The Northeast Recycling Council’s Fall Conference, located at the Graduate Providence in Rhode Island this year, opened with a networking breakfast where many attendees were able to reconnect and began to discuss current trends before heading into the packed conference room. Lynn Rubinstein, NERC’s Executive Director, made the opening remarks welcoming everyone back to the Fall Conference and recognizing the sponsors who supported the event, encouraged people to become members and called out the exhibitors who were present.
Session Facilitator, Robert Isner, Director, Waste Engineering and Enforcement Division, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Vice President of the NERC Board of Directors, introduced the Keynote Speaker, Adam Gendell, Associate Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, who spoke about what is happening in the packaging world today, looking at sustainability, which is a movement rooted in stories. He visited the history, starting in 1971 with the concept ad that all waste/litter is bad and fast-forwarding to Al Gore’s mission to explain greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Today, he stated, we have gone back to focusing on the emotional tie-in and the growing anti-plastic movement. Several organizations have joined the New Plastics Economy organization, bringing together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging. He explained that they have already given design recycling feedback to several companies and have issued more than 10,000 recommendations. As a result, more than 1,300 package designs have already been improved and others are trying to do something to improve their packaging. Gendell also pointed out that we are at a crossroads between industry and associations. There are multiple states with EPR packaging initiatives that will take hold within the next several years, and we are moving toward a future where these conversations are being held more frequently. As we move forward, PCBs will gain more attention, there will be a need for more paper recycling and shifts in corporate attitude since we have entered the Age of the Plastic Alternative. The session was a great educational kickoff to the conference.
The next panel discussed Managing Plastics. First up was Tonya Randell, Program Manager for More Recycling. She asked how do we balance our love/hate relationship with plastic? She pointed out that consumers must be willing to buy sustainable products. Covering the elements of recyclability, she pointed out that for recycling systems to work, you need to have a supply and demand, as well as market support to further growth. She said we should be thinking more about source reduction and that we need a behavior change to get products to the right spot. Next, Victor Bell, U.S. Managing Director for EPI/Lorax, spoke on the fact that the new plastics economy was rapidly expanding and 400+ new businesses are committed to the new plastic economy targets for 2025. In Europe, 70% of all packaging waste must be recyclable by 2030, and all plastic waste must be recyclable by 2030. He discussed what EPR packaging programs actually cost using Canada as an example, as well as what other countries are doing with packaging, penalties, and waste diversion. Finally, Kristen Aldred Cheek, Director of Policy & Programs for the Product Stewardship Institute, not only defined product stewardship and EPR for attendees, but also explained that there are 118 EPR laws in the U.S. (including Washington, Vermont, Maine, Indiana, Minnesota and California). EPR is growing because the groundwork has been placed and there has been a lot of success to date. However, in order for it to continue to be successful, there needs to be a consistent message – cleaner stream, less contamination, and materials management. Policy and education will drive change and people’s behavior.
After a networking lunch where attendees had a chance to stretch their legs and speak with others who may be facing the same challenges and talk about possible solutions, the Single-Use Plastics Legislation panel kicked off the afternoon. Susan Bush, Principal of Circular Matters, opened the conversation talking about types of plastics, packaging and food service bills. There were 95 plastic bag bills introduced in 2019. In addition to the bans passed in Hawaii (2011-2015 on a county by county basis) and California in 2014, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, New York, Vermont and Maine passed their own legislation. She mentioned Maine’s LD1431 and California’s AB1080/SB54 – Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act (although it did not pass, she told people to keep an eye on its status). She pointed out that there were food waste bills introduced in 28 states and Federal legislation acts, including Zero Waste and FY2020 Interior. In addition, Senator Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Lowenthal (D-CA) released an outline of legislation to tackle the plastic waste pollution crisis. Claire Galkowski, Executive Director for the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, focused on legislation in New England, including the Massachusetts state bill H3945 and said that they are trying to enact a statewide ban but nothing has moved forward yet in that area. She discussed the impact on solid waste costs and the issue of greenhouse gas emissions by switching from plastic to paper bags (more water, more trucks, etc.) and pointed out that we need to seek wiser solutions, including the banning of all plastic bags and the implementation of BYOBag. This led right into Kayla Montayne’s discussion on how to get a state bag reduction act passed. As the Environmental Program Specialist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, she discussed the components of New York’s program which will start in March of 2020. Key components to the law are that it will prohibit distribution/providing of plastic bags, especially if you are charging sales sale tax for goods and still require outlets to collect film plastic from consumers to continue recycling. Reusable bags were also defined. She pointed out the differences in the New York law versus the California legislation (SP270), including not specifying a grace period, no certification program, reusable bags are not required to have a stitched handle, and no compostable plastic bags are allowed. She stressed that it is important to listen to all points of view in the industry and is happy to help provide support to those who need it.
The final panel of the day, Innovative Products, Program and Technology covered what companies were doing to move the conversation around these topics forward with possible solutions that organizations could implement for more efficiency. Juri Freeman, Senior Consultant at RRS, talked about the challenges of recycling in Colorado and closing the loop through business planning, technical advice, and facilitating connections. He went through the NextCycle program and its phase details, including application criteria, eligibility requirements, and planning and marketing. Learning from the first program implementation, NextCycle “2.0” is in the process and some elements have been changed, including workshops to boot camps, a revised pitch session, grant timelines and future eligibility, and expanded partners and opportunities. Freeman concluded by saying that the keys to success were knowing the place in the market, design flexibility, and local knowledge. The next speaker, Steve Alexander, President and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, described what the organization was doing, how they there involved in the current trends and the challenges they are facing. He talked about their PCR certification program that is looking to create a foundation and provide PCR marketplace consistency. He pointed out that in order for recyclers to be able to market their resin to a bottle/plastic maker, it has to be 95% PCR. William Hancock, Vice President of Operations for Plexus Recycling Technologies, discussed the benefits of implementing robotics at MRF facilities and how to use it successfully. Steps included understanding robotics capabilities, equipment selection, integrating robotics into daily life, picking your plant, selling cleaner commodities, as well as leveraging data and analytics. Craig Cookson, Senior Director of Recycling & Energy Recovery for the American Chemistry Council, went over the seven initiatives to achieve commitments and how they see plastics in a circular economy. He touched on the current buzz in the industry about chemical recycling, covering what it is, the different types and how it is complementary to mechanical recycling. He called out that more engagement is needed (there are 250 partners so far). Finally, Carlos Manchado Atienza, Regional Director of the Americas for TOMRA Sorting Solutions, talked about what his company is doing and the types of options available, while Michael Noel, TOMRA’s Government Affairs Manager, discussed how deposit policies are going through a resurgence, the benefits of reverse vending solutions, the importance of facilitating the reuse economy.
At the end of the full day, attendees had a chance to relax and unwind at the event’s social hour. With many discussions about what happened during the day of sessions, people talked about what they heard and how they would take it back to their respective working environments and possibly begin implementing it or forming ideas around some of the topics. In addition, awards were presented to the City of Danvers Recycling Contamination Reduction Campaign, Armstrong Ceilings Recycling Program, and the Delaware River and Bay Authority, whose innovative programs were designed to move recycling, waste reduction, and reuse forward in the industry. Overall, it was a great first day to a conference that offered pertinent information and important updates on the current trends.