Looking back at trends and important changes that took place in 2022.
By Bryan Staley

Reflecting back at 2022, some of the significant changes observed included supply chain shortages, labor challenges, and legislative change. Supply chain shortages (such as microchips for trucks) created (and still are creating) challenges in timely delivery of new refuse collection vehicles to haulers. There was an increasing shift towards more extended producer responsibility policies and continued evolution of PFAS related policies and regulation. Lastly, landfill emissions quantification emerged as a renewed focus for landfill owners.

Supply chain issues have extended the queues and backlogs for new equipment orders across most of the industry. This has set new expectations in terms of when delivery is expected, which has resulted in companies working to increase the longevity/durability of their rolling stock and other equipment. It is expected that supply chain issues will continue through most of 2023 and perhaps into the first half of 2024 as well.

In addition, as garbage truck fleets have continued to evolve, some haulers have been very aggressive in moving diesel fueled trucks to CNG and other alternative-fueled vehicles, the overall average replacement rate from diesel to CNG for the entire waste industry has been 1 to 2 percent per year. Given roughly 12 percent of the total garbage truck fleet is CNG or LNG fueled today, assuming the same pace one would expect the total fleet to be 17 to 22 percent CNG/LNG fueled by 2028—five years from now. Currently, the number of electric trucks on the road is less than 1 percent of the total industry fleet size. That said, there are reasons to suspect the conversion rate to CNG/LNG trucks will increase as companies are more focused on ESG as a metric to demonstrate that they are improving environmental performance. Since CNG has a lower carbon intensity than diesel, this would improve the ESG “bottom line”. Further, infrastructure expansion for CNG/LNG fueling facilities offers more fueling options than before. While on the surface electric seems attractive due to Tesla and others making electric powered cars more available for the masses, trucks still have some hurdles to overcome. Electric trucks are heavier, which can impact road deterioration more, total miles driven on a charge (i.e., range) is shorter than other fuel types, ability to achieve similar waste compactions in the hopper as charge depletes is a something to consider and charging a truck using electricity generated from fossil-fuels (e.g., coal) requires additional evaluation to validate the benefits of electric versus CNG garbage trucks.
As labor shortages continue to dominate some of the industry’s headlines, some have used temp agencies as a means to employ high turnover jobs, such as picking lines at MRFs instead of a full/part time hiring process. Beyond this, increasing pay rates, offering more flexible work options (e.g., work from home) where it is practical, and increased benefits are adjustments employers are making to help retain and attract employees. While inflation is predicted to decrease in the next year, the retirement of the baby-boomer generation and lower numbers of people in younger generations will create challenges in terms of meeting labor needs over the longer term.

The BLS safety report did say that the industry dropped to 7th most dangerous job, so understanding the factors that influenced this and determining if this is a trend, a short term reduction, or simply variability in the data is an important consideration. Having more robust data on causation is a critical element that will help in this respect. That said, with continued enhancements in safety technologies, sound training of drivers and workers, a continued or stable trend of lower injuries and fatalities is quite possible.

Operational Changes
I believe the future of recycling in general will depend on developing robotic and AI technologies to enhance efficiencies. Applications from the recycling grants and landfill emissions grants will be awarded in 2023. Depending on what is selected, these grants could help enhance education and awareness of recycling in disadvantaged communities as well as advance the evolution and adoption of direct landfill emissions measurement technologies. For organics, there are currently many issues that need to be addressed, such as PFAS contamination, capacity of existing composting/AD operations to handle organics, end markets, and environmental burdens affiliated with increased processing capacities.

Unfortunately, MRF fires continue to be an issue as less insurance companies are willing to cover them. PFAS will also continue to be a challenge as well as how EPR and bottle bills are implemented and how effective they are remains to be seen but will continue. If product manufacturers increase the use of recycled materials, this could impact the recycling industry in a positive way by strengthening end markets. There is more dialogue around “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling”. If a viable economic pathway can be developed, these concepts may see significant advancement. However, additional research is needed to compare these options to mechanical recycling from the sustainability and circularity aspects.

Looking Ahead
Assuming any recession has a ‘soft’ landing, then 2023 would likely be considered a more ‘normal’ that prior years but still feeling impacts related to COVID and supply chain issues. However, we will need to give our continued attention, research, and focus to challenges around recycling, PFAS, emissions and ongoing environmental justice topics.

Organizations are increasingly focused on circularity and how waste management can play a role in mitigating climate change. Previous perspectives have centered around reducing the impacts of waste management, while future initiatives will be more forward looking related to how the waste field can be a part of the solution rather than having a perspective that waste management is part of the problem. | WA

Bryan Staley, PhD, PE, is President and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation. For more information, visit www.erefdn.org.