It's time to embrace the value of waste

A mutant looking carrot
ShutterstockMartin Farrow
Food waste is one of the next frontiers. A mutant-looking carrot is among the many vegetables and fruits wasted by the billions of tons each year.

Recycling started more than 20 years ago when cities across the country decided they didn’t want to use your tax dollars to pay for landfill waste anymore.

Waste companies started adding recycling as part of their service offerings to win bids from their biggest customers — municipalities. They did this because they had to as part of the bid process, not because they became evangelists for recycling and the environment. It was necessary to compete.

Today, cities have evolved to the next logical step along this trendline: zero waste goals.  It’s happening all over the place.  And, it has the landfill industry freaking out a bit (but that’s a topic for another day).

Pretend you're a municipal waste director

You operate in a city of one million people and you currently pay about $50 per ton to send waste to landfill (the national average).  Without any recycling, your landfill bill would probably be about $40 million per year.

The mayor’s office just called and said the city is spending way too much on landfill fees.  Your mission: Reduce our landfill bills. 

What would you do to tackle this challenge?

Step 1: Figure out what materials you are currently paying to landfill.

Here’s what it looks like on average across the US: Standard recycling of packaging such as paper, metals, glass, and plastics will take care of over half of your waste stream (53 percent).

Chart of waste generation

Step 2: Work to divert as much of that stuff out of your landfill and into the existing recycling stream. We’ve got a lot of work to do optimize that system, but at least you’ve got a pathway.

Step 3: The rest of the waste stream is either compostable (74 percent), textile waste (19 percent) or "other," including used electronics (7 percent). Now, you know where to set your sights on driving innovation and new solutions.

Chart showing the rest of the waste stream

In 2016, we at the Closed Loop Fund and Closed Loop Foundation are looking closely at these trends and exploring what we should do next to tackle the rest of the waste stream — beyond packaging.  Municipalities across the country are exploring the full suite of options — from regulatory to voluntary. We believe turning waste into value is not only a viable business opportunity but an absolute necessity.

Here’s a preview of some of our work:

ReFED: Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data

Closed Loop Foundation is a lead supporter of ReThink Food Waste (ReFED) report examining food waste solutions based on their ability to merge strong economic returns with optimal social and environmental benefit. The result is a clear roadmap that bridges the gap between awareness and action to reduce food waste.

Electronics Recycling Landscape Report

In partnership with the Walmart Foundation, The Sustainability Consortium, Arizona State University, and the National Center for Electronics Recycling, is working on a report for later this year that aims to:

  • Quantify the landscape of the used electronics waste stream over the next 5 years. 
  • Define the types of programs currently in place and their effectiveness.
  • Explore how changes in consumer, technology, regulatory space and recycling industries will impact electronics recycling. 

Collection is a key bottleneck for recycling clothes and electronics

When you step back and take a system view of the challenges with recycling clothes and electronics, it’s easy to get stuck with a chicken-or-egg problem.  For example, if I’m an electronics recycler, I invest in a next-gen processing facility without confidence that I have access to feedstock, such as used electronics.

Similarly, if I’m a collector of used clothes, I can’t expand without confidence that I’ll have access to a processing facility and markets for the material I’m collecting. 

Solving for collection infrastructure would unlock additional investment across the system.  Confidence in quality and quantity of feedstock would allow processors to invest in new solutions.  Clear end markets would enable brands to choose materials and design products that are easily recyclable. 

Plus, it solves the problem of the key player driving this conversation: that city manager who is desperately searching for solutions to that last 25 percent or so of material currently destined for landfill.

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