WasteExpo highlights big ideas for solving food waste, recycling, data and infrastructure problems

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WasteExpo, the waste industry’s biggest conference, is always swirling with complex and evolving topics. To close out this year’s event, we’ve highlighted some of the notable discussions from throughout the four-day gathering in Las Vegas.

Better beverage container recycling could help match future demand for glass and aluminum

Processors looking for higher volumes of cleaner recycled aluminum and glass say current collection systems won’t meet future demand, but panelists at a commodities session offered suggestions for how U.S. programs and infrastructure could bridge the gap.

The U.S. will see an “increased appetite” for recycled aluminum in coming years, said Charles Johnson, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association. “We are investing big time across the industry,” he said, adding that while some primary aluminum smelters have shuttered, the industry in the last six months has announced about $1 billion in domestic aluminum rolling and recycling. 

In 2021, the U.S. economy grew by 5.7%, and the U.S. aluminum industry grew by 7.7% in that same time, he said. The growth has been driven in part by a backlash against plastic, which has boosted the canned water and hard seltzer industry. Growth in the craft beer industry is also a factor. 

Container deposit legislation is one way for the U.S. to feed such an appetite, Johnson said. The 10 states with bottle bills consume less than 20% of beverage containers, but provide almost half of the aluminum that is reclaimed from the consumer market.

“We know these policies work in addition to being high volume and bringing in clean aluminum,” he said.

Other aluminum producers and recyclers have also come out in support of bottle bills, but Johnson acknowledged such policies can be somewhat controversial and are hard to pass, with only Connecticut managing to update its bottle bill last year. Massachusetts and California are still considering bottle bill updates in their legislatures. A bill in Vermont died before the end of its legislative session, and major haulers such as Casella have opposed the bill. 

Bottle bill states also play a major role in collecting glass, according to the Glass Packaging Institute, which wants to raise the national recycling rate for the material from about 20% to 50%. Scott DeFife, GPI’s president, said the states with a bottle bill routinely have above a 60% rate while bringing in more than half the usable cullet needed to go back into making containers. These states also source so much cullet because glass collected from the program tends to have less contamination, he said.

Though more bottle bill policies could help with the recycling rate, that’s not the only solution, DeFife said. Investments in MRF infrastructure can help boost recovery rates by getting glass out of the stream early, reducing contamination and reducing the risk of glass shards wearing down the equipment and contaminating other commodities streams later down the line, he said. And in places where MRFs aren’t contracted to take glass or see it as too expensive to handle, GPI hopes to work with municipalities to find other creative solutions to intercepting glass streams and connecting it with processors.

DeFife sees promise in building out more glass collection pilot programs that partner with bars and restaurants to separate their glass bottles into dedicated containers behind their businesses. Such programs already exist in some major cities, and he mentioned a pilot that had just started up again in Chicago, where “this material goes from the bar to glass processing and straight back into the supply chain,” he said. The advantage of programs like these, he said, is that they don’t rely on changes in consumer behavior or a reminder to return containers for a deposit. 

Local leaders want firmer policies to progress on food waste

Local leaders in attendance sounded off on their food waste policy dreams during a panel discussion, which vary by city.

Brittany McPeak, sustainability project coordinator in Orlando, Florida, would like the city to have a self-imposed organics landfill ban. The hospitality industry is huge in Orlando, McPeak explained, and 40% of the city’s food waste comes from that sector. While commercial composting infrastructure is in place, it’s voluntary, so only a handful really participate: “We need policy,” McPeak said. The city is working toward incremental policies, such as pay-as-you-throw, to get there, she said.

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