate into the existing waste environments that we have today.

Today, the majority of our trash is already being disposed of into landfills. Over 74% of municipal solid waste is disposed of into landfills that convert landfill gas to green energy. These are already the facts, no need to spend more money, no need to educate, no need to do anything different other than making our plastics fit into these environments.

ENSO RESTORE is a additive that is added into standard plastics to make them landfill biodegradable as well as recyclable. If all plastics were enhanced with ENSO RESTORE we would address nearly 100% of our plastic waste issue. Imagine that for a moment!

The Recycling Crisis

Earlier this month I attended the 2016 executive sustainability forum and had the pleasure of listening to Jim Fish – Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Waste Management. In his presentation Jim discusses the circular economy and the current state of recycling. The presentation is an honest and straightforward discussion about recycling. Here is the brief synopsis of his presentation:

Currently Waste Management is the largest residential recycler in the world. They have invested more than $1.5 billion into their recycling infrastructure – in past years they were investing $300-$400 million each year. With this amount of money invested, it is in Waste Management’s best interest to see recycling thrive.

Unfortunately, we are in a crisis with the current state of recycling. This is due to several factors: commodity pricing, quality of collection and changing packaging trends. We are now in the fourth year of low commodity prices, which directly jeopardizes the profitability of recycling. The quality of recycled materials has decreased due to single stream recycling infrastructure where consumers place up to 30-40% non-recyclable materials into the blue bin. And considering that most recyclable products are related to packaging, the trend toward non-recyclable flexible packaging is replacing packaging that was previously recyclable. So while flexible packaging is a winner from an environmental standpoint because it is light weight, energy efficient and uses much less resources to produce, it is not recyclable.

Each of these factors contributes to the current crisis and as the largest recycler Waste Management has an interest in solving the crisis. They also have a unique position because Waste Management is both the largest landfill owners/operators and the largest recycler which makes them the key to solving the recycling crisis. When they fix recycling for Waste Management, they fix it for the entire industry.

As a business, Waste Management cannot continue to invest in recycling with a hope that markets will improve. While they have invested over $1.5 billion dollars into recycling, today that is nearly non-existent. They must adapt to the changing market.

The recent trend pushing the belief that recycling everything is the end goal has caused some companies and communities to establish zero waste, landfill diversion and zero landfill goals without consideration of the environmental impacts. Some materials have a larger greenhouse gas footprint by recycling rather than landfilling. Reaching total diversion goals will be difficult to achieve due to the issues going on with the recycling industry and may cause unintended consequences.

Jim closed his presentation with some thought provoking questions.

What is the end goal? Are we trying to reduce greenhouse gases or simply looking to recycle everything? There is a cost to achieving any goal. In this case it may be an environmental cost as well as an economic cost.

What if instead of a goal to recycle everything, we focus on greenhouse gas reductions? When we do this we focus on recycling the right things – those that make a real difference.

There are various facts and assumptions that are out there. It will be good to identify how to make recycling environmentally and economically sustainable. We need to make recycling sustainable for the future – focus on recycling the right materials, set realistic goals and not try to recycling everything – this just leads to higher costs without the added benefit.

When Should You Not Recycle?

By Robert Coolman

Reduce, reuse, recycle—but for environmentalists, that’s not always a good idea.

When is it right to recycle? If your answer is “always,” I plead with you to re-evaluate your priorities as an environmentalist. We certainly have an obligation to use Earth’s resources and manage waste responsibly, but I believe the priorities and practices of modern environmentalism are in serious need of introspection.

Films like “Wall-E” and “Idiocracy” would have you believe that we are only years away from skyscrapers of garbage on the outskirts of our cities, but the truth is landfill capacity isn’t a problem in the foreseeable future. According to a letter in Nature Climate Change, U.S. landfills have an average of 34 years of capacity remaining, though capacity is growing at a rate of 2.7 years annually. Also, it’s not as if that land is unusable once it’s filled. Much of NYC is built on top of garbage, and so are many parks. Local governments are typically upfront about what places were formerly landfills (here’s mine) and continually monitor methane gas and liquid leachate levels, concerns that modern landfills are specifically engineered to manage.

To say that landfill space isn’t a problem in the foreseeable future isn’t to say we shouldn’t think about it at all. Rather, there are concerns that will cause much larger problems much, much sooner. Because we are already seeing the effects of climate change due to the increase in greenhouse gases, the right time to recycle is when it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. If landfills can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we should absolutely use them.

Recycling the hard-to-find elements put in many electronics is a no-brainer. Energy, pollution, and money are also all saved when comparing the reprocessing of post-consumer metal scrap against mining and processing ore. As for other stuff? With one major exception, it should all be landfilled.

A common criticism of landfills is how long it takes materials to break down. Ironically, this is backwards; it’s the materials that break down fastest that we should be most concerned about. When organic materials like food, yard waste, and biodegradable plastics break down in a landfill, they anaerobically decompose to produce methane. This is a problem because methane is more than 20 times potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which is what organic matter turns into when it composes aerobically in a composter.

There’s two ways to solve this methane problem. First is to capture the methane produced from a landfill and burn it. This turns the methane into carbon dioxide and can generate electricity. While this is the traditional method, it only works after a landfill has been capped. According to Waste Consultant and Yale Student Jon Powell, “91 percent of all landfill methane emissions are due to landfills that are still open.” Additionally, the infrastructure to produce electricity from combusting methane is subject to a cost/benefit analysis of how much methane is produced and for how long.

The alternative is to separate out organic matter from other landfilled solids, then intentionally turn it into methane which can be turned into electricity at an even greater return. Because the carbon contained in biomass (and by extension the carbon in the gases that evolve from it) was brought out of the atmosphere by plants performing photosynthesis on atmospheric carbon dioxide, returning bio-based carbon to the atmosphere (specifically in the form of carbon dioxide) does not contribute to the total amount of atmospheric carbon, and thus does not contribute to climate change.

So now we’re up to four bins: electronics, metal, biodegradable stuff (including most paper), and everything else. The “everything else” bin goes directly to the landfill, and includes both plastic and glass. Recycling glass is so close to a borderline energy improvement that it probably doesn’t deserve its own bin. As for plastic, anything that’s not code 1 (rPET) can’t be recycled to make containers and is instead demoted to plastic lumber, etc. When it’s done being that, it’s almost certainly going to the landfill anyway.

Why not incinerate used plastics to produce energy? The atoms in plastic come from petroleum, so burning plastic still counts as a fossil fuel and creates a net increase greenhouse gases. In a landfill, the carbon in plastic is said to be “sequestered” which is the end goal of taking carbon out of the air and storing it so it won’t reach the atmosphere. Methods of sequestering atmospheric carbon are still under development and inherently take lots of energy; more energy than we got from burning the plastic in the first place. Instead of (1) burning plastic (2) taking the released carbon out of the air at great energy cost and (3) sequestering it, it’s probably best just to leave it sitting in a landfill.

Read original post here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/24/reduce-reuse-recycle-but-not-always.html

This was a great article and shows that the author has a pretty good understanding of the realities of recycling. In my time I have run across a handful of people that are misguided in their belief that we should recycle everything. When you hear someone say this you can rest assured that the person making that statement lacks the understanding and knowledge about the realities of recycling. And unfortunately, many people mistakenly quote countries out of the EU as recycling rates as high as 80%. Many of these countries include incineration in their recycling numbers.

Unfortunately those that may think we should recycle everything throw out inaccurate and misleading recycling rates out into the public domain to get others to believe the same misguided and environmentally and economically detrimental approach to our waste. In the meantime, there are companies like ENSO Plastics who understand the realities of our waste infrastructures and is working diligently to develop solutions that will make the most environmental impact today.

Click here to download a free white paper on how to develop sustainability strategies of reaching zero waste; http://www.ensoplastics.com/download/Plastics_EstablishingthePathtoZeroWaste.pdf