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Recycling Life Cycle Approach
The idea of what successful recycling means has evolved significantly in recent years as waste streams have shifted. Where attention was once focused on weight and volume, WM—along with many other companies, cities, states and academic institutions—has turned more attention to the environmental benefits of recycling waste streams, most notably reductions in GHG emissions, through a life cycle approach to assessing recycling.
In recent years, WM has aligned with the concept of sustainable materials management (SMM), a framework that encourages everyone in the recycling value chain to explore the impact of materials across their life cycles.
By considering the entire life of products from mineral extraction through end of life, we can understand the impact at each point along the way. This helps to quantify materials, energy consumption and emissions associated with those processes. Evaluating GHG emissions with a goal of reducing them can also help ensure resources are optimized across a product’s life cycle. This illustrates how impacts can occur at all stages—from design and manufacturing, to inputs and outputs of the product, to how people use and dispose of the product.
Understanding the Recycling Waste Stream
WM closely studies the waste stream to improve our environmental impact. Today, traditional recyclables make up about one third of the total MSW stream. Of that total, the majority is paper, cardboard, and glass, with recyclable plastics making up less than 5% of the stream. These plastics consist mainly of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and a growing amount of polypropylene (PP). The remaining plastic types have limited end-market applications and are therefore less likely to be recycled.
We use data and marry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM) with WM’s cost model to determine cost per ton of GHG emissions reduction in our industry. In doing so, we can prioritize waste management strategies to optimize environmental benefits. For example, while the GHG reduction benefits of recycling plastic are relatively low compared to paper and metal, plastics have been in the spotlight in recent years due to their other potentially detrimental environmental impacts.
While we constantly seek to make a positive impact on the environment through a variety of measures, our greatest contribution undoubtedly comes from waste reduction services and recycling. WM continues to focus on responsible management of plastics and other materials, including a focus on creating domestic demand for recycled plastic, designing products for recyclability and developing new technologies that meet the needs of our customers while maximizing environmental benefits. Reducing GHG emissions associated with recycling is essential to ensuring our operations have a positive and lasting impact on the environment and our communities.
Recycling and GHG Reduction Tools
Providing tools for our customers to understand the GHG reductions achieved through recycling also helps communicate the sustainability benefits of recycling, thus motivating customers to procure services needed to improve recycling quality. Efforts to improve the quality and quantity of recycling are aligned with our science-based goal to increase avoided emissions by 38% by 2028, against a 2010 baseline. Recycling will play a critical role in helping to achieve that goal.
The method by which customers choose to manage waste materials has a direct impact on the amount of GHG emissions generated. According to the EPA’s WARM, for example, three times the life cycle emissions are generated when mixed recyclable material is disposed rather than recycled. In 2021, WM avoided the generation of 28.06 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) life cycle emissions by recycling materials, repurposing them to generate renewable energy and creating compost, rather than disposing them.
Recycling gives materials new life—even enabling them to be used more than once by the same household. The process begins when a consumer places an item in a curbside bin and is completed only when a material is converted into a new product. For this process to remain circular, every step matters. Not only must goods be recycled properly, there must also be markets for recycled materials that allow them to reenter the value chain. WM is committed to helping develop and promote these end markets.
The Circularity of Recycling
Hover over each section of the inner circle to reveal more information
1 Residential Home
Customers separate clean recyclables such as bottles, cans, paper and cardboard boxes before placing them in their recycling bins.
2 Recycling Collection
Where single-stream recycling is available, a WM collection truck picks up all these items in a single pass.
3 Materials Recovery Facility
At one of our MRFs, we use advanced technology, as well as manual sorting, to organize recyclables by type before packaging them into bales.
4 Materials Processing
Depending on material type, baled recyclables are processed into new forms, such as pulp, pellets or sheets, that prepare them to be made into new products.
5 Product Manufacturing
New goods are created with these materials, such as boxes made from post-consumer paper or carpets with fibers made from recycled plastics.
Consumers purchase products with packaging or other components that are made to be recycled.
Driving End-Market Demand
Manufacturers across the globe rely on recyclables from our MRFs as material inputs for their products. But significant opportunity remains to expand these markets further, and WM is looking for new ways to generate demand among and within our business. For example, we provide employee uniforms made from recycled PET, and as a signatory to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program, we purchase residential collection carts made with 10% post-consumer resin (PCR).
Demand from Our Customers
In 2018, plastic recycler KW Plastics asked us to consider adding polypropylene (PP) to our recycling programs. Polypropylene plastic is used in products like yogurt cups and its use is growing, creating a demand for post-consumer PP resin. After auditing our available recyclables, we agreed and began to separate PP from other materials for recycling, even adding optical sorters at several of our facilities to efficiently sort this material. KW Plastics now has a reliable stream of PP that can be recycled into products such as paint cans. With our new capacity to sort PP, other markets for the material have the chance to develop as well. .
Demand from Our Collection Business
WM purchases hundreds of thousands of residential curbside carts each year, which contain post-industrial recycled plastic. In 2019, we signed on to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program and pledged to increase the use of PCR in products we purchase, starting with our residential carts. WM teams from our supply chain, operations, marketing/branding and other functions collaborated with Cascade Cart Solutions to test the use of PCR in our residential carts, and purchase the resulting carts made with 10% PCR. Cascade’s Ecocarts are a first in our industry.
Plastics in the Spotlight
As the leading environmental services provider in North America, WM has spent decades managing plastic for recycling markets and for disposal. Consumer trends, combined with constricting global markets, have placed our industry and company in the middle of the complex discussion of plastic waste and recycling. As we’ve embarked on our journey to better understand the many issues around plastic, we’ve developed our own knowledge base and perspectives, and have taken an active role in working with stakeholders along the supply chain to develop solutions for the complex challenges involved in managing plastic in a circular economy.
The same features that make plastic so convenient—including its durability, versatility and weight—also make it problematic to manage at end of life. Although it is lightweight, plastic can be expensive to process and transport. And the varied resin types that make plastic so versatile often confuse consumers because they cannot always be recycled. Plus, residual food or other products become contamination in the recycling process. In fact, only a small fraction of the plastic ever made has been recycled. And because it degrades so slowly, plastic that has not been recycled, or burned for energy, is still in the environment or in a landfill.
To address these challenges, WM has examined the types and amount of plastic in the waste and recycling stream. We have also compared plastic to other materials in the waste stream to understand their relative life cycle impacts.
This research, combined with current global market dynamics, suggests that our greatest opportunity lies in properly managing plastic to keep it out of the natural environment. When China banned imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are poorly equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans. That’s why WM focuses our efforts on recycling materials with responsible end-markets while educating consumers on what types of plastic can and cannot be recycled. All our residential plastic is recycled in North America.
WM does not weigh in on the value of using any specific packaging material; instead, we focus on the most responsible way to manage materials when our customers are finished with them. There is no doubt that nongovernmental organizations and shareholder advocates will continue to push for further corporate action around plastics. Late in 2019, shareholder advocates requested that WM complete a report on plastic recycling, which is available here. We will continue to focus on responsible management of plastics and other materials, including supporting the circular economy and development of new technologies that meet the needs of our customers while maximizing environmental benefits.
Improving Recycling Quality
To satisfy growing end-markets for recycled materials, we must ensure that the commodity products WM offers are high in quality—clean and dry. This is no small task. While individual and business behaviors have largely shifted to embrace recycling, many misconceptions remain around which materials can and cannot be recycled. Consumer misunderstandings, combined with the shift to cart-based, single-stream recycling, have led to high levels of contamination, or unacceptable items being mixed with recyclables.
For example, a major source of contamination is plastic grocery bags and bagged recyclables, which cannot be recycled when collected in curbside recycling programs but are often placed in recycling bins. These bags become tangled in recycling equipment. When this happens—up to six times a day on average—operators are forced to stop processing lines to extract bags and other forms of contamination from MRF equipment. Clearing contamination material can result in significant lost time every day. The irony in consumers placing items like plastic bags in their bins, hoping they can be recycled, is that less recycling ends up taking place. We call this practice “wishcycling”—and it’s not just bags. WM facilities report a staggering variety of contaminants brought into MRFs, from holiday lights and garden hoses to tires and clothing.
Contamination is an ongoing challenge, but we are making steady progress to reduce and address it. Consumer education efforts have helped reduce contamination levels at our single stream facilities by 20% between 2018 and 2019. Learn more about how we educate consumers on the right way to recycle through our Recycle Right program. In addition to educating customers about the principles of correct recycling, we are making investments in multiple forms of technology and training within our collection and processing operations.
Textile Supply Chains
Trends in global manufacturing and consumer behavior have made textiles, mostly clothing, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. waste stream. Few options exist for consumers to donate or recycle clothing, so it is often sent to landfills. As the largest post-consumer recycler in North America, it makes sense for WM to engage in initiatives to create a more circular supply chain for post-consumer textiles. Much like recycling of other materials, this depends on a high-quality recycled product and viable end-markets for recycled materials.
WM forms partnerships with a variety of organizations to leverage existing approaches to managing textile waste, while also creating new strategies based on advanced processing and recycling technologies and emerging supply chain collaborations. Here are a few ways we’re taking action:
- Joining EON’s CircularID Initiative, which will enable better sorting and grading of textiles
- Partnering with others developing new processes for recycling post-consumer fibers
- Creating consumer awareness by working with Slow Factory, a nonprofit that educates fashion designers on the need to consider clothing end-of-use
- Hosting sessions on textiles at the WM Sustainability Forum to better understand industry challenges
- Working with a national retailer and a third-party supplier to repurpose 1 million retired uniforms into textile fiber that will be diverted into new products