10 Recycling and Waste Management Trends to Look Out for in the Near Future

Young woman putting cardboard into recycling bin

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The past few years have been an interesting time for the eco-movement. It's been a time of cardboard bicycles and eco-friendly urban housing; a time where some countries might be recycling too much, while some cities have a hard time recycling anything at all. As 2014 rolls into the summer months, we are continuing to see new developments, innovations, and even new problems in sustainability ventures and recycling efforts. To get a better sense of where we are headed in the near future, for good or bad, here are ten forthcoming trends and expectations we predict we'll hearing more of soon.

Bans on Plastic

It’s not a secret that most plastics take hundreds, if not thousands of years to photodegrade (which is still bad for the environment anyway), or that they’re wildly hazardous to local ecosystems and wildlife. That’s why many cities are starting to address the plastic waste generated within their borders. Styrofoam in particular has been discussed widely throughout the years, and cities and towns across the country have increasingly been resorting to bans on food packaging made out of polystyrene foam. While it’s cost-effective and durable enough for packaging, its light weight makes it prone to being easily spread by the wind, and it can seep compounds like styrene into the earth and groundwater. Between prohibitions on Styrofoam, plastic shopping bag bans, and even bans on plastic bottles, hopefully the push to phase-out unsustainable and pervasive plastics like these will continue.

waste foam tray and plastic, waste garbage foam food tray white many pile on the plastic black bag dirty, Bin, Trash, Recycle
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From Paper to Digital

In 2012, President Obama signed legislation requiring the EPA to move to a completely digital system of records by 2015. This would allow retailers and commercial businesses to report their hazardous waste data directly to the EPA via an “e-manifest,” making industrial and commercial waste tracking a much more streamlined, efficient process. The need for digital record keeping has never been needed more across industries and government institutions, especially in a time where even the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen such a backlog of physical paperwork that disability claims can be delayed for years. Considering the efficiency benefits and that digital record systems generate considerably less waste, it's likely that more businesses and institutions will be pressured into jumping on the digital train as well.

“Biodegradable” Plastics

The market for biodegradable plastic resins has been increasing steadily for years and is currently expected to increase by 19% a year into 2017. Plant-derived resins like polylactic acid – a #7 plastic labelled “PLA”– continue to be at the forefront of a campaign to introduce bio-based resins into a variety of markets and industries. While some possible applications include car parts, clothing, and even electrical components, there is still the issue of labeling certain plastics “biodegradable.” Without proper municipal recycling and composting systems in place to break down the plant-based material, these plastics won’t degrade. When polylactic acid packaging in particular is mixed with other types of plastics during processing, it can even contaminate the entire batch of recycled plastic, rendering it all useless. This risky push for resins from feedstock can only be properly managed if we start adopting widespread systems capable of truly composting the material. Otherwise, we risk simply mitigating consumer guilt without actually providing any real solutions. Skepticism abounds as the market for these plastics continues to grow...

Mandatory Composting

Only 5% of the 26 million tons of food waste in 2012 avoided a landfill. This means there are still millions of tons of food sitting at the bottom of a landfill that could have otherwise been turned into a healthy compost material for personal or municipal use. That’s why more municipalities across the country are starting to institute programs for organic material composting, and some are even making it mandatory. It’s not just the urban eco-titan San Francisco playing with this type of legislation: Rhode Island has started the discussion, and even New York City did when Michael Bloomberg was the active mayor. We can only hope this increased interest in composting continues to grow.

Man showing compost
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Sustainable Innovation

A Swedish student at the Umeá Institute of Design developed back in 2013 a conceptual design for the ERO – a robot that can actually recycle buildings made out of concrete and rebar. The amazing concept even won the designer, Omer Haciomeroglu, a 2013 International Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. While only a conceptual project at this point – and an incredibly ambitious one at that – the fact that an entire concrete building can be theoretically recycled is a groundbreaking achievement of design. The possibilities of sustainability are constantly being redefined by innovations like this, and we can expect to see similar revelations continually evolving at a faster rate.

A construction worker pouring a wet concret at road construction site
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3-D Printing

3-D printing has opened up doors to manufacturing that were never before thought to be opened: from commercial use and mass-production, even down to more private, personal use at home. 3-D printing technology might even be able to build a house in a day. Of course, this technology risks increasing our dependence on plastic even further. Thankfully, some are finding grinded-up plastics from around your home – even used Legos and other plastic waste – can be a viable option for printing. Just imagine if a whole new market was opened up for plastic waste to be used in 3-D printing? Certain recycled plastics are often cheaper per pound than virgin plastics anyway. 3-D printing has innumerable positive applications, but we should ensure that the materials used are as sustainably-sourced as possible.

Energy from Organic Waste

California is often a place were budding eco-technology is piloted, and anaerobic digestion technology is no exception. Sacramento County’s “Sacramento BioDigester” can take food and other biodegradable waste and turn it into sustainable bioenergy. This benchmark in anaerobic digestion may be an indication of things to come, especially when the Sacramento digester is so efficient it can process about 100 tons of organic material a day. Imagine if there were one of these in every major city across the U.S.

Recycling… Cigarettes?

Whether or not you believe cigarette smoking is a gross habit, the fact remains that 38% of litter on the road is cigarette and tobacco product waste. It’s a ubiquitous and nasty issue that, until now, we’ve had to just deal with. Now, through TerraCycle's Cigarette Waste Brigade recycling program, an person, organization or business over the age of 21 can actually collect and send cigarette waste directly to TerraCycle. The tobacco and paper gets composted and the cellulose acetate filters are recycled into industrial plastic products like shipping pallets. A similar city-wide program was even launched by the city of Vancouver last November with the help of TerraCycle. As more people begin to realize that there actually is a solution to this enormous waste stream, we hope to see more people and municipalities following suit.

Cigarette ends in an outdoor ashtray outside restaurant
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Increased Corporate Responsibility

It’s easy to make hollow promises lauding “corporate social responsibility,” but more and more companies and businesses are seeing that actions do indeed speak louder than words. The age of the conscious consumer and conscious public is upon us, and firms will naturally be increasing their self-generated waste recycling efforts, as well as being more vocal about sustainability in general. Greenwashing is getting increasingly difficult to manage, as people are more vigilant and ready to pounce on illegitimate sustainability efforts. Besides, there are upsides to businesses becoming more sustainable, like increased supply line efficiency and reductions in industrial waste. We can expect to see more of this as well-informed consumers continue to demand that the companies they buy their products from be more socially responsible and environmentally-conscious.

Growing Issues With E-Waste

48.9 million tons of E-Waste were generated in 2012, according to the Solving the E-Waste Problem (STEP) Initiative. The U.S. generated more than 258 million units of E-Waste in 2010 alone, and that was four years ago. Much of this extremely toxic waste stream gets sent to third-world countries where it sits unrecycled in giant, electronic mass-graves. Both the United Nations’ Global Partnership on Waste Management and the EPA have continually tracked international E-Waste generation, but the E-Waste problem is as pervasive as ever. As the struggle to manage this dangerous waste stream continues and becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, we can expect to see a larger international discussion developing.

Workers sort through a pile of used mobile phones in New Delhi, India
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There’s a lot to look forward to throughout the rest of the year, and there’s still quite a lot that should be approached with caution. We also continue to hit difficult-to-overcome barriers: just consider that the recycling rate in the U.S. only went from 30.1% in 2000 to 34.5% in 2012. Still, the near-future holds plenty of new developments and trends that we should be both excited about and wary of as we look down the long road ahead.