Will Lack of Innovation Kill Recycling?

Industry Trends

Recycling is getting is getting lots of media attention of late.  It’s been on this blogger’s mind based on personal experience with my own trash collector.  A previous blog was dedicated to the poor change management practices of that provider in instituting a price increase due to higher recycling costs.  I stand by my position that had this service provider practiced better change management, they could have saved themselves a lot of grief.  Since the previous blog, this author has attempted to learn more about the recycling industry and it has been an education!  The conclusion is, recycling is a manufacturing process in dire need of innovation.

What Happened?

In the US, consumer recycling began in earnest about 1990 to combat the growing amount of trash sent to landfills.  Enabled by favorable market conditions for scrap material, the advent of single stream recycling offered consumers the opportunity to do their part to help the environment.  This blogger participated willingly, but without any thought to the downstream process.  The hard truth is that a great deal of what we believe is recyclable is not.  For example, commingled grades and dirty paper, and broken or non-recyclable glass ends up in landfills anyway.  Most of the collected items got shipped overseas to be sorted and used to manufacture other products and therein lies the rub.

Historically, China has been the largest importer of recyclable material.  More recent government actions indicate a shift to more environmentally friendly policies.  Many believe that the 2016 documentary, Plastic China, was the driving force behind policy change.  A longer-term view, however, indicates the country has slowly been tightening the reins on imported solid waste for a decade or more.  The most recent, National Sword, went into effect in March of this year.  The policy bans importation of certain types of solid waste as well as impose strict contamination limits on acceptable waste. 

The change is having a ripple effect throughout the global recycling industry.  In the US, lack of a national recycling policy leaves states and municipalities to make their own rules in conjunction local materials recovery facilities (MRF).  Many US recyclers believe the current limit of 0.5 percent contamination rate imposed by China is nearly impossible to meet.  One local collector believes 1-2 percent contamination is the best it can achieve without capital investment.  However, volatile commodity prices and thin margins may preclude such investment particularly for smaller collectors.  As a result, waste is piling up at processing facilities with no place to go.  Much of what’s piling up will end up in landfills.  Smaller collectors who are unable to compete with either be acquired or close shop.  Worse, the future of recycling could be in jeopardy.     

What Now?

One solution is to look to countries such as India, Vietnam, and Malaysia to pick up the slack.  However, these countries may not have the capacity to compensate for losses in China nor is there a guarantee they will not follow China’s lead in the future.  Based on the experience of this blogger, the only sure thing is that recycling will get more expensive for all stakeholders. 

Efforts to improve the public’s recycling habits will make some contribution to reducing the amount of contamination and thus purer recyclable material.  AS costs soar, municipalities are stepping up their efforts to educate the public in proper recycling technique.  Citing contamination rates of between 30 – 40 percent, the city of Lowell, MA has hired recycling enforcement coordinators to reduce the high rate of contamination in that city’s program.  The coordinators work with consumers to educate them.  They also have the authority to issues fines of $25 to $200 for habitual offenders. 

Another solution is a national bottle deposit plan such as practiced in Norway where up to 97 percent of plastic bottles are recycled.  Here, plastic producers are subject to an environmental tax based on the amount of plastic these producers recycle.  The more they recycle, the lower the tax.  A collective target above 95 percent exempts producers from any tax, a target achieved for the last seven years.  How is that possible?  By keeping it simple.  At the heart of the plan is a focus on two PET resins and establishment of a value chain to support recycling them.  While this works in Norway, it may be difficult to duplicate elsewhere at this stage of the game.

Wanted:  Innovation in Recycling

              Innovative Automation from BHS MAX-AI 

While single stream recycling encourages consumers to recycle, the mixed waste stream that results requires a significant degree of sorting of the material into various constituents, i.e. paper, plastic, aluminum, etc.  Some facilities are large enough to justify the expense of machinery for this function, however, a fair degree of this most crucial step in the process is manual.  To this blogger and others, it appears the recycling industry is in dire need of need innovation to help reduce disposal costs, increase waste recovery potential, and save resources. 

Robotics, vision systems, and artificial intelligence are beginning to make their way to materials recovery facilities (MRF).  Modern robotic sorters utilize vision systems to see the material and deep learning to identify each item including the ability to distinguish between similar materials.  Proponents of these

technologies admit that recycling centers are not as orderly as production lines and a large dataset will be required for the network to learn.  One such company, Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), believes its Max-AI Autonomous Quality Control (AQC) robotic sorter can equal and even surpass human proficiency.  According to the company, the system can even accurately identify never seen before items using probability. 

This is one example of the innovation underway in the recycling industry.  What is clear is that recycling is an industry undergoing a period of forced transformation and in need of innovative automation solutions to sustain it.  It's not all garbage - there is opportunity here for automation suppliers to leverage their expertise and technology in a new industry. 



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