My prediction for the year 2020 is that our industry will move forward purposefully with unwavering determination. This is not a New Year’s resolution because this is how the solid waste industry has historically faced its challenges. What’s in store for the next 12 months?
Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Executive Director and CEO David Biderman tells me the first of the two most pressing issues is the continuing impacts of China’s National Sword on domestic recycling programs. Biderman believes that “paper prices are likely to continue to be at low levels, forcing some local governments to make difficult decisions about narrowing or suspending their curbside recycling programs.”
The second most pressing issue he points to is the increased scrutiny of landfills and others relating to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Biderman says, “Federal, state, and local attention on PFAS increased in 2019 and is expected to ramp up further as EPA considers a proposed Maximum Contaminant Level for certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water. This is likely to impact landfills that dispose of leachate at wastewater treatment systems, as leachate often contains PFAS.”
Other issues that SWANA will continue to be engaged with are bad safety performances as well as the growing shortage of drivers and mechanics.
Anne Germain is the Vice President of Technical and Regulatory Affairs at the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA). She used a quote from a movie to relate to me what she believes will be the industry’s most pressing issue in 2020. “I’ll quote George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life;’ ‘Now, you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics…’ This echoes what I’m hearing from the public. The plastics backlash has pressured manufacturers into increasing their commitments to recover packaging and ensuring sustainability of their materials. They are exploring new and alternative technologies. In the meantime, the public is not waiting. They are reaching out to municipalities and elected officials demanding action.”
There is plenty of reason for optimism. Germain tells me, “The recycling industry is in the center of this maelstrom. But we are not idle either. We are upgrading facilities to improve recovery and seeking out new markets. With the development of adequate end markets, we will help the public and manufacturers move towards their goals of a true circular economy. For us, the questions are: When can we expect new end markets to be available? Will the end markets cover the collection and processing costs? Or will the municipalities be left holding the bag?”
The Executive Director of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Robin Wiener, tells me there are critical opportunities and challenges to be faced in 2020. “As for any commodity-based industry, the supply and demand for recyclables will remain squarely in focus. On the supply side, addressing the quality and quantity of the residential recycling stream is a major concern,” she says. “This means the continued investment in new technology and innovative solutions for processing material, primarily at the local levels, thereby reducing contamination and improving the overall stream. Fortunately, this already started to take place over the course of the last year. Similarly, the recycling industry must continue to engage package manufacturers and others to encourage Design for Recycling, so that when products reach the end of their current stages they are able to be efficiently and effectively recycled.”
Our industry has no need for New Year’s resolutions. We don’t need to reinforce our resolve. All we need to do is continue to be resolute in our work as we always have.