We Have A Waste Problem – Will ESG And Government Funding Help?
January brings sticker shock on your credit cards, and maybe that bathroom scale, from all that holiday splurging on gifts and entertainment, nice meals and parties, now that we can go out again after the covid-limitations. What it also brings is the other “waste” problem: waste from the wrapping and packaging of all those holiday gifts and decorations and food.
If you feel really good about putting stuff in the recycling bin, you might be depressed to find out that only 5 % of what we recycle is actually recycled, according to the World Economic Forum. Let that sink in for a minute. Only 5% of the stuff you throw in your recycling bin actually makes it back to manufacturers to make something else with it.
What’s more, 36% of the plastic produced is from packaging, and of this, 85% of it ends up in landfill. It’s not just plastic water bottles, but, every hour, every hour, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away.
We have a waste problem. We have a recycling problem. We have a plastic problem. There are about 9,000 recycling programs in the United States, but clearly they are at best insufficient.
Most of us have the option to recycle at home – 59% did in 2019, or about 70 million residences, according to Statistica – but clearly, something is not working and it’s only getting worse.
EPRs, ESG and The Inflation Reduction Act
The good news is, between converting waste to energy, reducing packaging, increasing composting, manufacturing more biodegradable plastic compounds, and companies like Patagonia using captured ocean plastics to make their products, a lot of smart people are working diligently to solve the problem.
That includes organizations and government agencies looking for ways to make the Materials recovery facilities (MRFs, pronounced MURFs) that actually process our recycling – do a better job.
Melissa Modica of Waste Harmonica, a waste management consulting firm, explained in an exclusive interview on Electric Ladies Podcast recently that their clients are coming to them in part pushed by ESG reporting demands. She said they want to know, “What are we generating? How can we divert more and optimize our services so that we’re not, you know, just hauling equipment for no reason?” Not having trucks emitting CO2 by driving around inefficiently is also a motivation for their clients, she said. “Then the second step is really, how can we creatively solve and meet their sustainability goals. So, am I being compliant at the same time.” She added that regulations in “a lot of states” that just went into effect on January 1, 2022. Sustainability goals also usually include zero waste goals.
Modica added that funding from the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate change mitigation provisions and the Infrastructure Investment Act, is going into improving the current waste management infrastructure, adding, “I think it’s pressure that we have to do something. This cannot keep going in this direction.”
Then there are the EPRs, or Extended Producer Responsibility programs “requiring manufacturers take responsibility for their product and packaging through all life cycle stages, including disposal,” like one in Middletown, CT, that communities are trying to reduce waste and increase the re-manufacturing of recycling.
ESG as a big push
“ESG has been a huge push in the last couple years,” Modica said, “clients don’t realize that waste and recycling all contribute to that whole initiative with ESG.” That includes the emissions that come from their waste management systems too, she added.
WasteDive, an industry-focused media, sees that ESG paradigms are having such an impact on the waste industry that they are tracking it. “The U.S. waste and recycling industry may be at an inflection point in its evolution, as the risks and opportunities of climate change loom large over the decades ahead. Expectations around environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting have evolved at a rapid pace, leading many major public companies to take new steps in how they’re talking about these issues.”
This includes “a notable uptick in greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and details around its role in mitigating climate issues.”
The push for more and verified ESG reporting could be a big push to fix our waste problem, because as the management saying goes, what gets measured gets attention (and budget).