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SERDC and NERC: A Tale of Two Conferences

Written by: RSE USA Team

Posted:  November 18, 2016

The Southeast Recycling Development Council’s (SERDC) conference took place November 7 – 9 in Atlanta. The event was not only a great opportunity to hear interesting insights from and network with industry representatives from the southeastern region, but it also marked SERDC’s 10th anniversary. It was interesting to consider the SERDC conference relative to the recent NERC (Northeastern Recycling Council’s) fall conference, which took place in Portsmouth, NH the preceding week. As well, it was a wonderful opportunity to share ideas and connect with fellow recycling professionals from the northeastern states.

Similar Challenges and Topics

From the breakout sessions we attended, the following similar topics emerged as important in both northern and southern states:

  • Electronics recycling programs need support – Many states have passed recycling legislation, only to have recycling processors eventually face financial ruin and shut down, sometimes leaving a warehouse of electronic scrap behind.
  • Recycling’s perfect storm has created an economic shift – The relative low value of recovered materials, high cost of processing, and overall increase in contamination levels has resulted in an unfortunate economic shift, with processors, in many cases, feeling the pinch. As a result, many indicate that consumers/generators need to understand that recycling isn’t free. Processing contract terms may need to be structured differently than they have been in the past to ensure recycling collection and processing costs are adequately covered.
  • Education is as important as ever – Given the preceding point about contamination, the need for recycling education is as important as ever. While a single-stream recycling system seems simple, contamination has become a greater issue. Whether it is due to people overzealously recycling, confusion, or lack of care to what they place in the cart, consumers need to be educated about what and how to recycle. In addition and be residents who are improperly using their carts and causing unacceptable levels of contamination need to be immediately notified. Most in the industry agree that single-stream is here to stay, so it is imperative we tackle the contamination issue head on.
  • Glass is posing a challenge – Not only is glass of relatively low value, but in current collection and processing systems it becomes very contaminated. As well, it can become embedded in and thus devalue other materials, especially fiber. One presenter noted that curbside glass supplies can contain up to 50% organics and 30,000 PPM ceramics, with final product specifications being 0.15% -0.25% organics and < 50 PPM of ceramics. Some suggest that an alternate collection method is the answer, while others propose improved processing technologies and/or alternate local and regional end markets as the answer. The Northeast Resource Recovery Association (New Hampshire) is an example of a region processing and beneficially using recovered glass locally. While glass is an inert material, it is generally the heaviest material in a waste stream, so programs that hang their hats on weight-based metrics do not want to exclude glass. Additionally, industry needs clean recovered container glass – emphasis on clean.
  • Organics recovery is necessary – This sector is imperative for many states and local governments to reach their goals as it makes up about 30 percent of the MSW stream.
  • Sustainable materials management will impact the industry –– Incorporating the concepts of the circular economy will mean prioritizing different programs, shifting goals, and how we measure progress, and may mean prioritizing one environmental benefit of a product or packaging type over another.
  • Funding constraints– While this is not a new topic, a common theme among local and state governments is inadequate funding to implement recycling, composting, and Education and Promotion programs.

Differences Between the Regions

While the states have more in common than differences, the following differences among the two regions was evident:

  • Northeastern states have stronger, more “top down” policies – Not a value judgement – just an observation.
  • Food scrap collection and processing infrastructure is farther along in the northeast – This is in part due to state policies encouraging the development, but fundamentally, high tip fees and land scarcity for landfill also helps support alternatives to disposal.
  • The Southeast has stronger manufacturing markets – While relatively low tipping fees in the southeast can make recycling a hard sell, it’s also a region of manufacturing opportunity. Recycling professionals in the region (and SERDC, as an organization) would like to see southeastern-generated materials being processed and used as feedstock at in-region manufacturing facilities.

Moving forward, common aspirations in both regions include:

Sustainable materials management and circular economy tenets must be incorporated into programs, priorities, goals and benchmarks. This may make us reconsider weight-based (or solely weight-based) goals. It may also include a greater focus on economics, social impacts, and other resource considerations and environmental impacts besides tons disposed.

Increasing the amount of collaboration among manufacturers, processors, and generators, to focus on feeding consumable materials to manufacturers is important.

Increased communication, collaboration and planning across different areas including departments, agencies, and environmental media will lead to a more holistic approach in advancing waste minimization and recycling efforts.