Help, We’re Drowning in Recycling!
Tech won’t solve our garbage problem, but it’s at least a start
By Christopher Mims
Cities the world over are having a garbage crisis, or more specifically, a recycling crisis.
In 1950, the world produced about 4 billion pounds of plastic a year. Today, we produce about 600 billion pounds. Every year, about 20 billion pounds of it ends up in the ocean. Over 90% of produced plastic has never been recycled, and it typically takes more than 400 years to break down naturally.
From Australia to Japan, New York City to Hong Kong, garbage collectors are being forced to make a mockery of those curbside recycling bins we’ve all been trained to fill. In Philadelphia, for example, the city currently burns 200 tons of recyclables a day—half of what it collects. The result is an increase in carcinogens spewing into the air around the city’s incinerator in nearby Chester, Pa.
The reason this problem is coming to a head now is China. Its “National Sword” policy, designed to help it deal with its own towering mountains of waste, last year declared an end to the country accepting “loathsome foreign garbage.” Before the policy came into effect, China imported about 40% of America’s recyclables, and an even greater proportion from other countries, to feed its insatiable need for raw materials.
Another unexpected cause is fracking, and the consequent nose-dive in the cost of natural gas starting in 2014. One product of natural-gas refining is “virgin resin,” the plastic feedstock manufacturers use to make pretty much any plastic you can name. It’s now often cheaper than all but the lowest grades of recycled plastic, says Nina Butler, chief executive of More Recycling, a research firm that advises recyclers and the petrochemical industry.
It’s a crisis so big that no amount of technology, innovation or policy can solve it in the near future—but that’s not stopping a litany of trash-tech companies from trying, including the market’s first unicorn, Rubicon Global, recently valued at more than $1 billion.
Beyond reducing the waste we create, technology should help us collect pure and separable streams of waste and increase the amount of recycled content that goes into products, says Ms. Butler.
To build anything out of recycled plastic in the U.S., whether it’s detergent bottles or decking, recyclers must first remove contaminants in the waste, then convert it to plastic resin. When streams of recyclables can be kept (or made) pure, they can easily be reprocessed. Contaminated recyclables go to the dump.
For giants like Waste Management , this means doubling down on technologies rarely before seen in their industry. Trash sorting is still for the most part a very manual process, says Brent Bell, president of Waste Management’s Recycle America division. Until 2017, the company couldn’t even find robots suited to the dirty, highly variable mix of materials that go through their facilities, but that’s changing rapidly, he says.
Waste Management now has three different kinds of robots working alongside humans to pull contaminants out of a variety of recycling streams. Combined with other forms of automation, like older systems that blow unwanted items off a conveyor belt with puffs of air, it’s allowed the company to produce a cleaner stream of recyclables, including plastic, where every item in them has been positively selected for its content and cleanliness.
Waste Management is also partnering with a startup called Compology, which makes dumpsters “smart” by sticking internet-connected cameras in them.
Think of Compology as RoboCop but for trash. An employee throws a bag of trash into a dumpster that’s only supposed to be for cleaned, unbagged recyclable plastic? Instantly, both the business and its waste collector can be alerted. Haulers won’t even pick up a dumpster that contains contaminated waste, because it can contaminate an entire truckload, says Louie Pellegrini Jr., a customer of Compology and president of Peninsula Sanitary Service, which handles trash for Stanford University.
QRS Recycling, based in St. Louis, had to close or sell off all but one of its materials-recovery facilities between 2014 and 2017, as the falling price of oil gutted demand for its cleaned and ground-up plastics. China’s sudden move made things even worse for the entire industry, says CEO Greg Janson.
From the ashes of his old business, Mr. Janson and his team realized that they had to come up with new uses for recycled plastic, not just clean it up to sell overseas. One result was a collaboration with Owens-Corning on a new railroad tie made of glass fibers and recycled plastic. Now manufactured by Evertrak LLC, a partner company of QRS located next to QRS’ facility in St. Louis, they last up to six times as long as wooden ties, says the company. Four of the largest U.S. railroad companies have begun purchasing them to add to existing tracks.
While U.S. companies look to streamline the processing of used plastic, there’s a pretty big catch: It is rarely, if ever, about turning it back into whatever it once was.
“Your yogurt cup is not going to turn back into a yogurt cup,” says Mr. Janson. Even if fossil fuels weren’t so cheap, it’s very difficult for recycled plastic to meet the criteria of food-grade containers. Fortunately, the same isn’t true for things that just need to be tough, such as paint cans, shipping pallets and pipes.
Reduction is paramount, of course—and nearly 300 municipalities across the U.S. are already charging for, or banning, plastic bags, for example. Other bans include Styrofoam and the infamous plastic straw.
There are also initiatives to avoid creating trash in the first place. Walmart, for example, just announced it will reduce plastic packaging waste across 30,000 products in its house brands, in part by using less packaging.
The scale of the problem is so vast that for the foreseeable future, no amount of robots, smart dumpsters or Ubers for trash can solve it. Even green-minded California is struggling. Despite its goal of recycling, composting or reducing 75% of its trash by 2020, Californians recycled less in 2017 than any time since measurement began in 2011.
If the U.S. or any other developed economy is going to find a China-size use for all the recyclables it would otherwise burn or bury, it’s going to take more than just innovation, commitments by large business or major policy changes—it’s going to take all of the above.