Key Takeaway: Industry leaders and governments should stop hiding behind the Jane Fondas and Greta Thunbergs of the world. Tackling climate change in a meaningful way also means addressing waste management on a structural level in every city and state.
Big, rich economies that like to tout their contributions to the environment at global forums also happen to be the biggest polluters. In fact, while 16% of the world’s population lives in high-income countries, those nations contribute 34% of global waste, World Bank estimates show.
Unlike European counterparts that have federal-level regulation, the U.S. seems to be in a special corner as a big waste producer: abandoned by China last year and with an unclear path forward on how to mitigate or regulate waste damage on a national scale.
Two reports last month dove deep into the dysfunction of the waste management industry, aiming to address its biggest pain points in the recycling process and offer solutions for investors and startups looking to disrupt the space as well as environmentally conscious consumers who just want to do better.
“The Bridge to Circularity: Putting the ‘New Plastics Economy’ into Practice in the U.S” was put out by the non-profit Recycling Partnership. The organization is seeking to raise $250 million for an “intervention” over the next five years to address existing recycling system.
“Here in the U.S. we haven’t had the appetite to pass these type of policies to manage materials or to be able to inject capital into the system — that was one of the big findings of the report,” says Dylan de Thomas, VP of industry collaboration at the Recycling Partnership in an interview with Karma on the sidelines of VERGE19 conference in Oakland, California.
“Roughly 11% of global methane emissions can be attributed to municipal solid waste, and methane’s near-term impact on global warming is more severe than CO2.”
The second report, “Investing in Waste-to-Value,” was published by research company Boundless Impact Investing and FullCycle Climate Partners, an investment firm focused on climate challenges.
The U.S. recycling system is outdated and ill-equipped for processing new, increasingly complex materials, researchers and industry experts say. Geopolitical changes like China’s ban on U.S. recyclables add levels of complexity: the country’s National Sword policy banned 24 types of waste materials, and “destabilized end markets for recyclables and disrupted recycling in the short term,” Boundless researchers found.
Here’s the current U.S. situation: we don’t recycle as much as we should, as efficiently as we can and the amount of garbage keeps increasing.
How do we fix it?
While there are no easy solutions, common threads and ideas exist about where we can start.
The Waste Pandemic
Waste collection and disposal is a pervasive issue affecting many industries that is only getting worse. The World Bank projects annual municipal solid waste generation worldwide will balloon to 3.75 billion tons by 2050 — a 70% increase from 2018.
As Boundless/FullCycle report notes, the amount of waste we produce is “growing faster than all other environmental pollutants.”
Jane Fonda’s Friday Fire Drills and Greta’s campaigning are doing good PR work, but we’ve got to start addressing issues at a deeper, structural level.
“At the local and regional levels, inadequate waste collection, improper disposal, and inappropriate siting of facilities have devastating impacts on environmental and public health,” says Nick Setaro, energy and environment researcher for Boundless, in the report. “Roughly 11% of global methane emissions can be attributed to municipal solid waste, and methane’s near-term impact on global warming is more severe than CO2.”
With the volume of plastic pollution growing, the challenge of proper recycling will continue to become more acute. Global plastics production is projected to double over the next 20 years, Morgan Stanley research found in 2018.
“There is so much extra packaging entering the waste stream now that wasn’t a big component 10 years ago and it’s especially apparent in high-income countries,” says Setaro in an interview.
Confusing Sorting Infrastructure
Many consumers, when facing a recycling bin at home, work or in public, are faced with quiet confusion. Research shows this is where things go wrong.
“Contamination presents a major challenge to this objective and industry experts believe that the issue needs to be addressed at processing facilities, instead of relying on households and business to sort waste prior to collection,” Boundless researchers found.
“Recycling infrastructure was built to manage packaging that was around 20-30 years ago.”
And it’s going to take a village: the sorting facilities themselves need to be updated.
Outdated Recycling Infrastructure
Beyond the sorting bins and facilities, recycling infrastructure itself needs an upgrade.
“Recycling infrastructure was built to manage packaging that was around 20-30 years ago,” says de Thomas. “If we went to sortation facility here in Oakland, it was built to separate newspaper from containers that are of a certain size. Our packaging has become much more complex than that.”
Investing in retooling of that equipment is necessary, he notes.
Intervening and directing investment at the right stage of waste collection and disposal is critical.
“Notable charities like Ocean Cleanup are committed to collecting plastic waste in the ocean. While these are beneficial measures, they occur at the most expensive point of the process,” Boundless report notes. “Earlier interventions like efficient solid waste management systems or sustainable materials management are more cost-effective and address systemic failures responsible for improper waste disposal.”
With no national-level standard for the format and operations of solid waste disposal facilities as Boundless research shows, states are left to fend for themselves.
Having a municipal solid waste management market that is so consolidated also makes it more difficult to disrupt or influence change. “Four top companies control over 50% of the U.S. national hauling market, with increased levels of domination in certain regional markets,” according to Boundless research.
“Looking at it from the perspective of smaller companies, it means that a larger waste management company will be the buyer or your technology if you’re successful,” Setaro notes. “It’s harder ultimately because you’re going up against a larger player that can cut costs, it makes it very tough to disrupt.”
‘The American Way’
To address the waste management pandemic, there is no simple panacea. It will take more focused investment, U.S. institutions stepping in to tackle China’s exit and a more conscious, holistic approach and understanding of the whole recycling infrastructure.
“Investment needs to occur at the municipal and company level to be able to take the materials that are coming in — that requires capital,” de Thomas says. “But also for municipalities to clearly communicate to residents what is and is not recyclable.”
Industry giants, regulators as well as more innovative companies need to step in and work together to find solutions.
“We don’t have the same levers and engines that they do in Europe,” de Thomas notes.
Recycling Partnership is launching another report in early 2020 focusing on the U.S. recycling system.
“So currently we’re taking that capital as an organization and deploying it in communities around the country, and we have a policy arm we’re launching in 2020, which we think we’ll be an American way of getting capital into the system,” he says. “We’re trying to do things here in a more American way.”