The second day of NERC’s Fall Virtual Conference opened with Lynn Rubinstein, Executive Director, once again thanking sponsors and supporters as well as recognizing those organizations that earned 2020 Environmental Leadership Awards. Honorees included the Massachusetts Port Authority for the Public Sector, Urban Mining Northeast (Pozzotive Plant) for the Private Sector, and the American Chemistry Council for Advisory Member. Congratulations to this year’s winners!
Opening the discussion was a keynote panel on the important topic of addressing racial justice within the industry, moderated by Mary Ann Remolador, Assistant Director of NERC. Panelists included Dan Leif, Editor for Resource Recycling Magazineand Cheryl Coleman, Vice-President for Sustainability, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Both agreed that it was something that needed to continue to be addressed not only within the industry, but also throughout many other sectors. Leif commented that defining racial justice is a term that has been used quite a bit but hard to define and that everyone has what they need to thrive regardless of the color of their skin. Racial justice happens when companies help with a shift in thoughts and behaviors. He pointed out that listening and communicating are the first steps to addressing this problem. People should not begin afraid to talk about it. Because of certain events that happened this ear, the conversation has shifted and the only way we get through the challenges is to address them.
After sharing her personal experiences with racial injustice, Coleman expressed that racial justice means giving people of color that opportunity to support their families and feel safe and valued to know that they have the opportunity to make a contribution both from a personal and professional basis. Recycling is an area where people can make connections to the earth. It Is an essential business that feeds into the manufacturing sector and touches us in every way because of the personal connection—putting recycling material into the bin and can be used again. She pointed out that this positions us to be leaders; it is not about separate programs and it’s not just setting a quota or number; you must set a corporate agenda to have equality and justice as a part of your corporate culture. Recycling is an opportunity to engage everyone and invest in the various talents and cultures to the table and participate in conversations. She stressed that we can’t understand people if we don’t take the time to listen. Those differences only enhance relationships. Only when you understand others and build relationships can you address the fear and lack of understanding. Then we realize that we have a lot more in common and our organization becomes stronger. Companies should have people of color at all levels. Look at how are you representing those resources to communicate, if you have multi-cultural representatives, asking them to engage and present information from a visual standpoint. Recognize people from an individual and collective standpoint. People want to be recognized. It is important to look them in the eye and have that conversation.
The following session focused on a discussion about working with robotics sorting, moderated by Nat Egosi, President of RRT Design & Construction, who also pulled double duty as a speaker, along with Jon Gertsmeier, National Sales Director for AMP Robotics, and Eric Camirand, Founder and CEO of Waste Robotics Inc. Egosi began the conversation by addressing what is a robot? It is an arm vernacular; in the MRF world, it is a stationary piece of equipment that is applied adjacently to a sorting belt for sorting. In a typical MRF, the challenge is to make the products/commodities meet market specifications. While there are often people to perform that function, robots are now doing some of the work today. There are about 170 in place in the MRF environment and the technology has been around for four years. They are typically used in a container application (beverage, food, plastics, etc.). The general conception is that they are replacing people, however, this is not the case. They are only replacing a specific type of role where material is constantly being sorted. Rather than employees losing their jobs, positions are shifting and redeploying in a more productive way. Egosi said it was important to remember that robots are not a silver bullet, rather, they are complementary to optical sorting. He believes that the industry is going to see more remote operations as technologies begin to advance. However, made the point that you cannot run machines at a facility without people onsite, so there will still be a need for employee involvement even though they don’t need to be right standing next to the robots.
Gertsmeier spoke of how AI and robotics can help to build a resilient recycling business. While COVID put greater restrain on the workforce, technologies, operations, end markets (shifts in consumption and those shifts coming into facilities), etc. it did show that there are places where automation can come in to make quick decisions. There are three main components to robots: 1) the eyes, which record every piece of item that comes down the belt, 2) the brain that analyzes and understands what material types are and based on settings from customers, and 3) the arms, which are able to make the picks. Examples of how robots have been leveraged are where people could not or were not comfortable coming to work. He explained that it allows new opportunities for workers, in not only learning robotics, but new opportunities within facilities as well.
Camirand discussed what Waste Robotics does, technology and how they have created a system that is efficient and adaptable to what MRFs need. Their ultimate goal is to give facilities the opportunity to implement autonomous sorting without having too many people around the machine. Facilities want sorting that is inexpensive, effective at capturing products, precise, adaptable, predictable and reliable. He pointed out that we need quality sorting in changing conditions. However, a challenge is that packaging that is changing all the time and it is hard on the moving belt to differentiate between these products. He did stress that the most effective operation is to use optical sorters with robots.
The final discussion of the day centered around circularity and innovative business models, moderated by Brooke Nash, Branch Chief for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Presenter CherishMiller, VP of Sustainability & Public Affairs at Revolution Plastics talked about minimizing plastic single-use waste and how can we use more post-consumer resin in bags. What happens to the product at the end of use? She stressed it is time for plastics to have an ‘Encore®’, not just one use. Revolution Plastics has diverted more than 1.5 billion pounds of waste from landfills, traditionally recycling Silage/grain bags, bunker covers, greenhouse films, boat wrap, drip tape, bin liner and cotton film. As a certified PCR supplier, Revolution Plastics has also dealt with distribution center film, consumer packaging and unique film applications (such as disposable gloves). They have invested $20 million in a Little Rock Plant to bring more circularity into product lines and expand on the industrial and agricultural side. She also talked about what programs are supporting these efforts to minimize single-use, focusing particularly on the U.S. Plastics Pact that launched in August 2020. A collaborative group, it is focused on uniting business, government, and non-profit leaders to set the national strategy to realize a circular economy in the U.S. by coordinating collective action, reducing the use of non-renewable virgin plastics and minimizing negative impacts on the environment.
Finally Mark Bond, Sales Manager for Sustana Fiber talked about a closed-loop fiber future. He discussed that containers and packaging make up almost a quarter of all landfills and most average Americans produce 4 pounds of trash per day (mostly food). Recycling is still steady and with the changes in overseas markets, it is important that materials have a domestic home to go to—material that stays here is better for all of us. We can’t run recycling systems with limited funds for long periods of time. This is more important than ever. Sustana Fiber has partnerships with the Carton Council, RRS, and FPI. MRF relationships include Alpine Waste and Recycling, and Dem-Con Companies. Companies want products to come back into the stream and be used again. Sustana Fiber facilities process 250,000 pounds a year of recycled products (in QC and WI). He has found that Millennials want recycled content in their products they use and that big brands are catering to Millennials and Gen Z demands for sustainability. He pointed out that paper packaging industry is growing, there has been a major change in mixed bale, and more paper mills are using more recycled products.
The topics were dynamic and timely, and there were some great discussion points made on the second day of the conference. Day three will wrap up with lithium battery safety, state packaging EPR and a discussion on bottle bills and minimum recycled content.