Whether driven by market demand to improve materials quality or challenging landfill costs, optimizing recycling is a high priority for solid waste operators.
By Calum Forsyth

As we know, the U.S. alone generates approximately 230 million tons of municipal solid waste every year. With so much trash, it is not surprising that waste operators are focused on diverting more waste from the landfill. With continued pressures on governments to push through legislative changes aimed at improving recycling rates, municipalities both at home and abroad are beginning to make changes to their recycling collection systems and streams.

However, the recent Chinese restrictions on recycling imports and the 25 percent tariff on scrap metals from the U.S., combined with a volatile global economy, have contributed to uncertainty and difficulty in planning recycling collections.

Planning changes to recycling services is one of the key drivers for the use of route optimization software, and there are some common strategies I am seeing our customers around the world considering in order to improve their recycling results.

#1: Giving Residents More Containers
While most developed countries have now introduced a two-bin minimum for solid waste collections—one for residual waste and the other for recyclable material—as painfully pointed out by China, most mixed recycled wastes are “highly polluted”, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the material to be recycled.

Higher quality recycling can be achieved by introducing more fractions of recycling. By increasing the number of recycling bins, and reducing the capacity of each bin, people are more obliged to segregate their waste which can help minimize contamination.

Several European authorities for example have now introduced specialist curb side sorting vehicles, capable of collecting as many as seven material types in one vehicle, with the aim of increasing the quality of their recycling product. This is generating higher quality recycling material for the operator, and this can be more effectively separated and thus sold at a higher price.

However, not every implementation has been straightforward and issues have arisen in some situations due to difficulties in estimating the capacity required for different materials and resident’s concerns about the increased amount of time the truck spends on their street.

So, while there may be much uncertainly around recycling right now, most industry people I have spoken to about this here in the U.S. do not see a significant shift away from single-stream any time soon, and certainly not a change in how residents put materials out curbside.

#2: Innovations in MRF Technology
While the current debate over combined or separated recycling seems to be favoring the latter, as continued technological advancements potentially making their way into MRFs, could the ease of mixed recycling combined with better machine separation see the debate shift?

Investment and innovation in MRFs have obviously been around for some time, driven by manpower shortages and the need for productivity improvements, as well as the requirement for higher quality material. However, recent changes in China will have given this added impetus.

For example, at this year’s WasteExpo, speakers in the ‘Rise of the Robots’ session discussed the advantages that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) may bring to MRFs. They spoke of the ability to increase purity rates and improve consistency by having robots that have continuous high levels of concentration and do not suffer from fatigue. Operating costs could also be reduced by maximizing operating uptime and cutting labor and training costs.

#3: Changing the Frequency of Collections
Another strategy that has become increasingly popular for municipalities is to change the frequency of collections. This not only reduces operation costs, but also helps increase the volume of recycling by diverting recyclable materials from general waste into other streams.

In many European countries, while food waste is often still collected on a weekly cycle, other streams are now routinely collected less frequently, most often every two weeks, with trash one week and recycling the next. With fewer residual waste collections, to avoid unwanted waste overflow, residents are forced to segregate their trash accordingly.
As anticipated, a key issue with such schemes is the community’s acceptance of the changes and, in particular, concerns about trash storage and odor, along with the idea that they are now getting less for their tax dollar.

#4: Reducing Food Waste
Food waste is becoming a big issue—for haulers and for governments. In 2015, estimates say that 22 percent of the garbage that reached landfills and combustion facilities was food waste—more than any other single material. Not only is it very costly to collect and treat food waste, but the contamination of other recycling materials with organics also makes them less useful to processors and thus less profitable to sell.

The legislation we have seen in California and some states in the North East limiting the amount of food waste we dump is likely to expand, both in scope and geographically, as the infrastructure to support these changes develops. And, we can see examples of what forms this might take from other countries around the world.

In a move being closely followed by several other governments, France became the first country in the world to ban large grocery chains from throwing away or deliberately destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to cooperate more closely with food banks. But as grocery chains have pointed out, most food waste is still residential, and initiatives need to address how householders use and dispose of foods.

South Korea has addressed this problem in 2013 with the introduction of a charging scheme for food waste, where households pay for the amount of food waste they produce. This has been implemented by municipalities in different ways, ranging from payment stickers on food waste containers, to smart food bins that use an RFID card to record the household and then weigh the waste deposited using a scale in the bin. Which brings me nicely to pay-as-you-throw.

#5. Pay-As-You-Throw
Perhaps most radical of all is the idea that residents will be charged differently for different streams in order to encourage recycling and re-use. While some consider this the only way to make a step change in recycling rates, the scale of the change would be seismic, certainly for many municipalities. While such schemes already exist on a small scale, for most governments and municipalities, not to mention their residents, this sort of approach as the mainstream is likely to be too far, too soon.

Delivering the Change
The variety of different options being worked on by solid waste operators are all aimed at improving recycling rates, but no one size fits all. My own sense is that we are still some way from there being a single clear strategy for everyone to follow. As my colleague Don Ross at New Way Trucks reminded me recently: “All solid waste is local. The changes to collections that some communities have made in response to higher recyclables processing costs are not right for everyone.”
Ensuring the rigorous assessment of service redesign options and ensuring efficiency is maintained as programs are changed is where I believe route optimization technology can continue to add value to the industry. Keeping costs down is always one driver for route optimization but increasing recycling rates is often also a key focus and one that, in different ways, many of our customers are managing to achieve.

Calum Forsyth is CEO of EasyRoute (Atlanta, GA), a leading route optimization software provider for the solid waste and recycling collection industry. He can be reached at (404) 751-4498 or via e-mail at calum.forsyth@goeasyroute.com.

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