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PPRC 2021: What does the future of recycling look like?

Industry leaders share their outlooks on the future of the recycling industry and how technology, labor and education play roles.

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October 21, 2021

Harvey

With the cancellation of the in-person 2021 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference (PPRC), the Recycling Today Media Group hosted a PPRC webinar series Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 26-27 with programming that would have been featured at the in-person event. The webinars are free and can be accessed online.

The webinar series kicked off Oct. 20 with a keynote presentation called “The Future of Recycling” in which keynote speakers discussed how technology, labor shortages and the government will impact the waste and recycling industry.

The session’s speakers included Ben Harvey, president of E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough, Massachusetts; Kerry Getter, chief executive officer of Balcones Resources based in Austin, Texas; and Peter Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Phoenix-based Republic Services.

On labor issues

Finding quality laborers continues to be a concern for Getter, Keller and Harvey. However, all three said investing in technology can help offset those issues. This includes using optical sorters and robotics to increase quality and safety while decreasing labor costs.

While all three said their companies were investing more in technology, all three agreed that an even heavier emphasis needed to be placed on workers. Getter said things like increased benefits, working conditions and pay help to attract new workers and prevent turnover.

“You can’t put a machine or robot in place of every individual. You have to improve working conditions, you have to be in a position where you can increase pay and make the general conditions at work more tenable,” he said. “We have tried to be more sensitive to the needs of our employees in that regard.”

Getter

Despite the increased attention on attracting new workers, all three said that technology will play a key role in the waste and recycling industry in the future.

“From my standpoint, it’s going to come down to affordability and scalability,” Harvey said. “I’m encouraged to see the technology that’s out of there and how far it’s come from in the 15 or 20 years we’ve been doing this, and I know it’s going to get better.”

On community and government

Another obstacle that the three discussed was education and how it impacts material streams. Getter said one of the hardest things to do is to maintain the quality of education in communities and government with residents moving away and officials leaving city positions consistently.

A lack of education means an increase in the contamination of material streams. By working with the community, material recovery facility (MRF) operators can increase the quality of materials processed, which increases profitability.

“The community needs to know what is possible and what is not,” Getter said. “There’s a big effort by the consumer products companies to influence thinking within recycling and it’s not always an accurate representation of reality. We need to stay close to our customers and tell them what developments they’re likely to see, what’s real and what’s not. They need to believe you are looking out for their best interests as well as our own.”

On bottle bills and EPR movement

All three said an increase in community and government education about recycling can improve material streams. However, they also oppose some legislation that lawmakers have proposed, such as bottle bill laws.

The speakers all expressed concern over bottle bill laws, noting that they could have far-reaching effects on how MRF operators generate revenue. Keller said he believes bottle bill legislation only covers a fraction of what is being processed in collection streams and changes how it’s collected, putting the rest of what’s in the stream at risk.

“Municipal customers need to understand that the implementation of bottle bills could end up making recycling programs more expensive,” Keller said.

Keller

While the speakers said they are opposed to new bottle laws, they had mixed opinions about extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws that have been proposed in states like California and New York. Keller said it depends on how it’s implemented and how companies like his would play a part in it.

If the legislation reimburses cities for their collection programs, Keller said he sees it as a positive. However, if the legislation means self-regulation and doesn’t create new investment in recycling, then he said he’s not sure the EPR would be effective.

On the EPA’s role in recycling

Speakers also discussed the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its role in regulating the waste and recycling industry. Getter said that the agency should create a unified and consistent set of standards with end markets for labeling for recyclability.

“It’s something that is needed that isn’t out there right now,” he said. “There’s too much misleading information out there.”

Despite this, all three agreed that the EPA hasn’t played a role in shaping recycling legislation and don’t believe there is anything that the agency could do to shape industry standards.

“I believe the EPA has a big role to play in leadership,” Keller said. "I’m doubtful they have a role in creating recycling legislation.”