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Many countries have problems with waste and a considerable proportion of this waste is not recycled. More needs to be done to transition from focusing on waste management to focusing on sustainable materials management, according to a leading expert.

An example of waste management problems rests with plastics. One million plastic bottles were purchased globally per minute, according to The Guardian. This is a global number that quickly adds up to a staggering half a trillion plastic bottles purchased annually by 2021. The challenge of plastic waste needs new technological solutions.

This level of waste and the approach to addressing this level of waste which rests less with recycling and more with landfill (often using landfill in other countries) is something that societies need to tackle.

Michael Schmidt, an environmental services specialist and Executive Vice President of Strategic Growth and Development at Gold Medal Environmental, provides commentary on the state of waste management in the U.S.

Digital Journal: What is the impact on the environment from waste?

Michael Schmidt: The things we throw out have an unfavorable impact on our environment in many different ways, the largest two being the continued consumption of land for the use of landfills and commercial compost facilities, to the emission of green-house gases either through the decomposition of waste or even from the vehicles that transport the waste to processing facilities.

Waste and population are positively and linearly correlated and as the population grows, the volume of the waste generated increases. Driven by this positive correlation between waste and population growth, we at Gold Medal Environmental believe the greatest impact on the environment is the continued consumption of land to properly dispose of and manage trash.

DJ: What is the situation with recycling?

Schmidt: While single stream recycling has been successful in helping governments and organizations divert recoverable materials away from landfills, China’s recent recycling ban and the recent global, single-stream recycling crisis, we are now learning that many of those things we have been throwing into our single stream recycling bin, “Wish-Cycling” as many have called it, the recent Global Recycling Crisis has shed light on the fact that much of what we have considered “recyclable” in the past is now considered to be trash, ultimately finding its way back into landfills dumped illegally or being burned. This has ultimately led many people to rethink what we are truly recycling.

The second greatest impact to the environmental is the emissions of greenhouse gasses not only as trash decomposes in a landfill, but also through the use of numerous collection vehicles and long-haul transport vehicles on the road today collecting garbage, food waste, and recyclables (a different truck for each waste stream) and driving it long distances to dispose of the material.

DJ: How can gas related issues be addressed?

Schmidt: Many, well run landfills, have gas collection systems where the methane gas is captured and either burned off, or captured, cleaned and used to power local homes and businesses either through direct gas or through the creation of electricity. Unfortunately, the growing population pushes landfills further away from where the trash is being generation, increasing the number of trucks on the road ultimately leading to an increase in carbon emissions.

DJ: Are there other issues?

Schmidt: Other concerns such as illegal dumping, ground water contamination and trash in our oceans, are definitely impactful on our global environment and should not be overlooked, however, much of this illegal dumping is driven by countries in attempt to preserve land for their people as well as many to preserve costs.

DJ: How bad are the future projections for waste management?

Schmidt: The projections are concerning and if we don’t act now, things will only get worse. Currently there are over 7 billion people on this planet with various projections indicating that by 2050 the world’s population will grow to 9 billion and 11 billion people. This level of population growth puts significant demand on our energy and land consumption. With estimates of indicating 80% more energy and the consumption than currently, demonstrating a need today to find more sustainable energy sources.

DJ: What are the implications?

Schmidt: The pressures on agriculture to sustain a population of such size raises significant concerns. As mentioned above, the increasing population will raise demand for land putting the demand for agricultural purposes at direct odds with the demand for land to support the population. The growth in the population will lead to the significant growth of refuse, further stressing the demand for land to support this population growth.

The use of land to sustain the population will make the idea of using land for landfills seem beyond irresponsible. While 30 years from now may seem like a long way, it will move faster than we think. We cannot leave this up to the next generation to solve or worry about, we are the generation that will be living with it if we don’t do something now. We have to act now to develop long term, sustainable solutions to help find ways to reduce our reliance on land and other fossil fuels.

DJ: How much plastic waste is recyclable?

Schmidt: Due to its durability, lightweight, and moldable properties, plastic has infiltrated just about every aspect of human life, unfortunately, because of the many different blends of plastic and the chemicals used, very little plastic is recyclable. In fact, according to various studies, between 9 and 12 percent of all plastics are actually recycled, which is alarming considering 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced as of 2017.

DJ: What is the contribution of plastic to the problem?

Schmidt: Plastic is a significant contributor to the problem. As much of the plastic produced isn’t actually able to be recycled and with the recent implementation of China’s increasingly rigid waste import ban it is estimated that 111 million metric tons of plastic will be displaced by 2030, with only 9 percent to 12 percent of this waste being recyclable, that means that over 85% of this plastic is destined for landfills world-wide. As more countries that the US and Europe exports waste to bring about bans of their own, this means that this plastic will make its way into landfills in the United States further raising pressure on landfills and ultimately increased pressure on the need for land.

In a follow-up interview Michael Schmidt looks at how new technologies can help address the increasing problem of waste, as an integrated water management solution. See: “Q&A: Why developed economies need new waste solutions.”

Q&A: Why developed economies need new waste solutions

Levels of recycling in developed economies like the U.S. are low and considerable quantities go to landfill. To address this requires new policies, new behaviors, and new technologies. An expert in waste solutions provides some solutions.

Taking the example of the U.S., for the past 25 years, the United States has exported approximately one-third of these recyclable materials overseas for processing to be reused in the manufacturing of other goods, with China receiving the overwhelming majority. That, however, has changed. Due to a lack of processing capacity, an overwhelming number of plastic bottles make their way to either a landfill or the ocean.

To address this environmental concern, new thinking and new technology is needed, according to Michael Schmidt, who is an environmental services specialist and Executive Vice President of Strategic Growth and Development at Gold Medal Environmental.

To understand how a technology driven approach can assist with the challenges of municipal, commercial, and industrial waste collection, Digital Journal spoke with Michael Schmidt.

Digital Journal: What can be done in terms of government regulation to boost sustainability?

Michael Schmidt: Truly, I am not a big proponent of imposing government regulation on these things. Right now, because of various government regulations we have a lot of environmental practices that solved the problem at one time, but have gotten us into the situation we are in today. Unfortunately, a lot of regulations don’t solve the core problem or address the long-term situation.

An example would be mandatory recycling in some cities, which has ultimately resulted in “Wish-Cycling” leading to materials making their way into our recycling stream that contaminate the rest of the materials that are recyclable, rendering the entire batch of commodities unrecoverable and ultimately leading to all of it to be thrown in the trash. Rather than impose regulations, I suggest government incentives that help reward people to do the right things that help reduce our reliance on landfills such as using technology that reduces food waste going into the trash.

Food waste constitutes approximately 35 percent of volumes into landfill. Other incentives would include rewarding people for using services from companies such as Gold Medal that are providing new solutions to divert materials from landfills like our food waste digesters and our MBT technology.

DJ: How about public-private partnerships?

Schmidt: I think that governments should be working closer with private companies to come up with solutions that seek to address the long-term problem and reduce reliance on landfills. Most of these municipalities, particularly those in the northeastern United States, are faced with landfills that running out of airspace and rather than look to the same solution, i.e. expanding landfills, they should be working with companies that are capable of providing proven, cost-effective, environmentally friendly and environmentally sustainable solutions.

DJ: Can technologies help to incentivize?

Schmidt: Gold Medal incentivizes our customers through our Environmental Steward program. Any of our customers that sign up to use one of our food waste digesters receive a 10% discount off their monthly bill, which in some cases equates to thousands of dollars a year. As our Mechanical Biological Treatment facility comes on-line, we will look for ways to provide additional financial incentives to our customers who use our solutions to be environmentally sustainable.

Our Food Waste Digesters break down organic food waste at the customer’s site and discharges the effluent down the drain to the waste water treatment facility as well as gives our customers real time insight as to the amount of food waste they have diverted from landfills. Furthermore, the data captured by our digesters, has assisted many of our customers in making make better buying decisions on the front end, helping them to reduce the amount of food purchased, while also helping them make more economic purchase decisions. By helping our customers make better purchasing decisions, they are helping to effectively reduce the amount of food that they need to help make a more environmentally sustainable impact.

DJ: What else can consumers do?

Schmidt: We as consumers should be more thoughtful about the waste we are producing, what we are purchasing, and what we are throwing out. Many times, we go to the store we end up purchasing more than we really need and end up throwing it out. Secondly, we as consumers need to take time to better understand what is truly recyclable. Pizza boxes and take out containers with grease on them unfortunately cannot be recycled. Plastic bags cannot be recycled in typical single stream recycling containers, but many grocery stores have designated plastic bag recycling services.

Not all plastic is recyclable, remember only 9 percent to 12 percent of the plastic produced gets recycled. Finally, taking the next step toward a more sustainable environment, we as consumers should be more mindful of exactly how environmentally conscious the stores we shop at and the environmental service providers we use. What are they doing to divert material from landfills?

DJ: What types of new thinking do we need?

Schmidt: As Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I find this quote so powerful and encouraging. Today we are faced with a problem that looms larger than before. We are learning that much of what we thought was recyclable isn’t, and the countries that once were happy to take our trash from us are now restricting what is acceptable, shining a much-needed spotlight on the situation.

The old ways of doing things, single stream recycling and landfilling garbage aren’t going to be the solution going forward. We need to think bigger, and bolder, we need to continue to ask ourselves, “What if…?” and “Why not…?”. We need to think about combining technology, and ingenuity to come up with new, simple, and cost-effective ways of handling waste? The solution needs to be simple so that people can embrace it easier without a lot of training. It should be cost effective so that people, companies, and municipalities can afford it. There are a lot of solutions out there, but some are so expensive that it makes them financially unfeasible, rendering the solution ineffective.

DJ: What services does Gold Medal Environmental provide?

Schmidt: While Gold Medal Environmental provides traditional collection and processing solutions to residential, commercial, and industrial customers, we also take our solutions further using technology to provide cost-effective, on site food waste solutions for grocery stores, hospitals, universities, hotels, and other producers of food waste. This helps our customers divert the food waste from the landfills, helping to reduce the reliance on landfills. The solution is simple, elegant, and located on-site, which helps reduce the need for additional trucks helping to reduce carbon emissions.

Gold Medal’s suite of technological solutions goes beyond food waste management. The combination of science, technology, and ingenuity has led to the formation of a new solution that reconstitutes traditional waste into a fuel at our Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facility in West Virginia that applies a proven technological process known as High Efficiency Biological Treatment (HEBioTä). It looks like a manufacturing facility and serves as a renewable landfill, helping to reduce the reliance on land-consuming landfills.

DJ: What is the HEBioT process?

Schmidt: The HEBioT process is a commercially proven technology that treats unsorted non-hazardous municipal solid waste (MSW) to produce a US Environmental Protection Agency recognized engineered Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF). SRF differs from Refused Derived Fuels (RDF) in the fact that it is an engineered fuel which meets minimum specifications for calorific value and emission standards. The SRF is generally used as an alternative or supplement to fossil fuels, in particular that of coal. Industries, including cement kilns, power plants, gasification technologies or utilization in biomass boilers use this material. The state of the art HEBioT technology is readily available and can reliably provide high quality feedstock for co‐processing in different industries.

The MBT process, SRF production, and the use of SRF are well established in Europe, with over 300 MBT plants throughout Europe today. Of those 300 MBT Plants, nine of them deploy the HEBioT technology. We are excited to roll this technology out to the United States to help dramatically reduce the use of landfills and help reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

In a follow-up interview Michael Schmidt looks at the extent of waste management issues in the U.S., inclosing the growing problems associated with plastics. See: “Q&A: Rise of plastic waste in developed economies.”