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It’s time to take a hard look at the value MSW systems are delivering

Sunshine Canyon Landfill Gas-to-Energy

In a recent Waste Dive article “It’s time to look harder at landfills if we’re serious about addressing climate change,” Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann and Stephen Gerritson don’t want to be dramatic, but they do want you to know that we’re at the “tipping point”…again. That’s right, get ready for temperatures to be unacceptable levels of warm (can’t be too warm, can’t be too cold), the rates of severe weather events and our seas will rise (kiss that beachfront property good-bye), and droughts too (don’t want to forget those). No worries though, this can be avoided if we separate organic waste, eliminate Solid Waste systems and RECYCLE EVERYTHING ELSE.

Good grief, seriously? If that’s the “moment of truth” that will affect the “survival of mankind” – we’re screwed.

Philipp and Stephen conveniently cherry-picked the current recycling rate as being “stuck” in the 30% to 35%. The actual overall recovery rate for plastics is more like >10%. But don’t let 50 years of data that proves the inefficiency of recycling plastics get in the way, no! Instead, let’s throw-out Solid Waste systems and force everything into the recycling stream. Not too smart.

They point to solutions using anaerobic digestion, which is what modern landfills are today. But somehow negate these systems in the same breath. So, are they throwing the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater?” According to the U.S. EPA, LFG energy projects across America will capture roughly 60 to 90 percent of the methane. These same projects are providing renewable energy to the grid, heating millions of homes, fueling thousands of fleet vehicles and providing power to industries across North America. With new regulations looming, these capture rates will only continue to improve, as they have over the last few decades, unlike recycling rates.

Today, 85% of U.S. MSW is being sent to these baseload energy sources (because there’s no such thing as a “somewhat” baseload energy source). In fact, it’s RNG from Solid Waste systems that’s helping California to reach carbon negative milestones. And why four bills in Congress name landfill gas as a renewable energy source including America’s (LIFT America) Act, GREEN Act, Clean Energy for America Act and the CLEAN Future Act. But somehow these gentlemen from the Institute for Energy and Resource Management think this existing infrastructure is inefficient and diverting MSW to non-existent recycling streams would be far better. And if you’re buying that, I’ve got that beachfront property for you in Arizona.

We are not going to recycle our way out of pollution or climate change. Plastics can/should be designed to work in the primary managed waste systems (ASTM D5526/D5511) where consumers properly discard plastic waste. Plastics come from energy and plastics are inherently discarded in Solid Waste systems. Solid Waste systems are providing more return value in energy recovery than any other option available today. Ensuring the highest return value throughout the proper lifecycle of an application, using the infrastructures we have available today. That’s taking accountability and achieving circularity.

As for the European model, good on you if you want to incinerate waste for road projects. The U.S. prefers to sequester Solid Waste in highly designed, strictly regulated, anaerobically managed systems to extract the biogas from carbon-based [solid] waste to protect the environment, reduce GHG and recover clean renewable energy. We do this in the ground because we can. After which, that land is repurposed as a nature reserve, park, sanctuary, or golf-course. So, you do you, EU.

Plastics need to work in managed waste systems

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to the sustainable management of plastics and eliminating pollution.

For nearly a half-century our Solid Waste systems (landfills) have taken a PR beating. Back in the early 80’s it was justifiable concerns over waste management practices, environmental protection and community health. From these concerns, heavy regulations, fees and fines where enacted to fix the problem. Over the past few decades, a remarkable thing has happened, today’s modern landfills are now considered ‘base load’ renewable energy resources. These highly engineered and strictly managed facilities are not only protecting the environment, but have become a global asset to surrounding communities, providing fuel for vehicles, heat for homes and power to industries.

Besides poor waste management practices, a root cause of plastic pollution is the fact that plastics do not inherently work in our managed waste systems. This fact festers in many corporate sustainability strategies, evident by the promises of making plastics work in a compost. Right idea, wrong system.

Every week garbage trucks around the country, running on clean-burning natural gas supplied by Solid Waste systems, provide residential pick-up of all single-use/non-recyclable plastics that consumers properly discard to avoid pollution, and transfer this material to our Solid Waste systems. Oddly, we hear about making plastics work in recycling or making sure plastics are designed to work in a compost [ASTM D6400] (even though the infrastructure does not exist), but why do sustainable packaging professionals fail to recognize the advancements and return value in making sure plastics work in our Solid Waste [ASTM D5526/D5511] systems?

When it comes to lifecycle accountability of plastics and ensuring the highest return value throughout, which is the basic premise of Circularity, there is nothing that compares in Scale, Practice and Return Value to making sure plastics are designed to work in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) systems.

It’s time to flip the script and change the narrative. Instead of demonizing our Solid Waste infrastructures where plastics are commonly and customarily discard, design for this managed system to ensure a clean planet and clean energy recovery.

Exposing the Plastic Recycling Lie

Although this video focuses on Australia we have the identical situation here in the United States. How much more obvious does it need to be before sustainability managers “get a clue” that recycling plastics is 0% about environmental responsibility. Somehow people have gotten the impression that recycling is synonymous with being good for the environment. 9 out of 10 times LCA data on recycling plastics indicate we should be looking for other solutions to our plastic pollution issue.

It’s a downright shame that our recycling efforts over the past decades have resulted in massive plastic pollution in our oceans and to the planet. Unfortunately, noble cause corruption has resulted in good intentions being blindly pursued by so many essentially creating the “religion of recycling”. This blind pursuit has resulted in some of the worst polluting the planet has ever seen, and it’s still happening. Let’s stop being irresponsible and stop promoting unsubstantiated feel-good gimmicks about recycling. Please, let’s begin using facts, data and science to drive environmental and sustainability efforts for our plastic waste.

Waste Expo 2019 – The Good, The Bad & The Auction

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…

Think Waste as a Renewable Resource

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.

Think Solar

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

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Coca Cola Chair Pleads For Biodegradable Bottles

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


Communities change direction to save recycling

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.


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.

Recycling: When In Doubt Throw It Out


Treatment or Cure?

In medicine, there is an age-old debate surrounding whether physicians and researchers should focus on treating the symptoms of an ailment or creating a cure. From a business and shareholder perspective, treating symptoms is preferred because it ensures continued revenues and much higher shareholder return; whereas the patient would much rather obtain the cure. Unfortunately, the decision of where to spend money and marketing is most often determined by those who seek financial gain – the shareholders.

Plastic is often portrayed as the scourge of our planet, not a day passes without an email, article or news brief talking about plastic waste. Most often, the complaint about plastic surrounds plastic waste (it is seldom to hear complaints about the cost, performance or use of plastics), and the solution promoted seems to constantly revolve around recycling. Recycling is touted as the end-all method to prevent plastic waste.

However, is it possible that recycling is just a method to treat the symptoms of plastic waste?

Consider for a moment that the disease is plastic waste. The cure is to eliminate the waste of used plastic – this means that any solution must definitively address the end-of-life aspect of plastic.

Ever wondered why products using recycled plastic only have a percentage of recycled plastic, why recycled resin has a brownish haze or why plastic is down-cycled rather than recycled?

To recycle plastic, it must be melted and then reheated again to form a product. Heat is kryptonite to plastic, making it weaker, more brittle and increased discoloration. Within 3-4 times of reheating the plastic, it becomes useless and must be discarded as waste. Every ounce of plastic will eventually be discarded – contributing to the disease of plastic waste.

Recycling is simply a method of treating the symptoms, to create a perception of improvement without ever addressing the fact that all the plastic will eventually be discarded as waste regardless of recycle rates. We will not cure this disease until we look at the final discard of plastic and how to remove it completely after use.

So, why do we continue to spend billions each year on treating the symptom rather than focusing on the cure? Why all the marketing and pressure to focus only on recycling?

Makes one wonder who the shareholders are…..

Modern technology and chemistry provides options for converting discarded plastic into energy and fuel – without incineration. This removes the plastic completely from the environment while creating value for communities. Perhaps it is time to cure this problem rather than simply dealing with the symptoms?

By 2050, it’s estimated there will be more plastic waste in the ocean [by weight] than fish. Perhaps, we should start listening to Mr. Fish.

At the 2017 Waste Management Executive Sustainability Forum a message was delivered by Mr. Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management (WM), echoing his predecessor, Mr. David Steiner.   “The goal is to maximize resource value while minimizing and even eliminating environmental impact, so both our economy and our environment can thrive.”  In 2016 Mr. Steiner told the National Recycling Conference in New Orleans that coupling landfill gas-to-energy with recycling would provide the “biggest bang for the buck environmentally.”   Mr. Fish concurs, specifically points out that WM’s day-to-day operational technology continues to evolve and it will play an even larger role moving forward, both on the collection and disposal sides of WM’s business.   And as Mr. Steiner indicated last year, what’s most exciting to Mr. Fish continues to be what’s happening with the materials that cannot be recycled or composted.   “Today, environmentally safe landfills play an important role for materials that don’t have viable end markets.” Why is this?   Because today’s modern landfills continue to clear all the hurdles, they work, they’re scalable, they’re economical and there are policies and regulations in place to support and encourage the developments of next generation alternatives in this space.   In short, these facilities are pumping-out clean, inexpensive, renewable energy like no other option!

This is where achieving true Circularity comes into play and it’s what most technologies are striving for when it comes to last/best option in handling waste – Energy Recovery. WM spends a great deal of time and expense exploring best possible options. However, one of the major pillars of WM’s strategy is adhering to the price discipline that is Mr. Steiner’s legacy. “In a business where there is no price elasticity in demand, we must stay dedicated to that discipline” and with the current low energy prices, “nothing can compete with the low landfill pricing.” According to Mr. Fish, other options have cost-structures that are at least 3-10 times the cost of landfill air space.

WM remains dedicated to a “sustainable” recycling business. As they should, not only are they the biggest landfill company in North America, they’re also North America’s biggest recycler – by an even wider margin.   In fact, it’s one of WM highest returns on invested capital, a business they want to ensure survives and thrives in the future. But Mr. Fish points out that we are in unchartered waters, the changes in products and packaging that are coming into our homes are significantly different and so are the recyclables going out, considerably increasing contamination rates and reducing value. This has led WM to take a hard look at what recycling means in term of environmental benefits.

When it comes to packaging, Mr. Fish wants us to realize that we’re an “on-the-go” society. This is translating into copious amounts of plastic packaging, much of which simply cannot be recycled.   This “convenience rules” trend is going to continue, causing tension between the desire to ‘recycle it all’ and the limitations of equipment, human behavior and the customer’s tolerance for cost.   With a 6-7% growth in non-recyclable flexible packaging, a 15% growth in E-Commerce and a recycling stream that’s 30% lighter than it used to be, Mr. Fish recommends evaluating the objectives to make sure we’re targeting that which achieves the greatest return value.   He explains, “Environmental benefits of recycling look very different when approached from a greenhouse gas emission reduction perspective versus simply looking at how many pounds or kilograms of material are averted from landfills.” So this got Mr. Fish and the rest of WM thinking, “What‘s the right goal? Is it to keep chasing that last ton to recycle or is it to achieve the highest possible environmental benefit? For years, recycle tons has been the goal and in response to high recycling goals, we’ve seen some creative efforts to achieve these goals. Even when the environmental impacts might be questionable and the economics just made no sense. We now believe that recycling should not be the goal in and of itself, we need to be a lot more specific to ensure that we are achieving the environmental benefits we want to and think we can.”

Mr. Fish goes on to explain that when it comes to the management of organic waste (including packaging) the first priority is in trying to reduce the amount of material from making it this far down the value chain – of course.  However, when this waste is collected for recovery (including non-recycled plastics, even the ones that say “recycla-bull”) it becomes feedstock for a process and a new product, either compost or an energy product.   Anything not designed to comply with either option reduces the quality of this feedstock driving-up cost and threatening the entire process.

To achieve real success, Mr. Fish emphasizes the need to be actively engaged in the entire value chain of material and suggests that we make-up our minds about packaging when talking about organic waste. “Do we love it for preserving food or do we loath it for making waste? Should we ban it, tax it, recycle it, compost it, burn it or landfill it? What are the comparative environmental benefits and the costs?”

Mr. Fish went on to highlight the importance of managing food waste. The main objective here is to reduce food waste and fortunately plastic packaging plays a critical role in preserving our food. Plastic packaging is not food and it should not be expected to perform like food, which would defeat the purpose. Nor should this material be comingled with food waste disposal, elevating the risk of more waste-stream contamination. Besides, industrial composting standards (ASTM D6400) require 90% conversion to gas in 180 days, leaving no nutrient value and losing any ability to capture the gas. In my opinion, compostable standards for packaging, although well-intentioned, simply overshoot any return value.   To jeopardize the entire supply chain with inadequate product performance and stability for the least common means of disposal doesn’t make much sense to me. Instead, more focus should be on the primary means of disposal (anaerobic) and the proven asset that this environment offers, the recovery of clean renewable energy.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fish emphasized that we can attack both sides of this problem. “We are in the midst of rapid change, changing demographics, changing consumer behavior, change in purchasing habits and packaging innovations, all of which are having huge impacts on recycling and the waste industry. Our response needs to be sophisticated and strategic… And as we tackle sometimes competing needs, all of us, producers, retailers, regulators and others, must use data to make the right environmental and economic decisions… We have the data, let’s put it to use!”

The data provides a clear pathway to achieving our environmental goals. Packaging should have the highest value and minimize environmental impacts in its most common discard method– without compromising the package quality. For the vast majority of packaging this does not equate to recycling, instead the environmental and economical winner is conversion to energy in modern, environmentally safe landfills. This shift in creating science and data driven solutions, rather than basing actions on perception or environmental folklore, is vital in reaching WM’s goal to process this material to its highest worth, maximizing the resource value and eliminate the environmental impacts of packaging in a way that’s both good for the economy and our planet.  Although this message seemed to completely elude the panel of experts that followed, discussing the conundrums of complex packaging, I hope others will begin to take Mr. Fish’s advice before we’re all swimming in it.

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


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.