Editor's note: For the most up-to-date information, take a look at the waste and recycling industry trends to watch in 2017.
As we prepare to move into 2016, the solid waste management industry faces ongoing and new challenges that shape how companies do business. From the push to landfill less and reuse more, to the resulting economic toll of plummeting values of surplus recyclables, haulers, recyclers and landfill operators are finding new ways to thrive.
Here are six likely trends for the upcoming year, as projected by industry leaders.
1. Best practices and new technologies will aim to improve safety
Safety will be a top priority following concerning Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the waste and recycling collection occupation ranks fifth for fatalities. This month, the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) released best practices for MRFs, transfer stations, and landfills, and the organization will continue to roll out a series of guidelines over the next few years. NWRA will also convene a safety summit in March to examine, for instance, safety measures for haulers and protocol for fire prevention.
NWRA Vice President of Communications Chris Doherty also explains that technology is big for safety improvement. "We will make sure we are looking at all opportunities to build a strong safety culture using innovative products that have come out,” said Doherty, citing as examples cab cameras for coaching and for recording accidents, as well as new personal protective equipment.
2. Automated collections to expand
As a continuation to improve safety, automated collections are thrusting forward in residential services since employees stay within their vehicle. "And they come with the benefit of improved waste volume control as containerized systems help limit overages," said Dan Pio, executive vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Progressive Waste Solutions.
The company is launching several automated residential waste collection programs in response to high interest from the municipal sector. Advanced Disposal is also converting to automated side-loading or front-loading collection fleets.
"While there are still applications that are best suited for reload collection (dirt road routes ... and bulk collection, etc.), we made the commitment to switch to ASL or FEL when operationally and financially feasible ..." said Advanced Disposal Chief Marketing Officer Mary O’Brien.
3. Commodity prices will continue to decline while diversion costs climb
Over-supply or under-consumption across all commodities will continue, projected Jim Langemeir, American Disposal Services’ general manager of single-stream recycling processing, the American Recycling Center.
The costs are exacerbated of late by decreased energy prices and less market demand, especially since it’s often easier to manufacture products from cheaper virgin materials. To preserve recycling as both a viable economic and business practice, companies are focusing on the cost of diversion programs.
"We can play a pivotal role in enhancing diversion efforts and lowering costs ... by leveraging our strengths in logistics and infrastructure to collect and process materials in an environmentally responsible manner and return them to the economy as secondary resources,” said Progressive's Pio.
Trends moving forward may be sustainable approaches to resource reallocation and to a circular economy. But there should also be a push in 2016 to get governments and businesses to promote recycling through changes in their procurement process, said Pio.
Waste Management CEO Steiner believes the potential growth of the housing market will help his company, enabling Waste Management to return to where business was around 2006.
Casella Waste Systems will continue to leverage its sustainability and recycling fee, which floats as a percentage of their customers’ bills, based on the commodities markets.
"[The fee] is intended to help cover the costs of recycling and recoup the investments we’ve made in recycling collection and infrastructure," said John W. Casella, chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems.
4. Municipal recycling programs to refuse glass, while some companies will invest in this material
Glass has little value in the single-stream format and can damage sorting equipment. But, moreover, it is expensive to sort and transport to the closest processors, said Langemeir, adding the closest facility to American Disposal is miles away in Chester, VA.
Some municipalities report that almost all of their glass disposed in recycle containers goes to landfills because processors are not equipped to remove broken pieces from single-stream containers. Materials recovery facilities, like the one owned by Georgia-based WestRock, claim there’s no profit in glass.
Still some businesses, including Denver-based Clear Intentions and Cincinnati-based Rumpke are holding out that their investments in high-tech sorters and other equipment will generate profits this coming year.
5. Composting programs will expand in some regions
Heightened focus on composting, particularly in regions where there is a need for compost to grow food, has brought opportunity to companies like American Disposal whose Arlington, VA contract will add food waste pick up in the next few years. Manassas City has expressed interest in the same service.
"It will change the way we service customers, not just on the compost side, but the municipal solid waste side too. It will change how people handle their household waste," said American Disposal Services General Manager Kevin Edwards.
Officials in Prince George's County, MD are looking to turn their food composting operation into one of the first large-scale, government-run programs of its kind. Others have launched, or are considering, similar programs including in Boston and Minneapolis.
6. CNG technology will continue to grow
Public and private landfill operators have converted their methane into clean, renewable electricity for years but are expanding that technology for a cleaner, more fuel-efficient product: compressed natural gas (CNG). Republic Services and Waste Management are among two waste giants turning to CNG: Republic now operates more than 2,200 CNG trucks nationwide, with 38 natural gas fueling stations as of August 2015, as Waste Management has 4,200 trucks that run on CNG.
Progressive Waste now has over 550 CNG trucks spanning 11 markets, and plans to stay with this focus for a cleaner and more cost-efficient business model.
Some industry legislation, like Congress' finalized $300 billion transportation bill, is helping haulers make the switch to compressed natural gas. The bill's limited truck weight waiver for natural gas vehicles will likely increase the expansion of CNG trucks in the public and private sector, according to SWANA CEO David Biderman.