Thanks to such factors as steady population growth and urban expansion, a greater public desire for effective recycling programs, and an overall increase in consumer waste, the waste management and recycling industry is currently tackling a challenging period of growth and change. As companies continue to revise and adapt the ways they do business, industry leaders look ahead to some of the top trends we can expect to see over the coming months.
Greater focus on safety
Late last year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that refuse and recyclable materials collection has the fifth highest fatality rate of all civilian occupations in the country, behind logging workers, aircraft pilots, fishers, and roofers. Faced with such a ranking, it’s clear that making the waste industry safer for its employees is a top priority for the sector.
Over the next few years, the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) is expected to introduce a series of guidelines on best safety practices for transfer stations, landfills, and material recovery facilities (MRFs). Technology will be a big driver of this move toward increased safety; innovative products that may be used to help keep workers safe include cab cameras to assist in coaching and to record accidents, and new personal protective equipment.
Expansion of automated collections
An additional strategy that is expected to help improve industry safety and streamline operations is the expansion of automated collections, particularly in residential services. New automated waste collection programs have been launched in a number of residential communities following increased interest from municipalities, and several waste solutions companies are converting their fleets to automated side- or front-loading vehicles.
While reload collection is still the best choice in some locations, such as dirt road routes or bulk collection areas, automated collection can offer several advantages. Because employees stay within the vehicle, many safety concerns are reduced or eliminated, and overall waste volume control is improved, thanks to the use of containerized systems that help to limit overages.
Climbing diversion costs
Due to a variety of factors, including over-supply or under-consumption across most commodities as well as less market demand for recycled materials, recycling companies are being forced to rethink how they operate in order to preserve recycling’s status as a viable economic and business practice. To compensate for higher diversion costs, companies are examining several strategies, such as leveraging sustainability and recycling fees as a percentage of customers’ bills, and encouraging local governments and businesses to support recycling through changes to their procurement processes.
Continued division on glass
Glass has long been a contentious commodity in the recycling industry. Its value in the single-stream format is low, it can damage sorting equipment, and most critically of all, sorting it correctly and transporting it to the nearest processor is often expensive. In many municipalities, the majority of glass that is disposed of in recycling bins actually ends up in landfills because of these reasons. Many MRFs say they are unable to sell glass at a sufficient profit to make recycling efforts worthwhile.
However, other waste management businesses are taking the opposite approach, making significant investments in glass recycling technologies in the hopes that proper preparation will lead to better profits. These new solutions include building dedicated glass recycling and processing plants with high-tech sorters.
More composting programs
Public focus on composting has grown significantly in recent years, particularly in regions where a good source of compost is needed to support plants and crops grown for food. Numerous private companies are making plans to add food waste pick-up to their services over the next several years. Once launched, these composting programs will greatly influence how people handle household waste, and could bring lasting changes to municipal solid waste management.
More CNG-powered vehicles
The waste management industry is always looking for and implementing new ways to help the environment; one long-time strategy has been the conversion of methane produced by landfills into clean renewable electricity. That goal has taken a big step forward recently as the industry turns to a new fuel to power its vehicle fleets: compressed natural gas (CNG).
Cleaner, more efficient, and more cost-effective, CNG could prove to be a game-changer for both the industry and the environment. Big companies now number their CNG-powered vehicles in the thousands, with Waste Management operating 4,200 CNG trucks and Republic operating more than 2,200 CNG trucks and 38 natural gas fueling stations. Other companies are steadily growing their fleets: Progressive Waste now has more than 550 CNG trucks covering 11 markets.
One major factor that should further encourage the growing move towards CNG vehicles is Congress’ recently-finalized $300 billion transportation bill, which includes features like a limited truck weight waiver for vehicles running on natural gas and other incentives that may help companies make the switch.