As the waste industry readies itself for a new year, we reflect on the sector’s key learnings from 2021, and explore some of the trends we believe will shape game-changing progress over the next 12 months.
By Gary Moore
A global pandemic aside, 12 months always feels like a long time in the waste industry. Yes, the year passes quickly, but so much happens during that period too. And 2021 has definitely been no exception.
To people outside of our profession, perceptions often still center around us being an industry responsible for the collection and movement of trash. However, to those immersed in our world, it is clear just how fast-paced and continuous the appetite for innovation really is—and how significant our progress is, as a result.
It is no surprise that COVID-19 has continued to place unparalleled pressures on the medical waste sector, for example. The country’s ongoing testing and treatment of the virus—compounded by flu season in the latter months of the year—means demand for specialist waste handling services remains high, not least when it comes to sharps. Single-use PPE has generally become more commonplace too.
All of this hazardous waste—and more—requires careful, compliant and swift processing, and supply chain specialists should be proud of how they have risen to the challenge, safely. I know our shredders have certainly been put through their paces in this respect, but they have dealt with the task at hand brilliantly.
On that note, the industry’s ability to keep moving throughout 2021, has been made possible—at least in part—because of engineering innovation. In the face of multiple external pressures, it would have been easy to batten down the hatches and focus on ‘needs must’ activity only. But machinery manufacturers, system builders, industry bodies, recyclers, product designers and end users have continued to collaborate this year, to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
This is particularly inspiring when considering the fact that many states are not, as yet, governed by environmental legislation that obligates change—as is the case in parts of Europe, for example. In many instances, progress is happening because of a gradual mindset shift, changing attitudes surrounding resource security, the need to better protect the planet, and even because there can be wealth locked in—and otherwise lost from—waste.
Complex, Bulky Materials
We have worked closely with the tire industry this year, for example, to start closing the loop on this complex rubber product. Our single shaft shredder can tackle up to up to 10 tons of tires per hour, to achieve a safe and economical breakdown—without the need for de-beading. The materials that would have otherwise potentially gone to landfill—or worse still, been stockpiled or illegally disposed of—can then be segregated and sent for remanufacturing, recycling and energy recovery. Tires are a global problem and one we cannot ignore, especially when the environmental and fiscal business case stacks up.
Other bulky wastes have also become incredibly hot topics, with the work of the Mattress Recycling Council particularly attracting our attention in 2021. UNTHA’s counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic have helped a customer process 380 mattresses per hour, with two machines, and 100 percent landfill diversion success. We are, therefore, excited to see if this trend will take hold in the States over the next two to three years.
Do More, Achieve More
Even in more established parts of the waste industry, innovation is continuing at pace. Alternative fuel production activity levels are high, and the ongoing conversion of residual materials into renewable energy sources will only continue into 2022, and beyond. Experienced operators—from Waste to Energy (WtE) specialists to co-processors in the cement industry—seem to have a ‘do more, achieve more’ mindset too.
Some RDF and SRF manufacturers are concentrating on the ability to achieve higher throughputs—and, therefor,e greater capacity—as their facilities get busier and busier. Others are keen to, quite rightly, drive down the energy required to power their operations, in a bid to enhance the net environmental gain of their process. Technology now exists to fulfill both of these objectives, so why not?
Then there are WtE players who are keen to keep looking beyond the obvious—an attitude which has been particularly helpful during the pandemic. They are demanding even greater flexibility from their machinery, so they can process more varied input material streams and satisfy an array of output specifications. Again, engineering innovations have made this possible, so from pulper ropes to plastics, and tires to textiles, it is important to evaluate all waste streams for their resource potential, however tricky. This is where things could become really exciting, as it is less about doing what we have always done, and more a case of exploring what could be achieved.
There can be no disputing that some sectors are riding high. For example, plastic recycling is currently strong and growing, not least because the market is performing well against virgin material. The entire supply chain needs to capitalize on this, from considering reuse when products are first designed, to thinking about consumer education to make the recycling process a no brainer.
However, elsewhere, significant challenges remain. The sheer size of the U.S. means landfills remain a simple and affordable option. So, for as long as the cost of disposal is not prohibitive, we need to acknowledge that many firms will default to this route, because it is easy. Even when an eco-conscious attitude does exist, it is not always easy to transport materials a significant distance to a specialist processing facility—and the environmental rationale will not stack up either.
Gradually, we are seeing flickers of movement here, with some states really pushing ahead with their ‘green’ agendas. But we have a long way to go as a nation. That said, I don’t think the climate crisis has ever mattered to so many people, and the U.S. has pledged to scale up its action to achieve net zero by 2050, following Cop26. We need to remember that we all have a role to play. | WA
Drawing upon almost 30 years of industry experience working on projects across the globe, Gary Moore has a wealth of knowledge from the resource sector, particularly when it comes to alternative fuel production. He has worked with pioneering start-ups through to some of the world’s most well-known operators, to help design, install and maintain high performance, environmentally compliant, revenue generating plants that create on-specification fuels such as RDF, SRF and PEF. Having contributed to the significant growth of UNTHA UK he has since taken on the additional responsibility of Director of Global Business Development, with a particular focus on operations in Australia and the U.S. Gary can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.untha-america.com/en.