BioCycle June 2015
Kelly Sarber of Strategic Management Group in San Diego, California, called me last week upon returning from the annual Waste Expo conference in Las Vegas. Kelly covers Waste Expo’s Investor Summit for BioCycle each year. The Summit brings together senior management of major public and private solid, industrial and energy waste companies and institutional investors. Kelly noted that a primary message from the waste industry’s “heavy hitters” is that single-stream residential recycling is broken, and that municipalities need to pay more for recycling services or recyclables will end up in the disposal stream. They blame increasing processing costs, worsening contamination associated with single-stream materials, and downward pressure on commodity pricing.
There is a lot of irony in this “breaking news” from the waste industry’s heavy hitters, who included the CEOs of Waste Management, Waste Connections, Progressive Waste Solutions and Advanced Disposal. One big reason for going to single stream is that it is cheaper for a truck to collect one cart of commingled recyclables using an automated lifting arm at each stop — versus using labor to get out of the truck and empty multiple bins of separated materials. No argument there. But many of the contracts that vertically integrated waste management companies have with municipalities were negotiated to price recycling (and organics recycling) services as a “loss leader” in order to hold onto their lucrative waste collection contracts — “guaranteeing” a flow of MSW into the landfills they own. Essentially, in this business model, the heavy hitters earn high profits on a per ton basis by controlling the waste from the curb. And the reality is that at the end of the day, the best ROI (return on investment) comes from getting waste into the landfill, which is the least expensive and most profitable option for these companies.
So what happens now? Municipalities are broke and residents have little tolerance for paying higher fees. One major question is what portion of existing curbside recycling programs in the U.S. is controlled by these industry giants? And what about processing infrastructure for recyclables? And what percent of the organics recycling infrastructure do they own? Let’s call a spade a spade. The reason to recycle, compost and anaerobic digest is that we are rapidly entering the age of resource scarcity. At some point, and it better be soon, we need to pivot to capture resources that today, tomorrow and 100 years from now are and will be critically needed to support people, plants and animals on our planet.
As long as companies who earn the most money from throwing resources away control the municipal waste streams, doing a big pivot away from disposal and toward diversion will be a challenge. To be fair, we have arrived at this point due to a host of complex reasons and factors. One is a reluctance to change behaviors. Another is the crazy assortment of packaging and other items that make recycling and organics diversion very difficult and costly.
So let’s call a spade a spade. If the system is broken, let’s use this opportunity to get it right. From the heavy hitters to the mom’s and pop’s, from the megacities to the teeny towns, we need to figure this out — together.