Leading Waste and Recycling Initiatives That Can Impact Your Bottom Line

While the fundamentals of waste management—collect, sort, recover, dispose—remain essentially the same today as they did one hundred years ago, the methodologies of each of these steps are always changing in response to new technology, economic trends, and social changes. Indeed, the industry might be changing more quickly now than ever before.

The world is striving for zero waste living; plastics are the focus of a recycling renaissance; cities are considering new ways of controlling the market, and AI is guiding our hand at the bin. For the prudent businessperson, each of these interconnected trends is an opportunity to maximize efficiency and profitability—if you know enough to get on the right side of history. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered. Consider this your cheat sheet for current industry trends and how they will affect your bottom line.

QUEST FOR ZERO WASTE

Zero waste refers to an economy wherein all resources are completely reabsorbed into the system, and nothing at all is sent to landfills or otherwise permanently set aside. We have made great strides toward reducing waste and improving recyclability, but our economy still functions in a primarily linear way. Supporters of zero waste argue that this linear economy is unnatural, and instead advocate circular models that more closely replicate sustainable, natural cycles. In an age increasingly concerned with environmental issues, these arguments are attracting more and more attention, and can only be expected to spread in coming years.

While some have dismissed zero waste ideology as unattainable, big achievements have added credibility. Officials in Northern Ireland recently announced that the country has already reached its target of recycling 50% of household waste by 2020. This is doubly impressive considering that 17 years ago, the country was only recycling 10% of waste. This success has been attributed to recycling plastics, metal, compost, and other inorganic materials, but most of all, to a “’tremendous effort’ by all involved, especially the public.

Change is rarely cheap, however in the case of pursuing zero waste, there are clear benefits for businesses in the long run. Less waste means paying for lighter and/or less frequent pickups, translating into clear savings. Furthermore, getting ahead of the curve and switching to recyclable materials can save you big on taxes. In an effort to encourage green practices, many jurisdictions tax commercial garbage but have no comparable fees for recycling. For example, businesses in Minneapolis can save solid waste management fees of over 30% by following zero waste practices!

Zero waste ideology has broad implications and will likely affect every level of our economy. However, any business has the opportunity to ride the wave of sustainability. Being green sells, and eco-conscious consumers are likely to give their hard-earned dollars to businesses that share their interest in the environment.

THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTICS

One issue of particular interest to the zero waste dream is the problem of plastics. Plastics have been a staple of consumer goods for decades, but they have fallen from grace (we’ve all seen photos of marine creatures festooned with plastic bags). Less than 10% of consumer plastics in the US were recycled in 2015. Moreover, Canada and European Union member nations have recently committed to banning single-use plastics, and other countries are expected to follow suit. A massive shift is underway.

Due to its low cost and incredible versatility, completely dropping plastic is unfathomable. Accordingly, improving recyclability of the material should be considered one of the great efforts of our time. The problem with plastics has always been that performance is compromised when the material is recycled. Washing and melting down does not return all of the original material and traditional mechanical recycling cannot contend with multi-layer plastics or plastic containing residues. However, progress is being made. Revolutionary processes are using depolymerisation to maximize the materials we can reclaim from plastic—up to 100%. By reducing products down to their raw original materials, we can turn, say, any PET product (polyethylene terephthalate, a form of polyester) into any other kind of PET product without compromising quality.

Engaging with this trend is a question of up-front cost versus long-term gains. The peddler of new plastics is persona non grata in the eyes of socially-conscious consumers. Vendors with the resources to recycle their plastic waste or offer recycled plastic products (and market themselves accordingly) should see a return on their investment through a combination of saved taxes and fees, reduced hauling costs, and reinvigorated business. This is especially true if the price of new plastics increases with the recovering price of oil.

A CHANGING COMMERCIAL LANDSCAPE

New York City’s commercial waste market has long been made up by a patchwork of mainly small haulers, each operating in their own slice of the Big Apple. However, in light of concerns involving safety practices, environmental consideration, and economic fairness, New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is considering franchising the city’s waste management. Under a franchise system, a limited number of licenses would be awarded according to bids. DSNY is expected to announce the specifics of this new system in the coming weeks, and it is likely that only a fraction of the city’s haulers will attain licenses.

In an open market, the customer always has a choice to renegotiate or leave their hauler in favor of one with more competitive rates. Depending on the flavor of system that New York chooses to adopt, this element of choice may no longer hold true for its constituents. And it isn’t only New York considering such a system. Boston, MA, Springfield, MO, and St. Paul, MN may soon be looking at systems that, for better or worse, narrow the market to a smaller number of operators. In fact, it’s more than likely that franchising the waste management market in your city would result in increased fees, designed to pay for the requisite infrastructure. If your city is considering a franchise system, do your research, determine how it will affect you, and if need be, make your voice heard.

AI’S GUIDING HAND

We’ve all heard of AI working on the industrial side of waste management, transporting waste and even sorting to extract valuable materials in facilities. One area that has only recently entered the domain of AI—and where it shows particular promise with regards to cost saving—is the point of disposal.

In the past few weeks, announcements have been made regarding AI sorting machines that are small and accurate enough to be installed in bins and sort on the spot. One such invention is the RoboBin, invented by students at the University of Toronto. This device uses photo-recognition technology similar to that found in large-scale sorting facilities, only at a much smaller scale. The AI analyzes “each and every pixel” to determine the material of an object, explained one of the inventors. Similar inventions using similar technology, such as CleanRobotics’ TrashBot, are popping up elsewhere, pointing to a definite burgeoning trend in the industry.

There is plenty of savings potential in point-of-disposal technology. First, RoboBin was designed as an accessory for existing waste and recycling systems, reducing initial cost. Second, the opportunity of recouping costs is huge. RoboBin’s inventors use the example of an amusement park, and all of the recyclable material erroneously thrown in the trash, resulting in unnecessary expense in work-hours or fees. This argument could be extended to include returnable materials—like beverage containers—which could otherwise be returned for deposit. While such technology has obvious appeal to municipalities that sort their waste, it could also benefit the right businesses. As we’ve seen, less solid waste can translate to lower taxes and fees, and point-of-disposal technology is one tool to help maximize these savings.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The waste management and recycling industries exist in a dynamic space that is constantly shifting along with economic, social, and technological trends. Today, a number of current opportunities are available for businesses to cut costs and maximize profits. Artificial intelligence can keep recyclables out of the garbage; franchising might alter your local waste management market, potentially increasing your hauling costs; improved chemical recycling of plastics will reduce what you send to the landfill, thereby cutting waste taxes and fees; and adopting zero waste practices could attract more customer dollars. By engaging with each of these trends, the prudent businessperson will boost their bottom line by ensuring that they are not overspending on fees, taxes, or hauling, as well as improving their image by aligning themselves with green initiatives and attracting business. Being aware of industry trends opens you up to a wealth of opportunities to do business better. As Benjamin Franklin said, “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”