Editor's Note: This piece was written by Christy Hurlburt, VP of Marketing at Enevo. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Waste Dive's views.
What if China's import ban on 24 recyclable materials is an opportunity, not an obstacle? What if it's an opportunity to transform the waste industry and to transform how people view the current system?
Reducing waste, focusing on a new process and implementing technological improvements will help manage waste across the supply chain – and offer positive change from an initially unsettling ban.
This ban impacts the entire supply chain, not just what ends up in the recycling bin or dumpster. As a nation, as an industry and as consumers, this ban is forcing us to take more responsibility for waste generation.
We have made burying our waste cheap and often expect little accountability from our producers, not requiring them to think about the steps ahead to the final destination of their product — which is ultimately in the landfill. According to some estimates, package alone accounts for 30% of all waste — which would make it the single largest component of the waste stream.
The extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations in Europe, many of which have been in effect for 20 years, are proving successful. The growth in waste, primarily from packaging, is now decoupled from economic growth in Europe, according to EUROPEN.
EPR market-based instruments, such as deposit take-backs and advanced disposal fees, have made producers responsible for the whole lifecycle of their products, and have helped to reduce waste management costs, as well as incentivize packaging reduction and recycling overall.
Some U.S. states, including California and Massachusetts, have implemented similar policies such as take-back rebates and bottle bills to incentivize people to keep things out of landfills, but these smaller, more localized efforts may not be enough anymore.
We are starting to see a push of technology-enabled solutions in the waste industry. At recycling facilities, the use of robotic sorting technology is progressing. While still expensive, robotic technology is proving to sort materials faster and more accurately than human counterparts.
In trucks, we are seeing the use of cameras to take pictures of contaminated loads so that the haulers can send notices and even fines to the end customer for not adhering to recycling standards. This puts more accountability on the waste generators.
And at the dumpster level, we now have container sensors that use Internet of Things (IoT) technology to consistently monitor the volumes of materials coming out of a site. These connected devices allow waste services providers to identify changes in volume and understand where in the supply chain the materials come from, ultimately helping in the goal of reducing waste.
Once we can better monitor and analyze our waste in all phases of its life cycle, we can form actionable insights and make the necessary changes to reduce the amount of waste in the first place.
China's recycling ban is an opportunity for the U.S.
While China majorly disrupted the status quo of the waste industry, this ban has provided the opportunity to rethink and refocus the systems and methods that are currently used in our industry.
By implementing regulations similar to those in Europe, and making producers more responsible for their packaging and lifecycle of their product, we can change practices to prioritize reduction and recycling as the cheaper, more viable option, rather than landfills. With technology comes visibility into our current processes, making it easier than ever to pinpoint where the majority of waste is coming from.
The responsibility of our recyclable waste has been placed back in our hands, and we can use this as an opportunity to implement positive, waste reducing methods that will have a lasting impact.