Waste Expo in Las Vegas, it was an exciting week, full of education, exhibitors and auctions. The entire event was non-stop activity that left my head spinning, but there were a few interesting take-aways from the event that are definitely worth sharing.
Getting things done: (WARNING: I am starting with the “bad” part first)
It is undeniable that we need change in the way waste is handled. During the sessions there were two different approaches to affecting change.
The first approach was focused on citizen action. Honestly, I was a bit disturbed listening to Kerry Parker from the City of Alameda gloat on how they utilized local school children by organizing elementary school projects of writing letters to businesses and municipal leaders to force a straw ban and require compostable food ware. The specific comment was “we used the kids because who can say no to the children”. This seemed a bit manipulative considering that elementary children would not have the knowledge needed to understand the potential implications of material/product bans and would blindly trust the adults to have done their due diligence. (see the section below on the need for data)
On the other hand, Cheryl Coleman from the US EPA very eloquently established the need for industry collaboration, to reduce the finger pointing of blame and simply work together to create solutions. This may have been a bit of a idealistic viewpoint, but in many ways Cheryl identified a cancerous problem that needs to be addressed should we ever hope to achieve Zero Waste.
The Need for Better Data:
Kerry Parker from the City of Alameda correctly pointed out that many plastics labeled as “compostable” do not adequately biodegrade in composting and are not included in their city requirement for compostable food ware. This does not apply to all compostable plastics but is a prevalent issue with food ware. This is an issue seen in many municipalities and one which can cause significant issues with food and organics composting.
Cheryl Coleman shared that the EPA is releasing some new SMM programs later this year and is working to release facts and figures related to waste on a more regular schedule. The goal is that these additional resources will provide better tools and data to assess environmental impact for increased SMM. She also emphasized the need for product engineers to work hand-in-hand with end of life engineers when developing product and packaging designs.
It was interesting to hear the EPA emphasize that the waste hierarchy was only a guidance. Many people consider it a rule that should be followed to the “T”, but Cheryl was quick to remind that the hierarchy should provide a general direction, but one must gather the environmental impact data to determine the optimal discard method for each product. Without this full data set, we cannot understand unintended consequences and the results could be detrimental.
Susan Robinson from Waste Management really drove home that the devil is in the details, we cannot make sustainability related decisions without first gathering LCA data. There are some trendy phrases such as “Circular Economy” and “Zero Waste” that may sound good but they have inherent risks. We need to keep our eye on the prize. The ultimate goal is not to have a circular economy or to achieve a certain reduction in waste – the goal is to reduce our environmental impact. Every decision made needs to be assessed against the overarching and final goal of lowered environmental burdens. This was a concept echoed by several others during the conference including the US EPA and the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF).
Waste Reduction is the Key:
Kerry Parker with the City of Alameda shared the efforts within the city to “unpackage” prepared restaurant food. They found that many of the local restaurants were using disposable packaging for dine-in service.
Another presenter from GARP provided case studies and examples of “alternative use” strategies. This innovative approach takes non-conforming or expired products and finds alternative uses. For example, face creams and lotions can be repackaged into leather conditioners; and brand name laundry detergents can be repackaged and re-scented to be sold as generic laundry soaps. This approach reduces waste while also increasing revenue for the manufacturing company.
One presentation that was very enlightening was Bryan Staley from the Environmental Research & Education Foundation. His presentation reviewed the 10 myths of recycling. Two of the points that really struck me were: Recycling programs can increase waste generation and that the recycling numbers reported are substantially overstated. A recent study of an office setting showed that offering paper recycling INCREASED the use of paper in the office by 82%, similarly in men’s bathrooms the recycling program increased the use of paper towels by 17%! And, because the reported numbers for recycling do not exclude the weight from contamination, the actual amount of materials recycled is expected to be nearly 30% lower than reported.
Waste is Evolving, so is Technology
Anne Johnson from the City of Alameda discussed the changing waste stream and what this means to recycling. The materials that traditionally brought value to recyclers; newspaper, glass and metal; are being replaced by light weight plastics and cardboard. The growth of plastics has a huge burden on the recycling stream as most plastics are not recyclable. This results in contamination within recycling and environmental litter creating a backlash with consumers and an inability of the waste industry to effectively manage the evolving stream.
Mike Dungan from the City of Alameda demonstrated some of the potential benefits through using pyrolysis to process mixed plastics into chemicals and fuel. This is an emerging technology, and potentially a means to extract value from mixed plastics that have entered the recycle stream.
The US EPA gently reminded that contrary to what is seen in the media, recycling is not dead. It is struggling, and we do need to rethink what and how we are recycling. The main focus should be on quality and quantity – more of the right stuff.
Susan Robinson from Waste Management shared some of the innovations driving sustainability at WM. One of the focal points was how WM is extracting renewable energy from their landfills – creating valuable energy from waste and reducing greenhouse gas over 80%. It was exciting to hear that WM expects to have 100% of their fleet powered by landfill gas by in the upcoming years.
Beyond 34 shared their vision of increasing the recycle rates past the current 34%. One of their primary concerns was a focus on increasing the collection rate of traditional recyclables (bottles, cans and paper) rather than increasing the types of materials collected.
And finally, the auction…
If all the information presented in the educational sessions didn’t leave you breathless, the EREF auction was sure to do the job. As the leading non-profit organization providing research and education in the waste sector, EREF was celebrating their 25th anniversary. The event was complete with a sand sculpture, vacation raffles and auctioning everything from Yetti’s, to rare bourbon and heavy equipment to golf outings. One thing you could not deny is that the waste industry is very generous in supporting EREF’s activities and efforts to create a sustainable waste management industry through scholarships, research and education.
Overall, the event was a great educational experience and one that left me confident that the waste industry is focused on sustainable practices through the use of data, LCA and collaboration. Provided we can keep our eye on the prize, the future does indeed look bright…
Let’s step back and use science and data to analyze the plastic pollution issue! Trying to save the environment with feelings based solutions are often worst. How about we look at the facts and data and make decision based on that information, isn’t that what science is for?
Landfills produce renewable energy from waste.
When you think about renewable energy, what comes to mind? Perhaps you picture wind turbines, solar panels or the underground loops of geothermal systems. What you might overlook is a source derived from waste products – the stuff we discard every day.
If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses landfill gas as a renewable source of energy, right up there with wind and solar, it’s not top-of-mind for most.
At Waste Management, we think about transforming waste materials into energy every single day. In fact, for decades we’ve applied science with creative thinking and problem-solving to derive value from waste.
We’re the largest landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) developer and operator in North America. We operate 130 LFGTE projects at landfills across the country, and we generate enough energy – more than 4.6 million megawatt-hours per year of capacity – to power 460,000 homes.
The LFGTE process is proven, straightforward and efficient. An elaborate system of wells and pipes transports and processes landfill gas, which is a natural byproduct of waste decomposition. The gas is then filtered and compressed so it is usable as fuel. From there, it’s transported to a nearby facility where it powers a set of engines connected to an electrical grid, and sold to public utilities, municipal utilities and power cooperatives.
Think Renewable Natural Gas
Beyond power generation, we’re also a leader in converting landfill gas into clean natural gas fuels that can be distributed for residential, industrial and transportation use.
Renewable natural gas (RNG), or biomethane, is a pipeline-quality gas that is fully interchangeable with conventional natural gas and thus can be used in natural gas vehicles. RNG is essentially biogas (the gaseous product of the decomposition of organic matter) that has been processed to specific purity standards. Like conventional natural gas, RNG can be used as a transportation fuel in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). LNG is natural gas in its purified and liquefied form.
In June 2018, we unveiled the latest addition to our RNG facilities at the Outer Loop Recycling and Disposal Facility in Louisville, Kentucky. Using state-of-the art technology, the facility captures methane and converts it to pipeline-quality natural gas. The Outer Loop facility produces enough RNG each day to fuel about 800 of our CNG collection trucks.
We also operate two other RNG facilities. At the Milam Landfill in East St. Louis, Illinois, purified gas from the landfill is placed into the Ameren Illinois pipeline. The facility produces about 13,600 diesel gallon equivalents (DGE) per day of RNG, enough to fuel about 620 of our CNG collection trucks. At the American Landfill RNG Facility in Waynesburg, Ohio purified gas from the landfill is placed into the Dominion East Ohio pipeline. The facility produces about 3,600 diesel gallon equivalents (DGE) per day of RNG.
This year, we have two more RNG projects under development at the Skyline Landfill in Ferris, Texas, with completion scheduled for Q4 2019, and the Williamson County Landfill in Hutto, Texas, with completion scheduled for Q1 2020.
With Linde North America, WM pioneered our first facility to produce natural gas from landfill gas. Our Altamont Landfill in Livermore, California, and has produced renewable liquefied natural gas (LNG) since 2009. Landfill gas at the Altamont Landfill is captured and converted into RNG. Our fleet of transfer trucks traveling between our Davis Street Transfer Station and the landfill are fueled exclusively with this renewable fuel! The facility creates 6,300 gallons per day of RNG or about 3,750 diesel gallon equivalents (DGE) per day, enough to fuel about 170 of our CNG collection trucks.
Natural gas produced from landfill gas now fuels 32 percent of our natural gas trucks.
Back to our clean energy word association game. When you hear solar, do landfills come to mind? Well, they should, because the sizable geographic footprint of landfills and their proximity to existing infrastructure make them ideal locations for large-scale solar installation.
The EPA recognizes and promotes the application of solar through its RE-Powering America’s Land initiative encouraging renewable energy development on contaminated lands, landfills and mine sites. At Waste Management’s closed L&D Landfill site in New Jersey, Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) constructed one of the largest landfill-based solar farm projects in the country. In Massachusetts, we collaborated with two project developers and the state Department of Environmental Protection to install four solar farms on closed landfills. PSE&G is also finalizing the commissioning of a solar farm at Waste Management’s closed site at Cinnaminson in New Jersey. This year, we’re also planning to deploy solar on some of our facilities in California. These projects add up and translate to more than 50 MW and growing of power utilizing solar!
All of these innovative technologies are transforming waste stream materials into high-value resources. That’s what we do at Waste Management – and how we think differently about renewable energy.
Article by Jim Fish – CEO of Waste Management Inc
Is the ship of sustainability finally altering course so decisions are based on data and science? If we head the advice of Kent, we may just make some progress.
The 2018 Future Smarts Conference brought forth some eye-opening topics, not the least of which was the presentation by Muhtar Kent, Former CEO and current Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Coca-Cola Company, who surprised many attendees by calling on the industry to take action on sustainability by creating biodegradable bottles and collection systems.
“We have got to do a lot better in waste, we have got to do a lot better in innovation, we have got to do a lot better in social value creation,” Kent said. “I plead to the industry to do a lot more in these areas.”
With the current state of recycling and environmental issues surrounding plastics, Kent isn’t the only one looking beyond traditional recycling as a solution to this looming problem.
- Switzerland is no longer pushing plastic recycling,
- China, the largest user of recycled plastic implemented Green Fence effectively banning the import of recycled plastics,
- just last month, Malaysia banned imports of plastic waste,
- US cities are pulling back recycling programs to include far fewer items, and
- the largest recycler in the US, Waste Management, has proclaimed that ‘combining effective recycling with landfill gas recovery provides the best bang for the buck’.
Overall the use of biodegradable plastics that are proven to biodegrade effectively in our current collection system (which is a landfill), just makes sense. We have a very effective collection system that keeps plastics out of our oceans. And, landfill biodegradable plastics increase the production of biogas in the landfill. These landfills have already built the collection system to capture the biogas and are returning the biogas to our communities for powering vehicles, homes and businesses.
So, Kent has it mostly right. We, as an industry, need to put more effort into using packaging that is landfill biodegradable.
Actually, let’s put all our effort into using landfill biodegradable plastics because the collection systems are already in place and the conversion systems for the biogas to energy are also already in place.
2018 Beverage Digest Future Smarts Conference https://www.zenithglobal.com/events/234/
The “root cause” solution to plastic pollution is in making sure plastics work in today’s managed-waste systems. It seems too simplistic an answer considering the enormity of this problem. But when it’s all said and done, plastics (petroleum or plant based) must work in our managed systems, especially the one that primarily collects plastic waste – period. This is the only path to a full life-cycle and systems approach for profoundly better economic and environmental outcomes.
Plastics are created from energy and, through our managed systems, plastics should ultimately be recovered as clean energy, closing the loop and ensuring plastics never become “waste”. Energy growth is directly linked to well-being and prosperity across the globe. For developing nations, this need is fundamental to improving and even saving lives. Energy is the building block for creating plastics and ensuring Energy’s recovery at the end-of-life is essential in eliminating pollution and achieving Circularity.
Which brings me to the New Plastics Economy’s “Global Commitment” pledge which states, “The Foundation believes the use of anaerobic digestion is currently limited for plastic packaging as at the date of publication,” to justify the focus on Compostability as the only acceptable end-of-life solution, but only for “specific” and “targeted” applications. Otherwise, it’s Recycle or die! The myopic pledge even doubled-down declaring that plastics-to-energy is not part of the circular economy target state! A stance that is radically shortsighted and naïve considering the scope of this crisis and the current state of Recycling.
But what strikes me as incredibly odd is that out of the dozens of experts, the broad stakeholder review process involving 100 organizations and experts across businesses, governments, NGO’s, academics and standard-setting organizations, you’re telling me that nobody noticed that this statement is completely ass-backwards?!?
The vast majority of plastic packaging is commonly and customarily discarded in facilities that are large-scale Anaerobic digestors (a.k.a. modern landfills) Limited? Not true, nearly 90% of U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (especially plastic packaging, because that’s what it is – not organic waste) is sent to anaerobic waste systems (practice and scale) – BTW, 0% to Industrial Composting facilities! These anaerobically managed MSW facilities are actively collecting and turning waste into fuel for vehicles, heat for homes and providing power to industries. They are highly regulated and strictly managed, and no other waste-management system collects more discarded plastics – none!
We have a pollution crisis and to get any tangible grip on this problem plastics must work in the systems that are available to us today. Strategies and pledges based on contingencies and “further innovation” only stagnate our abilities to act now. Recycling will never be a solution to pollution. We have systems in place and technologies available to make meaningful strides today, based on data, science and certainty that eliminate pollution with return value, not just continuing to “fight against” it with sentiment and no substance.
Energy recovery must be included in strategy and design, it is the alpha and omega. From where it comes, it must return. Negating this principle in the management of plastics is blasphemous to the fundamental principles of “Circularity” and only serves to continue down a linear path that solves nothing.
The past few years have been tumultuous for the entire recycling industry, as 2018 comes to a close we are left with warehouses filled with unwanted (but collected) recyclate, high contamination rates, recyclate being dumped in the landfill, and more recycling facilities closing their doors as profits dwindle. This is a bleak outlook for recycling if we continue with “business as usual”. Fortunately, some communities are taking a stand against the misdirection pushed by mega brands across the globe. These communities are changing the conversation in an effort to save recycling.
Cities across the nation like Mesa, AZ and Akron, OH recognize that one of the most impactful decisions a consumer can make regarding the recycling industry, is not what should go in the recycle bin but more importantly what should NOT go in the recycle bin. The message is clear “When in Doubt, Keep it Out” – only put metal cans, clean boxes, bottles, jugs, jars, and clean paper in the recycle bin.
ANYTHING ELSE BELONGS IN THE TRASH CAN.
The key is to reduce contamination in recycling so that recyclers can be profitable and the environmental value can be maximized. Without this, the recycling industry is destined for failure.
Interestingly, this move is contrary to what many mega brands have as their sustainability goals and are marketing to consumers. These brands haphazardly slap the words “recyclable” on everything from candy wrappers to coffee pods – none of which should ever go in your recycle bin. Companies that label their unrecyclable packaging with the term “recyclable” are a major cause of the collapse of recycling. They prey on consumers desire to help the environment, while causing the opposite.
Any company looking to effectively address waste must consider where their product should be discarded and how it can create maximum value. While this may mean keeping the recycling message on select products, it also means considering other solutions that provide value such as conversion to energy for the vast majority of products.
And, communicate honestly to consumers – stop asking them to put unrecyclables into their recycle bin.
In the past 50 years, measuring the sustainability of plastic packaging has been centralized on recyclability. This multi-billion-dollar effort has resulted in less than 10% of plastics being recovered and recycled. As the field of sustainability is maturing, the approach is evolving to a more holistic approach that considers the environmental impact of the product throughout its entire life-cycle. An encompassing approach is critical in making sound decisions that have impact, however not everyone is on board and some that represent the recycling industry are in a downright panic.
In a recent interview discussing sustainability of plastics, Steve Alexander, executive director of APR, states; “Frankly, there is no sustainability without recycling.”. Steve pointed to brand owners making recycling-related commitments and expressed concern that there may be less importance placed on recycling as other sustainability factors are considered. Alexander emphasized that he wants “companies and consumer brands to continue their commitment to utilizing recycling.”
While I understand that Alexander’s job and the entire APR organization’s existence is completely dependent on the continued focus on recycling as the primary directive of sustainability, it is disheartening to see such a blatant disregard for achieving more sustainable communities. The hard-line approach by APR that recycling is the basis of sustainability demonstrates the complete refusal to accept the complex nature of sustainability and the science and data behind sustainable materials management.
Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is an approach that evaluates a product across the entire life-cycle; sourcing, manufacturing, use and discard. SMM has provided alarming insight to many traditional approaches that while appeared beneficial were in fact environmentally detrimental. It is this reason that the EPA, waste companies and many brands are shifting from the archaic simplistic approach of simply recycling to the encompassing approach of SMM that utilizes science and data to drive true environmentally sustainable approaches.
Contrary to what Alexander and APR may promote, from a full life-cycle analysis approach, recycling is not synonymous with sustainability. In most instances, converting from recyclable rigid packaging into non-recyclable multi-layer flexible packaging is the optimal solution. There are some specific instances where using recyclable packaging is more beneficial, but this is not the majority.
As sustainability leaders, each of us must be willing to question traditional approaches and adopt methods that provide measurable results which are validated with data to provide environmental value. We must follow the science and data to create a sustainable future. And, we must at times make difficult decisions and admit when we have taken the wrong approach – even when it doesn’t benefit our pocketbook.
It borderlines dangerous and irresponsible to push solutions simply because consumers feel they are sustainable when in fact they have a significant negative environmental and financial impact to the environment and our communities.
The question I have for Alexander and APR is:
“Are you an advocate for sustainability or for your personal interests?”
Your actions and statements seem to provide a clear answer.
Read the full article here:
Last week I was reading the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) assessment that the EU will need to invest up to $12 Billion (€10 Billion) to innovate and expand the separate collection, sorting and recycling capacity to reach the EU landfill diversion targets for plastic packaging.
I had to pause and reread the figure; $12,000,000,000??
I understand the desire to increase recycling, but at what cost do we stop pushing blindly forward and begin to compare the alternatives?
Let’s just look at the numbers:
The latest report from PlasticsEurope states that there was a total of 16.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste in the EU. 6.8 million tonnes of it was recycled. That leaves 9.9 million tonnes that would still need to be recycled to reach the proposed 100% recycling of plastic packaging. According to FEAD it will cost up to $12 billion to build the infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle this 9.9 million tonnes using traditional recycling methods.
This breaks down to an annual cost of $1200 per tonne to recycle this material. Even if they were to expand that expense over 10 years of recycling plastic packaging, it would still cost $120 per tonne.
As an alternative, let’s calculate the numbers when designing plastic packaging with the existing infrastructure in mind. Most plastic packaging is discarded into a landfill. Modern technology allows for plastics to be converted into biogas within these landfills. Subsequently, the landfills are currently harnessing this biogas for auto fuel and energy. The result is recycling waste plastic by conversion to energy.
Sounds like a simple solution, but do the numbers add up?
Incorporating the technology to recycle plastics to biogas costs an average of $120 per tonne. The infrastructure and collection are already in place so there is no additional expense. The value of the biogas energy produced is $550 per tonne. This leaves a net income of $430 per tonne of plastic packaging. For 9.9 million tonnes of plastic packaging the income would be $4,300,000,000 each year. Expanding that over 10 years would be a net benefit of $43 Billion.
So, the question: Is it better to spend $12 billion for traditional recycling or earn $43 billion by combining traditional recycling with energy recycling?
(And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that LCA analysis shows that most plastic recycling is not environmentally beneficial, nor can plastics be effectively recycled indefinitely. But, that is a subject for another article….)
We recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with a fantastic host and avid environmentalist, Peter Arpin, on The Business Side of Green. The topics ranged from how to improve recycling, what plastics belong in composting and how plastics increase renewable energy. There was even discussion about why the Circular Economy can be at odds with sustainability and how to bring these two methodologies into a synergistic solution. Throughout the show was an overarching theme of ‘thinking differently’ about plastic.
If you make plastics, use plastics or think about plastics (we all do!), this is a must listen to episode.
If you would like to listen to more from Peter Arpin and the Business Side of Green: