Going totally virtual this year, Northeast Recycling Council’s (NERC) annual fall conference was opened by Lynn Rubinstein, the organization’s Executive Director, who thanked the many sponsors, speakers and supporters of the event and inviting attendees to check out the virtual exhibit hall to learn more on the respective companies and organizations. Rubinstein went on to recognize this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, Liz Bedard who not only was one of the founders of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, but she also started the movement to create the infrastructure and end-market demand, identifying markets for polypropelene and served as one of NERC’s first board members from 1990 to 2000, among her many accomplishments.

NERC’s first Keynote Panel focused on MRF owner and operators’ perspectives on end markets, moderated by Chaz Miller, Ex Officio, NERC Board of Directors. Speakers included Susan Robinson, Senior Director of Sustainability and Policy, at Waste Management, Bob Cappadona, Vice President of Casella Resource Solutions and Peter Keller, Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability, at Republic Services. With regards to end markets, Robinson expressed that while it has been a rough couple of years,  markets are a bit better today. However, they still are at 50% as to compared where we were a few years ago. She expressed that the many recent challenges have forced us to confront the limitations of our industry and adjust, fully understanding end markets and evolving into a more sustainable business model. While recycling took a hit, it forced re-evaluation of details for processing and efficiency, and, as a result, has produced much higher commodity value today even though they only being paid half. Waste Management has invested millions in infrastructure alone and upgraded all of their facilities. She believes that the market will continue to adapt and will be stronger. The recycling industry has proven its resilience by focusing on what matters and placing value on reliable end markets.

Cappadona expressed that from a facility standpoint, Casella has seen 10 – 20 percent more of OCC to facilities because of online shopping. Mixed paper has created a little demand and quality restrictions are not going away. As a result, Casella has invested heavily into the quality of materials. Over the last two years since National Sword initiated, Casella is making sure they are processing for what the systems are designed for and will stay within capacity. They are anticipating the changes that will happen on January 1 with china shutting down any recycled fiber into the country. Secondary markets will have an impact on the MRFs OCC, but it will level off over the first of the year and through the first 6 months.

Keller spoke about COVID as a major theme in employee safety in the facility, including implementing distancing, barriers and business continuity. Republic has continuously operated all recycling facilities throughout the pandemic. One trend he saw was that feedstock was important to the supply chain (grocer, e-commerce, etc.) with many calls coming in needing the feedstock and the need for Republic to continue to operate. He did express that there was significant disruption in volume from commercial to residential, with big changes in types of materials the company was receiving. There was a drop in mixed paper content in the residential stream, and an uptick in OCC from home deliveries. Republic has also continued to invest in technology since the national sword went into effect with ballistics, robotics, etc. He points out that quality is key and that while markets are depressed, they have obligations to their partners and customers. End markets need to be reliable and will continue to be a focus.

All three speakers agreed that OCC prices remain good, and residential mixed paper seems to be getting healthier every day. Parcel shipments up 45% since the pandemic started. There has been more investment in mill capacity and technology in North America and it will become a stronger market. PET plastics continue to deflate because the material goes into the textile market that does not have a lot of current activity, while HDPE remains good in value because it goes into the infrastructure; it is the universal donor that can be used in a lot of products.

Cappadona commented that optical technologies for plastics are used more today. It is all about separation to meet the quality that you are looking for and they are not going away anytime soon. Robinson expressed that optical sorting is the fundamental part of their facilities and believes that they will see the same progression with robotics as well. You need to be able to move and change as the waste stream adapts. Cappadona agreed, saying that Casella has continued to screen materials through optical sorting feeling is the best way to get quality material, outside of education and diversion. Keller also stressed there needs to be a focus on inbound material—quality in equals quality out. All did stress that while more automated technologies and robotics are going to be implemented, there will always be jobs available.  Cappadona said from a quality control standpoint, there is no better labor than manual labor but it is still difficult to find it in these facilities. He doesn’t see a completely automated facility in the future. Keller agrees since operating the systems will require more operators, technicians and mechanics. In addition, there will be green jobs in other parts of the value chain. Finally, Robinson expressed that we need to define green jobs so that the value chain gets larger.

The next panel focused on delivering effective recycling messages and was moderated by Erin Victor, Environmental Analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Presenters included Jessica Shrout, Owner of Circle Three Branding, and Mel Gilles, Education & Outreach Specialist for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Gilles began the session speaking about the creation of the campaign #RecycleRightNC and how they went about doing so. She stressed that they wanted to concentrate on unified messaging and combatting a common enemy, which was contamination. They needed to stop telling people what they were doing wrong and concentrate on what they can do to recycle right. While single-stream recycling has high participation, there has really been no education for consumers, which led to contamination and wish-cycling. In addition, the concept of out of sight and out of mind, along with the zero-waste movement and the social media craze, it really did a number on the industry because of the confusing and conflicting messages. Recycling challenges included lack of consistent messaging, bad press, the rising cost of contamination, recycling myths, etc. Recycling myths were that recycling was going to save us, recycling should always be free and profitable, recycling is complicated and confusing, and recycling is different from place to place. So they worked on getting uniformed messaging in order to develop Recycle Right NC. 225 local governments signed on to participate in the campaign and were given a set of informational tools and educational tools for local implementation. They reached more than 1,000,000 people in the 10-week campaign. The goal was to have consistent material lists and signages. Once the wording was determined, postcards, cart tags and brochures were created, training guidelines, social media posts. There were handouts for press and elected officials in order to give them the right information, press releases, print ad, proclamations, etc. Gilles stressed that they not only wanted to provide the tools for the local government, but there was also a lot of interaction and comments on social media, which people loved. Collaborating with other states and organizations that want to do this and being specific in how you define the materials (metals, plastics, etc) is key.

Shrout next spoke on why it is so hard to change consumer behaviors. There are four main problems: 1) complete lack of awareness (what is appropriate/accepted), 2) they are aware but they apply the incorrect application of guidelines, 3) they are aware but they don’t care because they are paying for the service, and 4) they don’t understand at all what you’re doing/make bad choices. She stressed avoiding complexities and don’t assume that people outside our industry knows what we are talking about. Communication done right includes: 1) early and getting ahead of problems, design communication strategy around this message, 2) Repeat the message and do it often, the more you do it, the more people start to develop better habits, 3) make it relevant to your audience, 4) make it relatable – what you do goes beyond what they see. Identify the drains on time and money, listen to the platforms you have available; it is always about the customer – show them how it will have a direct impact on them. Give them the visual aspect of the process, invite them to go on tours at the facility so they can see it. Ask for help, ask for the resources you might need, see what you can do to outsource and see if you can find a partner that can build a strategy for this. You can even ask for help within your department. She concluded by encouraging attendees to become champions in their organizations in order to communicate better with the public.

The last session of the day focuses on addressing fiber recovery from residences, moderated by Bret Biggers, Economist and Liaison for the Paper Division at ISRI. The first presenter was Rachel Kenyon, Senior Vice President at Fibre Box Association(FBA), who spoke about the organization and its goals. FBA is a trade association representing North American corrugated box manufacturers, 122 member companies in the U.S., 7 Canadian companies, and 3 Mexican companies. She said the corrugated industry is adjusting to a delivery channel shift from commercial to residential, estimated e-commerce represents about 10% of total box use in U.S. and has grown modestly at 2 to 3 percent per year compared to 15% growth in e-commerce. There is a tremendous amount of growth in the industry. 17 million tons were used to make new containerboard in the U.S., and 5 million tons were used to make other packaging products, 9 million tons were exported, primarily to Asia. In 2018, FBA created a work group to look at the next steps.

Next, David Refkin, Affiliate Senior Consultant for Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), spoke about working with Fiber Box on a variety of projects. RRS decided to do a multi-family recycling program pilot in the city of Boston. The challenge was that multi-family households usually have low recovery rates because access is limited, lack of space, transient population, other priorities, languages and inadequate communications. The opportunity has been large and growing; now it is too big to ignore, especially with 30% of new construction, popular with millennials, large purchasers of e-commerce, and empty-nest baby boomers expect recycling collection. A solution is to use best practices to improve communications, convenience and interaction. Boston was chosen because multi-family residences there are rapidly expanding. The key players included Casella, building attorneys, Boston Department of Public Works, Boston Recycling & Zero Waste Coordinators, MASSDEP, and big-city politicians. RRS wanted to engage so two communication tools were distributed under doors to encourage recycling, e-mails were sent and there was ongoing interaction with property managers and meeting with tenants. As a result, there was a very dramatic increase in recovery rates: 46% to 89.9% (W. Broadway), 86.3% to 97.65% (Traveler St), 66.7% to 85.3% (Huntington). Lessons learned were that you must have clear communication that reaches residents and easy to access locations that are specifically identified. A good idea is to survey residents to understand their issues, etc. Refkin expressed that for so long recycling was focused on single-family homes because it was the easiest; however, with the change in retail, there has been growth in OCC in multi-family and we need to concentrate on that. Finally, there needs to be a focus on looking at building codes because there should be a way through zoning and regulations have to have rules for buildings to have enough space for composting, recycling, etc.

Mary Ann Remolador closed out Day 1 by thanking the speakers and encouraging attendees to visit the sponsor exhibit hall. All Powerpoints and presentations will be available next week on the NERC website.

For more information, visit www.nerc.org.