Each sector of the waste industry is impacted differently by various regulations, so it is vital to stay on top of public affairs. As the public and policymakers become more educated in topics like food waste, single-use plastic and climate change, we can expect to see more changes as we move into 2020.
By Matthew S. Hollis
As we approach 2020, there is no doubt that regulation and legislation play a major role in business operations from consumer-based business to solid waste haulers. Out of concern for the climate, water systems and global alliances, the push for sustainability is greater than ever. This momentum has brought a wave of policy changes, leaving many in the waste industry wondering: how will these news laws and policies affect me? Now more than ever it is crucial to understand what regulations have been put into place recently, and what legislation is currently moving through the system. Resources like the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the state-run websites like CalRecycle house comprehensive lists of laws, but here we are breaking down some of the top policy trends effecting the waste industry in the areas of food waste, single-use plastics and carbon emissions.
According to the EPA, food waste and packaging from all industries account for 45 percent of all waste materials in U.S. landfills. For the average hauler, that means a large majority of loads probably contain food waste. It is a known fact that food waste emits greenhouse gases when deposited in landfills—one recent PBS report estimates that if food waste were a country, it would leave the third largest emissions footprint behind the U.S. and China. Some food is thrown away simply because it has gone bad and cannot be safely eaten, but oftentimes, perfectly good food makes its way to the landfill as well. Experts like The Harvard Food Policy & Law Clinic say that most Americans do not have reliable information on food freshness, and instead look to date labels to guide them on what to eat and what to toss. The labels, however, have no national standard—a trend that is not unnoticed by lawmakers. Varying state to state, these arbitrary “best by” and “sell by” stamps are emerging as one root cause of food waste.
To combat this issue, a new bill entered the House of Representatives on August 1, 2019. The Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 (H.R. 3981) aims to standardize date labels to tackle the complex system of sell by, use by, and best before dates. Previously, a similar bill was introduced in May 2016. The 2016 notion ultimately resulted in the USDA revising their guidelines on “best by” dates, but the waste industry should expect to see more action from the 2019 bill as it makes its way through Congress. The new bill calls for specific standardization across a variety of labels: “best if used by” (a quality date) and “use by” (a discard date). The quality date will signify that the food might be losing freshness, but is still safe to eat, while the discard date will signify that the food is unsafe to eat and should be thrown away. Having two clear guidelines across all regulatory bodies—and thus food sources—would reduce consumer confusion and curb unnecessary food waste.
For haulers, it is important to keep an eye on this bill as it passes through the House and Senate. As consumer patterns change, so will waste loads. One of the goals of the bill is to simplify food redistribution to hunger assistance programs, so food will be donated instead of tossed in the trash. Haulers that want to embrace the sustainable change, can consider creating a partnership with an organization like the Waste Not OC Coalition, which helps waste haulers in Southern California recover wholesome food destined for landfills and redirect it to area food pantries serving those most in need. Alternately, haulers can add to their services directly by providing customers with options like hauling commercial organic material to anaerobic digestion or compost facilities.
Single-Use Plastic Waste
One of the most buzzed about issues in waste is single-use plastic. By definition, single-use plastics are items that are only used once or a handful of times before being thrown away. With more than 300 million pounds of plastic being produced each year, a staggering number of items are destined for the trash. Cutlery, straws, bags, water bottles and packaging are some of the most common culprits. Coupled with single-use plastic waste is recycling contamination, which poses as a barrier for proper reuse of these materials. With plastic use regulations of some sort being debated in almost every state, haulers must prepare for the changes ahead.
There are no federal laws restricting single-use plastics. Because this category of waste is being approached at a local level, haulers need to keep a keen eye out on policies in the cities and states where they operate. Plastic bans are a complicated landscape; some cities only target straws or bags, while others impose fines for rulebreakers. Some cities and states have even preemptively put a ban on bans. This has led to other states introducing anti-preemption motions in response. State-level policies overrule city ordinances, but the debate on bans between two governing bodies can sometimes take months or years to resolve.
One example is how lawmakers in California, a state that has led the way in eco-friendly policies, have been generating recent progress (as of the close date of this issue) on their plan to phase out non-recyclable single-use packaging containers by 2030. The three bills in question (AB 792, AB 1080 and SB 54) have gone through half a dozen amendments in 2019, but policymakers are optimistic. The bills acknowledge that market conditions, like China’s ban on accepting American recycling, are unlikely to change, so they must be addressed head on with a multi-point strategy. If passed, containers would have to be made from recyclable or compostable materials, certain containers would have to be made of 75 percent recycled materials and infrastructure support would be given to manufacturers, among other action items. Some industry groups, like the California Grocers Association, have worked with the state to amend the bills in order to come to a resolution that is both eco-friendly and meets the demands of their constituents. They have secured added flexibility within the text of the bills in exchange for their support. Still, other groups oppose the bills and are actively lobbying against them as the motion approaches the Governor’s desk.
California is just one piece of the single-use plastic puzzle. Similar conversations are happening all across the country as consumers and corporations weigh the pros and cons. The waste industry should prepare to scrutinize the way plastic waste is handled as it moves through the system. There is opportunity within these changes to expand recycling services and perfect processes in anticipation of evolving attitudes towards plastic.
Under the broad umbrella of energy falls legislation addressing concerns such as climate change, renewable resources, carbon emissions and efficiency standards. Regulatory bodies and private companies alike are pushing for cleaner energy production and use through a variety of tactics. The general public, too, is increasingly worried about air quality. Haulers in particular should be watchful for legislation that impacts greenhouse gas emissions from commercial vehicles, local policies around carbon emissions or carbon neutrality, and conversations around waste-to-energy.
Greenhouse gas emissions are monitored both at a federal and local level. Because waste companies depend on fleets of trucks to function, compliance with these rules is imperative. Earlier this year, both Maryland and the District of Columbia passed ambitious Clean Energy Acts to curb carbon emissions and convert to 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2040 and 2032, respectively. Maryland, unlike DC, included trash incinerators as a part of their renewable energy designation—a status that is frequently debated by policymakers. Twenty-three states include trash incinerators as a part of their renewable energy portfolios, but other lawmakers, lobbyists and environmentalists have concerns over waste-to-energy plans being included in clean energy legislation. Alternately, some towns in Maryland are testing “pay-as-you-throw” programs, which charges residents a fixed fee for each bag of garbage in order to incentivize recycling. In Maryland’s Montgomery County, for example, 60 percent of waste is recycled or composted. Meanwhile, the national average recycling rate per county hovers at about 35 percent. Other trash in Montgomery county is sent to a waste-to-energy facility that powers electricity for roughly 40,000 homes. If similar plans are adopted in other cities, haulers will need to shift resources accordingly to meet the changing needs of their customers.
With regards to upcoming policy changes, presidential hopefuls are currently laying out plans for tackling climate change. According to the Financial Times, two-thirds of American believe not enough is being done to address climate change. Public discourse, however, must be reflected in new laws if real change is to be affected. However, studies show common suggestions like carbon offsetting and carbon taxation are not always substantial in reality as consumers and corporations shirk at the actual monetary cost of such programs. Voluntary carbon offset programs, on the other hand, are viable options. To make an eco-friendly change, waste hauling companies can participate in these programs voluntarily to mitigate the emissions caused by their fleet.
It would be remiss not to say the policies covered above are not a complete and comprehensive guide of the current legislative landscape. Each sector of the waste industry is impacted differently by various regulations, so it is vital to stay on top of public affairs. It would also be remiss not to say that as the public and policymakers become more educated in topics like food waste, single-use plastic and climate change, we can expect to see more changes as we move into 2020. If your company operates in multiple states or jurisdictions, familiarize yourself with new policies, both proposed and recently passed. | WA
Matthew S. Hollis is the co-founder and President of Elytus (Columbus, OH), a third-party administrator that helps clients streamline waste and recycling operations while becoming more sustainable in the process. As a part of its #WasteNothing motto, Elytus believes in saving time, money and the environment. Matthew can be reached at (614) 824-4985 or e-mail [email protected].