The recycling and composting sectors in Texas face myriad challenges, but a number of opportunities despite pandemic impacts. During the virtual 2020 Texas Recycling and Composting Summit, hosted by the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling (STAR), speakers addressed broader national trends like contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), as well as local recycling market development efforts.
STAR's recycling and composting summits are traditionally held separately but were combined this year for the first time in more than two decades. Conference sessions reflected the diverse array of issues facing a state with significant industry activity.
An extensive session devoted to PFAS at the conference's conclusion reflected growing concerns about the issue for organics recyclers. That family of thousands of toxic chemicals has been linked to cancer, kidney disease, and other health problems. Some operators in the biosolids sector are seeing steep costs as states eye cracking down on PFAS-laden biosolids land application, although only Maine has banned the practice.
"The issue of PFAS has been on our radar for awhile," said Andrew Carpenter, a soil scientist and owner of Northern Tilth, who cited Maine's regulatory approach as an example of what might occur in other states.
PFAS in food packaging are also a growing flash point garnering legislation in states like Maine and Washington. Food packaging labeled compostable and containing PFAS has brought the chemicals into compost. While the Biodegradable Products Institute stopped certifying items as compostable if they contain PFAS beginning this year, those in the sector worry about future backlash from lawmakers and regulators.
"Organics recycling is imperfect, it's not chemically pure. We're always going to have some impurities," said Carpenter.
Another session focused on racism in the environmental industry, featuring speakers working on recycling, reuse and economic development. That panel analyzed issues within areas like waste reduction and their impact on people of color.
"We can work on solutions that waste less food, but it won't solve all the problematic components of the food system upstream from that," said Karen Magid, who serves as director of sustainability at Huston-Tillotson University. Magid discussed the impact food deserts — areas with limited access to nutritious food and grocery stores — have on low-income communities of color, even as more affluent areas generate food waste.
No Waste Louisiana Director Jane Patton also discussed the presence of waste sites in low-income communities where regional residents are largely Black and Latinx. She cited plastics plants in Louisiana and South Texas as examples of "a major problem" contributing to environmental justice issues.
Multiple speakers on various panels referenced Texas as a state primed for recycling and composting market growth, including in emerging areas like carbon farming. That practice can involve applying compost to rangeland to improve soil health, while sequestering carbon and combating climate change. "Texas has a lot of composting infrastructure, a lot of range lands," said Matt Cotton, owner of Integrated Waste Management Consulting.
Another area generating discussion is advanced recycling, sometimes referred to as chemical recycling. The practice is controversial with environmental groups who say it is largely a plastics-to-fuel effort rather than true recycling. But Tom Hockin, a national director for Brightmark, said his company is eager to capture more material in states like Texas.
"[We] will be the end market for these materials," he said, discussing hard-to-recycle plastics including high-density polyethylene, polystyrene, and polypropylene. Hockin said his company views Texas as "our next big project."
Another presentation focused on the status of a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) recycling markets study. That study is mandated by S.B. 649, which was passed by the state legislature in 2019, and requires the agency to create a recycling market development plan as part of efforts to stimulate the use of recycled material in the state. TCEQ hired environmental consulting firm Burns & McDonnell to conduct the study. Several professionals from the firm noted final recommendations around recycling in the state will look at implementation costs, as well as the ability to influence markets and divert material.
Scott Pasternak, a program leader with the firm, discussed surveying Texas recycling and MSW facilities, noting COVID-19 complicated research efforts over the summer. "Multiple facilities [were] encountering staffing issues," he said.
More research is needed, speakers said, but some early findings have been revealing. "We have identified things such as big infrastructure gaps," said Betsy Dorn, principal with the consulting firm Circular Matters, citing household batteries as an example.