Looking at 2018, what trends in the waste and recycling industry will start to surface? Rubicon Global’s VP of Sustainability, David Rachelson, dives in to give us a preview of what to expect.
Waste and recycling trends of the past year have set a precedent for the challenges and opportunities faced by our industry, customers, communities, and environment in the years ahead. Advancements in technology are forging the way for a better future, meanwhile continued setbacks in infrastructure and the growing amount of ocean pollution threaten our vision for tomorrow. As we look to 2018, stakeholders around the world are eager to predict the future of smart cities, the circular economy, autonomous vehicles and so forth.
I sat down with Rubicon’s VP of Sustainability, David Rachelson, to gather insights and intel as to the waste and recycling trends to watch for in 2018. You might be surprised as to what he had to say.
What are the biggest trends to watch for in 2018?
David Rachelson: “The waste and recycling industry is making incredible strides in the development of robotics, machine learning, and smart city technology. In 2018, we can expect to see further advancement and real-world implementation of these innovations across the public and private sectors.
Meanwhile, the adoption of circular economy principles continues to grow, with hundreds of corporations, start-ups, governments, and universities from around the world collaborating on profitable solutions to our current take-make-waste culture.
The year ahead is exciting, but it comes with its share of challenges. Outdated infrastructure, ocean pollution, space waste, hard-to-recycle materials and small business empowerment are all key issues that we must address as an industry in 2018 and beyond.”
Let’s talk technology. What’s coming down the pipeline in 2018?
Rachelson: “After years of resistance, the waste and recycling industry is beginning to embrace technological innovation as a driver for future success. The year 2018 will be a race to the finish line as old-world players scramble to catch up with innovations already underway.
On the operational side, we’ll see greater efficiencies in navigation and route planning, automated invoicing and customer service. Data and reporting will advance with certified waste data from collection to the deposit site, including greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and diversion rate calculations.
Critical infrastructure improvements will be made possible through advanced robotics and machine learning, enabling virtual waste assessments and better sorting at recycling facilities. The announcement of China’s National Sword in 2017 is a prime example that recycling infrastructure must evolve to remain profitable. Fortunately, the internet of things (IoT) is enabling new technologies to work together, creating opportunities that will improve efficiency and cost savings, while teaching us about waste streams on both a micro and macro scale. The year ahead is both one of innovation and implementation.”
Driver shortages have persisted for years. Will 2018 bring about any solutions?
Rachelson: “The shortage of drivers in the waste and recycling industry is a complex problem and one that hasn’t been discussed largely outside of the industry. And unfortunately, there’s no one right answer; but there are solutions that could start to turn things around in 2018.
Criminal justice reform is the beginning of one such solution, enabling eager, hardworking individuals an opportunity to rebuild their livelihoods and careers in a sector that needs and values their work. At Rubicon, we recognize this potential opportunity and are working to develop pathways back into society for non-violent returning citizens who might want to assist our industry and rebuild their lives.
Small business empowerment is another solution. By empowering independent haulers and providing a more level playing field to operate in this industry, we can ensure that best companies are servicing communities and Main Streets across America, powered by local men and women who contribute to those economies.
Technology can also play a role in filling the driver gap, by creating more efficient route models, eliminating unnecessary pickups and ultimately employing autonomous vehicle technology.”
What about environmental impact? Will changes be made to the landfill model in 2018?
Rachelson: There is no question that the landfill model is antiquated and unsustainable. We are not only addressing pollution on land, but also in our water, as microplastics and ocean trash are quickly transforming our oceans into enormous, aquatic landfills. Recovery systems are playing catch-up as the sheer amount of waste produced by our global economy continues to grow. As a society, our challenge is to figure out how we continue to grow the economic pie while ensuring that we remain committed to a clean and healthy planet.
In many ways, 2017 was a year of awakening. To address the issues at hand, the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) launched an initiative to close dumpsites around the world and established a task force on marine litter. Meanwhile, analysts are looking up the supply chain and assessing the value of shifting from a linear manufacturing model to a circular one. A Closed Loop Partners analysis conducted in partnership with Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, found that circular manufacturing offers more than $2 trillion in annual U.S. revenue opportunity. The capital landscape supports a shift to a more circular economic model, and we can expect momentum to build in 2018.
Are there any particular waste streams to watch in 2018?
Rachelson: Food waste and hard-to-recycle materials are hot on the radar for 2018.
Food waste bans are being enacted from Massachusetts to California, impacting businesses and consumers alike. France became the first country to enact a nationwide food waste ban for supermarkets, and trends suggest they won’t be the last. The need for food waste infrastructure and anaerobic digestion facilities is mounting quickly.
Similarly, recycling facilities are struggling to find a solution for hard-to-recycling materials such as flexible packaging, disposable coffee cups, cigarette butts and more. Much of this material currently winds up in landfills or the ocean due to lack of innovation and investment in infrastructure.
Innovators like Goodr and TerraCycle are beginning to fill these gap in the marketplace, providing recycling, reuse and/or donation opportunities for some of society’s most cumbersome waste streams. There’s an enormous opportunity for growth in these markets in 2018.