As we look forward to the next 30 years, there is no doubt that waste and recycling will evolve into an even more efficient and sustainable industry with the help of new technologies, solutions, legislation and innovation along the way.

In the November issue of Waste Advantage Magazine, industry experts discussed not only the future of collection, but also the impact of big data, COVID, the workforce and other topics pertinent to the waste industry. This month we will look at the other side of the equation—the evolving waste stream, EPR, the future of landfills and if we can ever achieve “zero waste”.

The Waste Stream in 2050 and the Evolving Ton
Over time, the waste stream has continued to evolve, especially due to changing demographics, recycling solutions, emerging technologies and sustainable materials management. David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of SWANA, hopes that the waste stream will be much smaller in 30 years, and that we will recycle and recover more of it, especially post-consumer food waste. “The amount of waste generated per capita has declined somewhat over the past 30 years, largely due to technological advances (e.g., computers replacing other items) and changes in consumer behavior (e.g., reading less newspapers). However, this has led to other challenges as we try to find ways to safely dispose of things like computers and other e-waste. The disposal of solar panels and wind turbines is an emerging issue in the industry.”

Packaging challenges are also an issue today according to Bryan Staley, President and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation. “Hopefully, product manufacturers will make decisions based on realistic goals and where materials are most likely to go rather than being aspirational in nature. This said, aspiration should guide the continuous evolution of sustainable materials management to maximize end market demand/value while minimizing production costs and environmental impacts. In this respect, what is recyclable versus what is landfilled or composted would be less ambiguous to the consumer. It is difficult to say right now what waste composition will look like given we are at a crossroads with EPR, evaluating the need/utility of single-use packaging/plastics and gaining more nuance with regards to what is actually beneficial to recycle. Beyond this, waste volumes globally will continue to increase and in the U.S., this is the expected trend as well unless societal perspectives shift dramatically away from a highly consumer based (‘disposable’) society mindset.”

John Paglia, Owner and President of Florida Express Environmental, agrees, “I think it will vary based on region and demographic like it does today. Ultimately, we can only control what we can control. We do not produce the waste; we only collect it and find the best way to manage from that point. With my greater involvement in our associations at the local, state, and federal level, I would make the argument that we need to have more of a voice with the producers and packagers of the waste we collect. We are seeing this in small steps, but with a circular involvement we can give our voice for change. A package from UPS today is surrounded in cardboard and now air-filled plastic, Years ago it was the same box with foam peanuts. It’s a small example of what I would call a step in the right direction.”

While Marc Rogoff, Senior Consultant at Geosyntec in the Solid Waste Advisory Practice, believes that we will have almost no office paper, glass or newspaper available, he does point out that there will be more carboard products delivered by drones and we will continue to have more plastics—that is not going away anytime soon. With the concept of the “evolving ton” examining how waste composition changes over time, there are some obvious trends that will continue. Will Flower, Senior Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Brothers Waste Systems, says that on the fiber side, we will see the continued decline of newsprint. “Eventually, hardcopies of newspapers will be minimized in favor of online delivery of the news, which is faster and much better for the environment. Recently, we have seen an uptick in the amount of cardboard in the waste stream. I think this trend will continue as consumers use online commerce for their retail purchases. Over time, cardboard will gradually level off and maybe even shrink as packaging technology improves and government regulations focus on the packaging industry. On the organics side, food waste will continue to be a big segment of the waste stream. However, the way society deals with food waste will change as well as the advancement of food management and
composting programs.”

Paul Ross, Vice President of American Waste Control, comments that e-waste is also a growing waste stream. “Waste will continue because of the consuming nature of people, but the waste stream will likely change. Electronic waste is a fast-growing segment of the waste stream and with technological advancements, that will continue. Organics, on the other hand, is an area of waste that will always account for a large percentage of our waste stream here in the U.S.”

“The evolving ton will change based on demographic, local, state and federal government mandates,” says Paglia. “It is important that our industry leaders are giving a voice for this change and making sure that they are having circular conversations with those producing what,
ultimately, becomes waste and including us haulers who either process it or deliver to an incinerator or landfill.”

Biderman says, “I think the ‘evolving ton’ will continue as consumer buying preferences change and technology continues to proliferate. No one imagined that Amazon would lead an e-commerce revolution that would dramatically change what residential recycling looks like in 2021. It would be hubris for me to think I can accurately predict what the waste stream will look like in 30 years. What I can say, with confidence, is that SWANA will continue to be a forward-thinking association that will provide tools and resources to local government officials, private industry, and other waste and recycling stakeholders. For example, we will issue a Strategic Plan in early 2022 that will take the leading and largest waste and recycling association in both the U.S. and Canada in new directions. Preparing our members for future changes in the waste stream will be part of that.”

The Rising Waste Per Capita
Flower points out that The World Bank estimates that the global annual waste generation rate is estimated to increase almost 70 percent in the next 30 years. The worldwide increase is due primarily to rapid urbanization and growing populations. “In the U.S., the per capita waste generation rate has increased steadily since the 1960s with the exception of the impact of the Great Recession, which started in December 2007. Per capita waste rates are increasing again, and I think the waste generation rate will increase over time. Fortunately, so will our ability to recover and reuse and recycle more materials.”

“Currently it seems segments of society are becoming more environmentally conscious, however, waste per capita is generally flat or increasing,” says Staley. “This trend is not expected to change at least on the consumer side. However, product manufacturers have significant influence based on packaging decisions, portion sizing and similar attributes that could affect waste per capita. Regardless, the larger issue here woven into a host of societal trends and norms is things are slow to change without a significant disruptor inserted into how we do things.”

Rogoff agrees, “The rising cost of waste collection and disposal will force many agencies to push for EPR so that the responsibility goes back onto the manufacturer or industry generating consumer products. We are just starting to see state legislation setting up these systems.”

“Waste reduction is something that seems to be a focus of manufacturers, so I believe we will see a reduction. Waste will always be around, but there are a lot of ways in which it’ll improve based on how sustainable solutions are already being achieved every day,” says Ross.

Biderman believes that waste per capita will be slightly lower in the U.S. and Canada than it is today. However, there should be real concerns over waste per capita in developing nations such as Nigeria, Brazil, and Indonesia. “Those countries are urbanizing and modernizing quickly, and waste generation rates are projected to at least double in the next few decades. They do not have adequate waste and recycling management systems to handle their current trash, let alone the tsunami of waste and recycling coming their way. This has global consequences as greenhouse gas emissions and marine litter do not respect national borders. We need to accelerate our technical assistance and capacity building and help solid waste managers and companies quickly build a modern solid waste infrastructure to prevent methane from dumpsites continue to spew into the air and plastic ending up in waterways and, eventually, the oceans.”

EPR Progress
This leads us to how packaging will be handled in the future. As many of us know, Oregon and Maine passed EPR laws this year with other states introducing their own legislations. So, does this mean that in 30 years all manufacturers and producers will be working together with the waste and recycling industry to create more environmentally reusable or recyclable packaging? “That’s a great question!,” says Biderman. “Oregon and Maine’s EPR laws will take effect in a few years, but I don’t envision conservative states such as Texas passing comprehensive EPR bills in my lifetime. There is currently EPR legislation pending before Congress, though it has virtually no chance of passing in the next few years. It would require overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, and a Democratic President, for an EPR bill to be signed into law. With Climate Change and marine litter becoming more of a problem every year, it is not impossible that the political stars would align to support new laws that are perceived as addressing these issues.”

While Rogoff believes that EPR laws will be implemented nationwide in the 2030s because local governments will be increasingly unable to provide cost effective recycling services in an era of competing governmental financial needs, Ross says that EPR is something that should be looked at on the state level. “If waste generators have the responsibility from cradle-to-grave to manage and ensure the safe disposal of their waste, then EPR should be a consideration that varies with the consumption level from state-to-state.”

Staley agrees, “Currently most of the EPR frameworks are structured where fees are paid that are supposed to reclaim or divert specific materials (e.g., phones, car batteries, mattresses) back to a recycled/repurposed use. However, too many states right now are doing different things to expect a unified EPR strategy without federal intervention. Even if this would occur, the long-term success of EPR for non-specific waste materials is questionable. More research is needed to evaluate if EPR strategies actually result in higher sustainability metrics (e.g., less GHG emissions, lower energy use, etc.). Rather, in some situations it could make things worse than better, which seems counterproductive.”

Will the Oceans Be Plastic-Free in 2050?
Considering that EPR is a possibility either at a statewide or federal level in the future, will this have a benefit on the oceans? We have all seen the images of the great garbage patches, plastic islands and discarded plastic along the shorelines, but how will this play out in the future? “I am sad to say that plastics will continue to wreak havoc on our oceans and marine life. Worldwide waste generation is increasing at an alarming rate, and rapidly developing countries do not have adequate infrastructure, policies or programs to properly manage waste. As a result, waste will continue to find its way into oceans and other waterways. Unfortunately, it will get worse before it gets better,” says Flower.

Biderman agrees, “Growing populations in developing nations and their antiquated solid waste management systems mean there will probably be more marine litter and plastic in the oceans in 2050 than in 2021. A sad and sobering statement, to be sure. It will be interesting to see whether the oft-cited prediction that there will be more fish by weight than plastic in the ocean in 2050 comes to fruition.”

However, not everyone believes that this will be the case. Ross says, “I have seen technology that aims to clean our oceans, lakes and rivers, and as this generation continues to gain traction and education in this vitally important area, new technologies will be created to clean our bodies of water from pollution. Yes, I believe a cleaner ocean, free from plastics, is coming.”

Yet, as Staley points out, a clearer picture of where the plastic in the oceans is coming from is needed in order to initiate policies that can be effective in minimizing plastics to the oceans. “If, as some data suggests, plastics in the ocean are less influenced by litter in the U.S., but more by the fishing industry or developing countries, then the effort should be focused on where the largest impact(s) can be made.”

“If we can continue to shape the material that either is classified as waste or recycling and convert those streams into more sustainable packaging products, then the amount we have to collect and either dispose of or process will be arguably less,” says Paglia. “If we have less waste to collect, everything due to scale of economies is less when it comes to the carbon footprint in our communities, such as less collection trucks roaming the streets, less tires (petroleum), less fuel (diesel, CNG or electric) required, less hydraulic and motor fluids, among many others. Reducing the waste will be reducing the fleet and increasing efficiencies, which lowers our carbon footprint. The labor shortages have absolutely increased our attention to this matter currently where it’s a common thread by all to automate everything we can and make routes more efficient. A stress is now made to tighten up routes and reduce the frequencies to serve these customers when and where possible.”

Climate Change
With COP26 taking place last month and the world leaders discussing limiting greenhouse gas as well as investing in and expanding renewable energy in order to combat climate change, there is still more to be done. Paglia says, “This is the full circle revolution I would like to see. We need to be involved even greater and be confident in our opinions on how we can make change that’s not centered around profits, but centered around protecting the Earth. We are all for profit, but I prefer we are for profit business models that are sustainable. We cannot let positive change stop because it isn’t profitable—that’s a disservice to our future generations.”

Ross agrees, “There’s no question our planet is heating up and if there’s anything that can be done in the waste and recycling industry to help in this area, then we should consider it. Increasing sustainability efforts and advocating for renewable energy are just a few areas in this industry that are working at helping our planet overall.”

Staley stresses that while there are initiatives driving significant research in the areas of landfill emissions measurement, recycling innovation, more fuel-efficient/electric waste collection strategies, etc., a key focus of climate change should be about what science demonstrates is beneficial in waste management versus social media driven or misinformation campaigns around these issues. “Climate change is a worldwide issue with no easy solution,” says Flower. “As the U.S. develops more progressive positions on climate change, all industries, including the waste and recycling industry, will likely see more regulation and higher costs of compliance. It is important to note that while North America has an effective solid waste management system, many parts of the world struggle with the management of waste especially in low-income nations where more than 90 percent of waste is openly dumped or burned. We need to realize that the improper management of waste anywhere in the world will, ultimately, hurt our environment, threaten human health and hinder economic growth throughout the world. To help, the U.S. should provide aid and expertise to help developing countries build better solid waste programs.”

The Concept of Zero Waste
But will these initiatives ultimately lead to a zero waste society? While Rogoff and Flower say no, Ross points out that many items today are reusable, recyclable or generate renewable energy, so zero waste is a reality now. “Products may not be recyclable in every market, but there is a market for most items in terms of reusing, reducing or recycling. Waste is a resource to be stewarded, including disposing of MSW in a renewable energy landfill. This is zero waste because energy is created for decades to come. Zero waste can happen today if people make it a priority.”

Staley has a different take on the matter. “If zero waste is defined as no materials going into a bin of any kind, then zero waste will absolutely not be achieved by 2050. If zero waste is defined as no waste to landfills (which is an incorrect use of the term “zero waste” by the way), then I would expect to see some decline in residential and commercial wastes to landfills on a per capita basis.”

“Will and wanting to achieve zero waste by 2050 are two different things,” stresses Paglia. “As mentioned previousy if we can talk full circle with manufacturers on how they package and ship items to more sustainable options along with changing cultures, then yes it could have a real shot. America itself is always labeled as a wasteful society. As sad as that is to admit, I argue we need to change the mentality and protect the Earth we live in. If we care about the future, even when we are long gone, will Earth and its population be left with sustainable solutions? It is up to us to make sure that answer is yes.”

“Society will continue to produce waste that has no economic value and no BTU value. As a result, there will always be waste that needs to be managed in a cost effective and environmentally sound manner,” says Flower. “We should continue to strive for ‘zero waste’, which requires an ongoing commitment to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycling where product manufacturers, brand owners, producers of packaging, consumers, regulators, waste collectors, processors, and governments work together to successfully manage society’s wastes.”

Biderman comments, “That depends on how it’s defined, but in the strict sense that “zero” means zero, no. As long as human beings exist, we will generate waste and need somewhere to put it that is safe and protective of human health and the environment. Keep an eye on Singapore, a small, highly advanced country with limited disposal options. If they come close to achieving zero waste, it may provide learning opportunities for others. In the meantime, SWANA will continue to offer its groundbreaking Zero Waste certification course.”

The Future of Landfills
Landfills are not going away anytime soon. In fact, in some areas, local landfills have been expanded to take in waste for the next 10+ years, while others use the methane gas to their benefit and supply energy to surrounding communities or city fleets. All agree that it would be difficult to transition out of this way of disposal in the short-term. “Landfills are and will continue to offer a cost effective and environmentally sound solution for managing society’s waste. Like all parts of the solid waste infrastructure, landfill technology will continue to evolve. I think another big change in landfilling will occur at some point over the next 50 years when the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act gets another major overhaul,” says Flower.

“Landfills will be used in 2050 to dispose of some waste in the U.S. and Canada. I suspect the percentage will be a bit less than the 50 percent today in the U.S.,” says Biderman. “Globally, I hope that the majority of waste will be disposed of in modern landfills with environmental controls, and not the open dumpsites that are prevalent throughout Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia. SWANA supports the International Solid Waste Association’s Close the Dumpsites campaign and is working to educate U.S. policymakers about it.”

Ross also believes that when managed properly, landfills become a great site to safely dispose of waste and create renewable energy. Paglia agrees, “There is always a need for a well-run/managed landfill. Maybe the amount of them can and will be reduced. It is too short of a period in my opinion to try and have no landfills by 2050. If we gain momentum on changes already discussed above, and we have technology advancements, then not having them is something we should not ignore if we can provide our sanitation and recycling services sustainability and efficiently without them.”

However, Rogoff believes that the U.S. will become more like the EU in the sense that recycling and WTE will be the primary means of managing solid waste. “Landfills will be heavily taxed,” he stresses. Yes, says Sean Jennings, President of Waste Pro. Landfills will always be an option for disposal. “However, in high tip fee or socially progressive markets, other disposal options will make themselves financially sustainable.”

Staley points out that landfills currently receive about anywhere from 55 to 65 percent of generated waste and this has not moved much in the past 30 years. “While I do think that the number could decrease in the next 30 years perhaps to as low as 45 to 50 percent, catalysts are needed to dramatically reduce materials that go to landfills, such as improving end market demand of recyclable materials, increased use of anaerobic digestion/composting, more and better recyclable materials, etc.”

MRFs and Waste Disposal Technologies
As MRFs are ever-evolving—from using the latest in sorting technologies to the growth of using robotics—many of them have become high-tech recovery facilities that have dramatically changed the way waste is processed. In the future, they will continue to be systems that will be efficient and effective. “Material recovery facilities will evolve with the application of technology. Today’s recycling facilities are sophisticated factories. The equipment inside the plants will continue to improve, including dramatic advancements in automation, robotics and optical
sorting. Recycling, composting, waste-to-energy and landfilling will continue to be the primary ways we manage society’s waste. All of these technologies will evolve and improve over time.

However, I think recycling will see the most dramatic changes in our industry over the next 30 years,” says Flower. Biderman explains that recycling and MRFs will evolve to match the changing stream, which is influenced greatly by consumer behavior, the types of containers and products that companies sell, and regulatory requirements. “I don’t know whether anyone can accurately predict any of those things, let alone how that might drive changes to recycling systems or MRFs. If a federal law was passed making it illegal to throw a plastic bag into recycling, we wouldn’t have to shut down MRFs several times each day to clean them out. That would be a great improvement, and we don’t need to wait until 2050 to implement it.”

Robotics and automated technology are certainly getting a lot of attention today. Rogoff believes that in the future, there will be less people and more robotics in the MRFs and Staley agrees, “There will be more automation/AI and less human personnel. I expect at some point (perhaps not

quite by 2050) we could see a fully automated MRF with no humans working in it save for maintenance and control personnel. I also believe we could see increased use of anaerobic digestion and/or waste conversion technologies in growing niche areas across the U.S. to manage organics.”
“This change is directly related to the streams and tonnage we hope to change,” says Paglia. “A common answer we will see I’m sure is automation when and where it is feasible. Safety being number one, protecting the people we do have working in these facilities is paramount.” Absolutely, says Jennings, “A MRF in 2050 will only have humans on quality control sections of the line, and everything else will be automated. Increased tipping fees will create the ability for methods of disposal other than landfills. They will include improved sorting of MSW and improved energy
capture of organics processing.”

“With technology improving every day, MRFs are getting cleaner and faster and closer to 100 percent recovery rate,” says Ross. “There is a lot of potential for MRFs to use artificial intelligence and, as always, educate the public on recycling practices. I believe MRFs will be able to update their protocol on materials received and the way their technology sorts it. It could be implemented on a national level with the push of a button. Waste is a resource to be used, managed and stewarded, just like any other resource. New technology, like electronic technology, will come up and be used to help make disposing of waste faster and easier. We will find new ways to use waste and make a resource out of it because that’s what it is, a resource.”

Paglia points out that the industry currently uses rail, road and sea. Earth, wind, and fire is involved to either produce or be produced from waste. “It goes back to a circular discussion of what is most sustainable for earth. Maybe air comes into play with drones or planes. I’m not sure how that could or would evolve, but I would support it if its proven safe, reliable and more sustainable than options that are currently available at the time.”

The Next 30 Years
As we look forward to the next 30 years, there is no doubt that waste and recycling will evolve into an even more efficient and sustainable industry with the help of new technologies, solutions, legislation, and innovation along the way. It seems that recycling is poised to be among the biggest changes in the future. “More nuance is needed in the conversation around recycling to view the realities of what recycling can and cannot do. Recycling is extremely valuable in conserving resources and in many instances can be one of the most sustainable options for certain materials … but not all materials,” stresses Staley. “Even in some circumstances a highly recyclable material may not offer strong sustainability benefits (e.g., lower GHG emissions) since many other factors influence this (e.g., transport distance, type of end use, etc.). My hope is to see the conversation around recycling be more nuanced so that end markets that are truly the highest and best use can be strengthened and exploited while others that offer little to no environmental benefits can be avoided.”

Paglia comments “With a push to reduce waste, recycling will increase. The need to keep us domestic is something I would like to see, but also sharing our ideas as a larger group with other countries as to what works for us as a country.”

Concludes Ross, “The recycling industry will definitely expand into newer, more domestic areas, with less of a reliance on international markets. And of course, with recycling education improving every day, the hope is to see a constant increase in what we can recycle and how much we are recycling. I believe recycling will always be global. As technology improves, our planet is becoming smaller, so the international recycling landscape will always have an impact, but I believe over the next 30 years it will begin to grow domestically.” | WA

Thank you to all of our participants for an excellent discussion of Waste in 2050! To see everyone’s full bios and pictures, read Part 1 of “Waste in 2050” in the November 2021 issue.