This week, the Compology team participated in the State of Texas Alliance of Recycling 2019 Summit in San Antonio. We were lucky to catch founder and executive editor of Resource Recycling Jerry Powell’s keynote on looking to the past to understand where the recycling industry is heading. 

Recycling’s history in 4 phases:

  1. Citizen environmental action – This phase can be traced to the college towns of Ann Arbor, Austin and Berkeley, where students took a groundswell approach to collect materials and drop them off at early processing locations. This took place during the first glimpse of a landfill crisis–the idea that landfills could fill up and we’d be left with unmanageable garbage.
  2. Local and state governmental action – Students across the U.S. started demanding more from their city and county commissions offices around waste and recycling accountability. Costs were still a significant barrier still due to weak and fragmented system infrastructure.
  3. Collection, processing and end-use – Collection and processing projects commenced near cities who were willing to invest in them, and this broke the industry open by creating clean, valuable materials. But the question still stood: “Who is going to buy our materials?” This is where Texas-born Malcolm McLean enters. He took over a converted World War II tanker, put a container on it, and shipped materials from Houston to Brooklyn, and eventually internationally. These actions led to containerization, a concept close to us at Compology. 
  4. Corporate environmental action – With progress on the residential side (now 70% of Americans are able to recycle!), corporations started to get involved. Big industry launched large scale initiatives in materials recovery and stewardship.

Recognizing important trends, like the four above, should impact how we manage recycling moving forward, says Powell.

Here are the 11 recycling trends to watch:

  1. Energy is inexpensive – Cheap energy means cheap materials. For many who say we’re in a plastic crisis, plastic production isn’t likely to slow down until energy costs increase again. It’s easier to promote new recycling policies in times of high energy costs like 2014, in which manufacturing costs also skyrocket.
  2. Exports are declining – New export bans have immense impacts on the plastics and cardboard markets. In the U.S., we need to focus on improving material quality and developing new markets for these materials.
  3. Domestic recycling demand is rising  – In many of the areas of the country, manufacturing (new markets for recyclable material) is healthy and growing slightly. This interactive map shows all the new paper mill sites in development. There’s also heightened innovation in new types of plastics and recovered paper. 
  4. Economic changes will affect some recyclables – Macro trends, like the rise of ecommerce, will continue to affect recycling. For example, we used to only see Old Corrugated Cardboard (OCC) impacting the streams around the holidays. Now it’s all year round. (We also love this Wall Street Journal video about it)
  5. Each ton is evolving – Some haulers may be starting to see their tonnage decrease. This is because packaging is changing, not necessarily that there’s a downturn. There’s several MRF retrofit projects (optical and robotic sorters) taking place to address the outdated equipment, changing material types and increased volumes entering. Additionally, camera-based container monitoring allows visibility, education and feedback at the point of collection for cleaner material to enter MRFs.
  6. We need more stewardship programs – There have been a few key players who’ve commenced stewardship programs to absorb the cost of some or all of their material recycling. We’re seeing it with Target, Walmart, and Coca-Cola so far. Even a few mattress companies are starting to think about taking their mattresses back.
  7. Food waste is still untapped – There is still an immense amount of food waste in our waste streams. Communities across the US are continuing to add organics bins to take pressure off the MSW system. This is progressing slowly but needs to continue.
  8. There will be more consolidation – Soon we’ll see more recycling collection happening by fewer players as a result of more mergers & acquisitions.
  9. Sustainability action will continue – There’s more trust across the industry that large waste generators are handling materials sustainably. The Closed Loop Fund and the Recycling Partnership are two bright spots helping companies take action. Walmart’s Project Gigaton is also something interesting to watch.
  10. Washington may help recycling – With bipartisan support for better infrastructure across the U.S., recycled steel, aluminum, and other recycling markets may be able to feed these projects.
  11. Systems are changing – With landfill bans, contaminated streams, and more, our systems are no doubt still highly inefficient. We’re only able to recycle what’s available and has markets. By creating efficiencies across the system, we’ll be able to recycle more volume per household.

At Compology, we see an immense opportunity for greater transparency about waste and recycling data across these trends and across key players like regulators, haulers and generators. Let us know if you’d like to chat! 


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