Municipalities Struggle To Contend With Increasing Waste Streams
By: Maura Keller

Municipalities continue to struggle with their communities’ waste and recycling streams.

Their attention is turning toward the health of their landfills as more recyclables are ending up there because of low commodity prices – and tipping prices continue to climb.

According to a recent study by BigRentz, some states are accumulating new landfill waste faster than others. For example, upper Midwestern states have some of the highest accumulation rates, indicating that they don’t just contain the most landfill trash, but they’re also adding to those landfills faster than other states. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois all rank in the top five for new landfill waste per capita, joined this time by Colorado.

The study indicated that Indiana leads the nation with an annual “landfill waste acceptance rate” of 2.35 tons per year per resident. Michigan and Colorado follow with annual new landfill waste equivalent to 2.27 tons and 2.06 tons per resident, respectively.

George Valiotis, chief executive officer of PACE Glass, a NYC-based recycler who is building the world’s largest recycling facility said the biggest challenges municipalities face are budget allocations for recycling programs, communication regarding recyclable goods and above all, contamination that make potentially recyclables end up in landfills.

“The last of the three, contamination is an overwhelming cause for concern – particularly since China’s recent bans have caused large portions of our country’s recyclable waste to be landfilled,” Valiotis said. “The major concern here, however, is that time is of serious essence. If we do not invest a portion of our municipal funds and time into seeking a safer solution than landfills and incinerators, we will quickly see the quality of our air, land and overall life in the U.S. dwindle. If not addressed, the effects will quickly be noticed by smaller municipalities and in no time trickle down into larger cities.”

According to Michael Allegretti, chief strategy officer at Rubicon, there are a host of issues contributing to the impact on municipal waste and recycling programs, most notably depressed commodity prices. Combine that with decades long increasing contamination rates from single stream recycling and the China National Sword mandates, and the faults in America’s current recycling systems are clearly being laid bare.

“Here in America, we collectively need to kick our addiction to landfills – we can’t bury our waste problems into perpetuity,” Allegretti said. “Something needs to change. What we need to be doing as a society is investing in recycling infrastructure and education programs across the country which will result in less waste going to landfills.”

Dr. Maria Guron, professor of chemistry at Villanova University, also teaches on plastics and sustainability to non-chemistry majors. Dr. Guron studies the lives of plastics from their creation to their (lengthy) demise from a holistic perspective and says the biggest issue facing municipal recycling programs now is the fallout effect of Chinese policies from 2018 which effectively block the U.S.’s ability to offload recyclables for true reuse, and make it a domestic problem that the country does not have the infrastructure for.

“Before that time, China took significant amounts of our recycling from the US so that recycling made a profit,” Guron said. “Unfortunately, because they have drastically limited their percentage of accepted contaminants, it is virtually impossible for the U.S. to send those goods to China to convert into manufactured goods. Thus, it costs money to recycle as opposed to making a profit. Funds are needed to support recycling as they are no longer able to support themselves from the sale of recycled goods.”

Indeed, according to Valiotis, since China’s bans, municipal programs are no longer accepting certain types of waste that was once considered recyclable. Landfills are thus filling at a dangerous pace and municipal programs are finding themselves overwhelmed with problems of sustainability.

“Municipalities, in my opinion, need to invite, and invest in relations with recycling companies that have made technology and innovation a part of their brand – which is what Pace Glass Recycling is. A company like Pace Glass that makes it a point to invest in their technology means that more waste can now be recycled, and landfills can be reduced,” Valiotis said.

Industry Initiatives
It’s only safe to assume that as landfill space becomes increasingly limited, the cost of having more garbage stored there will increase. Valiotis said that even worse is the fact that recyclable material that can’t find end markets fills these landfills even quicker.

“However, an increase in landfill tipping fees also means that industries and methods that divert waste from landfills become more favorable,” Valiotis said. “Municipalities may be more keen to invest in communicating the definition of waste that can be recycled. Landfilling recyclable goods is one of the worst things that can be done in the market that we face today. The industry will only see an increase in landfill tipping fees, a decrease in landfill space and the environmental effects are disastrous.”

As landfill space shrinks, Guron said that waste management will have to shift to processing waste differently. “The most beneficial outcome would be to burn the waste in a waste to energy plant so as to still reap some benefit from the waste stream,” Guron said. “Of course, this does create air pollution but the alternative isn’t sustainable, either. Ideally, we need to work individually to create less waste to go into the waste stream and the governments need to standardize and subsidize better recycling, as well as composting organics.”

Guron stressed that the evolution that needs to happen is that consumers need to produce less waste – and that needs to be incentivized.

“Recycling also may need to go back to being multi-stream to ensure better quality recycled goods, government needs to standardize and subsidize waste programs and we need a viable composting program, as many industrialized nations have,” Guron said.

In addition, a lot of grassroots, community based programs are developing in small municipalities throughout the nation. Valiotis said that programs such as recycling events and community involvement are helpful.

“While feasible in smaller regions, however, how possible is it to implement in larger cities? The safest solution is investment in and/or relationships with technologically driven and advanced recycling companies,” Valiotis said.

Valiotis said that the industry needs to motivate relations with companies that invest in the technology that deals with waste in a safer and more effective manner. A relationship with such a company deals directly with the problems facing municipalities’ increase in landfilled waste.

“Our company takes what was once considered unrecyclable glass, and turns it into a quality product that can then re-enter the market,” Valiotis said. “This end product that Pace Glass produces, is not only part of the solution to landfills, but benefits the economy as a whole—the quality of our recycled end product is not only usable, but favorable in cost for the end-market.”

The Recycling Partnership also is a great organization that is working with communities and municipalities on a local level to help them get a handle on their contamination by auditing recycling contamination at the curbside and helping to educate the public about best in class recycling methods.

“Here at Rubicon, we are putting technology behind education with products like RUBICONView, which helps digitize the data from waste audits, and in turn make that data actionable for cities and municipalities,” Allegretti said. “Every time we read a story about waste disposal companies dumping their recyclable material into landfills, it chips away at the public trust. As an industry, we need to focus not only on education for residents about the proper ways to recycle; but on education for businesses about the how to correctly implement the waste and recycling programs that their communities have adopted.”

Industry experts agreed that the China National Sword policy was a wake-up call for the U.S.. As Allegretti explained, the time has come to build a twenty-first century waste and recycling system that can keep up with the demands of an ever-growing population, and an infrastructure that can be built to ensure that we are never again dependent on exporting our waste.

“We have seen the investment community rally around those companies and organizations that are committed to sustainability,” Allegretti said. “This will only increase as the awareness and impact of recycling – and not recycling – dictate who businesses and consumers will buy goods and services from in the future.”

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