From politics to global weather patterns, the year 2017 seems to be a time for fundamental change. Giving way to new practices and increased awareness, the world of waste management is following suit as well. In the same way organic waste, composting, and recycling dominated the conversation in 2016, this year will see a host of new developments as the waste management industry evolves.
Based on recent findings, industry figures, and expert observations, there will be a few trends worth watching this year.
Recyclers Will Focus Less on Weight
With the recent price fluctuation of commodities like aluminum, copper, and steel, as well as the trend toward lighter packaging, industry leaders in waste management are reconsidering weight-based metrics. Typically, recyclers have evaluated their success based on the sheer weight of what they pull in; however, that may change in the near future as some companies shift their focus to measuring greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, they are more interested in seeing the results of their actions than weighing what comes through the door. In terms of assessing sustainability, looking at the overall lifecycle of materials is preferable to simply measuring the weight of what’s been collected. This shift may give professionals in the industry a better idea of how to move forward with environmental goals.
That said, making this shift is not as simple as it sounds. In cities with high diversion rates or zero-waste goals, it’s still important to measure the weight of recyclables. In fact, in some cities like Los Angeles, waste companies face financial penalties for failing to meet these targets, so moving the focus to greenhouse gas emissions will not necessarily be enough. Going forward, it will be interesting to see municipalities and waste management companies juggle these two metrics.
Consumer Packaging Will Still Be a Problem
Although it’s one of the biggest culprits in the world of waste, flexible plastic packaging is here to stay—and it’s a veritable burr in the saddle of recyclers. From zip-style snack pouches to pet food bags, this type of packaging is increasingly popular with manufacturers, and it challenges the waste management industry to find an effective way to handle its multi-layer composition. There’s the question of whether to separate the material from waste streams through more advanced technology, or to use it as fuel in waste-to-energy plants. While it’s true some companies are working to create a new type of polyethylene-based barrier packaging that will alleviate the recycling challenge, it has not become a reality yet.
Without a decent recovery solution, this type of plastic material will continue to plague recyclers. The recycling industry and manufacturers are expected to work together on better product design, but there’s no clear path forward yet. The next few years will likely see flexible plastic packaging make up a greater percentage of municipal waste streams.
Increased Infrastructure Makes Waste
While many people believe increased economic activity is beneficial, they sometimes don’t realize how much more waste is produced during such times of growth. Given the current administration’s stated commitment to infrastructure spending in the coming years, it’s likely the nation will see more major construction projects, all of which will generate jobs, as well as massive amounts of debris. This waste will need to be hauled away and disposed of by waste management companies. Ensuring that such businesses are prepared for the increased tonnage and able to respond effectively will be essential to a positive outcome. And given the substantial profit to be made, there will also likely be a mad scramble to find who can do it best.
Technology Will Become a Big Player
Up until now, the waste management industry has been relatively slow in the adoption of new technology. While industries like retail, healthcare, and construction have been transformed by advanced technologies, the waste sector has yet to take full advantage. However, 2017 may be the year when things begin to shift, as the waste industry is bound to be disrupted by technology soon, and companies will need to make important changes if they hope to keep up. But aside from just staying current with trends, the increased use of technology—particularly data collection and analysis tools—will make operations more efficient, as well as safer for people and the environment.
For example, landfills are increasingly using drones to monitor inaccessible areas, while robots could offer assistance with sorting and dismantling various waste materials. This could lead to a better awareness of unmet needs within the industry, as well as approaches for more precise separation of waste streams. Management software and cloud-based applications will also improve the logistics of operations and allow workers to communicate better. Of course, this may lead to more collaboration, creativity, and shared responsibility for environmental protection.