It has been one heck of a year for the waste industry. From bears riding on top of garbage trucks to automated water drones eating waste out of marinas, it seems as though nothing could shock the waste and recycling world anymore. However, there were 10 big stories this year that truly changed the way the industry operates, and those stories may have more of an impact on businesses than some realized.
Read on to find out which stories dominated the conversation in 2016 — and will likely continue to dominate in 2017.
Early in 2016, California-based rePlanet announced that it had closed 191 recycling centers and terminated nearly 300 employees due to the plummeting values of certain commodity materials, such as aluminum and plastic. Shortly after, it was reported that Waste Management had closed 21% of its recycling facilities in two years time with no intentions of opening new ones — an announcement which drove an ongoing conversation about combating the whims of recycling operations.
In a recent interview with Waste Dive, National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) Director of Statistics and Standards Bret Biggers explained that the "bottom has probably been seen" in regards to the volatile prices of commodities, however the industry will not recover from a rough year of recycling operations overnight. Waste Management is just one company that is reevaluating recycling and restructuring contracts in order to stay on top of its business.
Brazil's Guanabara Bay was the backdrop for much of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, however due to the amount of debris in the water, conditions for athletes were far from ideal. Various types of litter included plastic bags, toys and a sofa that caused an Olympic kayaker to capsize during a race.
The spotlight on Rio's marine debris problem highlighted a larger issue of some international governments not prioritizing waste management practices — which has led to health concerns around the world. International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) President Antonis Mavropouls said he has made it a priority to mitigate health crises associated with mishandled waste, and is hopeful that such problems will not be a concern at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
In early October, GFL Environmental entered the U.S. market by acquiring Michigan-based Rizzo Environmental. Two weeks later, Rizzo became the center of a federal corruption investigation that alleged township trustees accepted bribes to help Rizzo win collection contracts in Macomb Township.
The story — which resulted in the resignation of Rizzo founder Chuck Rizzo Jr. and GFL's efforts to quickly phase out the Rizzo brand from all equipment in metro Detroit — was a reminder to industry professionals to do due diligence with company acquisitions. In an interview with Waste Dive, GFL CEO Patrick Dovigi said there were no red flags when originally acquiring Rizzo. If he had known about the criminal allegations, it would have been "very difficult" for the company to proceed with the purchase, Dovigi said.
In a narrow victory, California became the first U.S. state to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags through a statewide measure. The decision, passed in November, will require retailers to phase out the plastic bags and charge at least 10 cents for paper or reusable bags — a move that has given environmentalists momentum to push similar regulations on bags across various U.S. cities.
The argument of whether bag bans are helpful or harmful to the waste industry is still hotly debated. While the bags are notorious for clogging traditional MRF equipment and sorting lines, the recyclability of plastic bags is still defended by many organizations. California's move to ban the bag will be sure to ignite pushback from such groups and, depending on how the state adapts, actions to spread such regulations may become even more contentious moving into 2017.
In another momentous November decision, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. While his win was a joyous historical moment for some industry leaders, a Waste Dive survey showed that about 70% of respondents were not satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election. Some respondents cited trade and environmental regulations as concerns under Trump's presidency, while other respondents said Trump will create a revival in business.
One month after his election, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator. While it is too early to determine what this selection could mean for environmental regulations, some industry professionals see it as the first step down a long path of changes that will affect the waste world.
The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to approve contracts with seven companies — Athens Services, Republic Services, Waste Management, Universal Waste Systems, NASA Services, CalMet Services and Ware Disposal — for 11 commercial waste zones across the city. This vote marked the official beginning of the development of the largest commercial waste franchising system of its kind in the nation. Full implementation is expected by the beginning of 2018.
While this decision will greatly change waste management operations in Los Angeles, it may also have a ripple effect on other metropolitan areas looking to franchise waste collections. While the NYC Department of Sanitation is making moves toward implementing a zoned system, the city will need to fight inevitable opposition from industry stakeholders who believe such a system is harmful for some businesses.
The most recent annual report from The American Trucking Associations (ATA) found that the U.S. was short approximately 48,000 drivers in 2015, a number that was estimated to increase in 2016. While that number combines all industries that employ drivers, the waste industry has taken a large hit from this shortage and has struggled to find means of recruiting new drivers.
While the industry has boasted the benefits of being a waste hauler and has tried various tactics to peak the interest of potential employees, many obstacles — such as finding qualified CDL drivers and requiring drug tests — have proven challenging for the industry. The industry will need to increase its targeting of various demographics such as women and veterans to improve the current situation.
In an unexpected announcement, Sharon Kneiss resigned as the president and CEO of NWRA on Nov. 7, leaving Kevin Kraushaar to take over her role immediately. While Kraushaar said her resignation was a "surprise," he told Waste Dive that NWRA will continue to implement its same strategic plan.
Just a few days following this news, James C. Fish Jr. was named new president and CEO of Waste Management, ending David Steiner's 12-year run as one of the industry's top leaders. While this switch was part of a planning process, it is still likely to have effects on the company moving into 2017. Other leadership shifts — including an entirely new presidential administration — indicate that there may be more new faces shaping the industry.
An August study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference found that consumers are willing to waste more food depending on which date label is printed onto the packaging (i.e. "best by," "sell by," "fresh by, and "use by"). This research was just one piece of evidence that pointed toward the need to standardize date labels in order to minimize confusion around food safety and waste.
In a recent statement, the USDA issued guidance which recommended that manufacturers use the language "best if used by," indicating a possible step toward regulating such language — however more will need to be done. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) has plans to re-introduce legislation to standardize date labeling in 2017 and, if it passes, the nation's goal to halve food waste by 2030 could be a more realistic possibility.
Reports of exploding Samsung phones caused the recall of 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 devices in the fall of 2016, creating a nightmare for the company and sustainability advocates. While Samsung came out with a statement ensuring its efforts to "minimize the environmental impact" of the situation, environmentalists around the globe voiced concern about the amount of waste the recall created.
While some companies like Apple have touted the recyclability of their devices and have shown off recycling processes using fancy robots, organizations like The Repair Association are working on legislation to ensure that consumers are given the "right to repair" devices — which could minimize waste altogether and make certain parts of phones, such as the batteries, replaceable.