The benefits of waste management for businesses, and the world as a whole, cannot be underestimated.

However, the industry itself is also facing a variety of challenges that must be overcome before we can truly begin to tackle our growing waste problem.

We spoke with our co-founder and chief operating officer, Adam Pasquale, to get the inside track on those challenges and where the industry is heading as we move into the future.

What are the biggest challenges facing the waste management industry today? How do you think these challenges will change in the next decade?

Adam Pasquale: The industry is very large and there are a variety of problems faced by different segments of the industry.

From the hauler perspective, there are limited opportunities for growth, and accessing capital to fuel that growth is also a challenge.

For the industry as a whole, there must be greater transparency, accountability and validation.

From the consumer perspective, the recycling industry is lagging behind many other industries when it comes to customer experience and service. Additionally, a lack of transparency regarding where materials go, a lack of industry standardization that undermines accountability, and inconsistent consumer education is further compounding the issue.

For the industry as a whole, there must be greater transparency, accountability and validation. We need a clearer view into recycling practices, more data designed to hold the industry accountable, and validation of when collections are made and where they are delivered. The development of new technologies is helping us achieve all of these things.

Finally, ownership of the problem is crucial to addressing what has become a truly global issue.

What promising technologies or developments do you think will shape the waste management industry in the near future?

Adam: In order to find the technologies or developments that will make the biggest impact, you need to look at where the biggest problems are. As an industry, we need to focus on solving the biggest, broadest problems possible before we take on the smaller items. In my mind, we first need to focus on the systems infrastructure that captures data. If it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved.

A few promising technologies pushing the industry in the right direction include:

  • Cameras
  • DOT digital logs
  • Digital safety metrics and performance metrics
  • Route optimization
  • Tracking

How can we change the way the public thinks about waste? Can we move away from the single-use mindset?

Adam: Education is always key. Regardless of material stream, adding visibility into the flow of materials and where it goes after it’s picked up can encourage people to recycle more. It’s a push and pull relationship: citizens and workers are really starting to care about where their materials go, but as an industry, we need to be able to make sure that the work they are doing is not going to waste.

On top of what the industry can do, we all need to think differently about packaging as a whole.

On top of what the industry can do, we all need to think differently about packaging as a whole.

Plastics is the main problem that the industry is facing today. Development and awareness about the harm plastics cause should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

We must move away from the single-use mindset. As citizens we need to be aware of the problem before we can consciously make changes — reusable coffee cups, cutlery, beverage containers, etc. are ubiquitous. True change starts at the packaging and company level, with companies committing to sourcing reused or reusable packaging. The next step would be to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable containers to the coffee shop or to the grocery store.

Do you think governments should play a greater role in waste management? Is education enough?

Adam: Government has the tools at its disposal to put pressure on the industry to change faster than it would on its own. Of course, the policies that are put into place need to be responsible. Change takes time, and any government involvement needs to be highly collaborative.

The waste industry is a complex ecosystem with many different players involved. It’s going to take extreme measures, such as banning certain materials nationwide, to evoke necessary change. The best policies that are put in place will encourage innovation and investment in green technologies, while creating economic opportunities that incentivize and increase recycling rates.

What kinds of revenue streams can be created from waste? Do you see future revenue streams with particular promise?

The supply of materials is there, the demand for materials is there, the challenge is scaling these and connecting the two.

Adam: All material streams have inherent value and can be valuable. There are many promising up-and-coming outlets for material streams. As with any type of consumer goods or material stream, infrastructure needs to be in place that extracts the most value. The supply of materials is there, the demand for materials is there, the challenge is scaling these and connecting the two.

In addition to infrastructure being in place, there are also barriers that are making it difficult for newcomers to enter the market. There are currently many legislative infrastructure barriers preventing markets from developing and turning these materials into commodities.

The material stream with the most potential–and the one we can focus on that will make the largest environmental impact–is food waste and organics.

How do you feel about shipping waste overseas? Does the US have the capacity to process the amounts of waste it creates?

Adam: We must invest in domestic infrastructure capable of processing our nation’s waste.

Environmentally speaking, it doesn’t make sense to ship waste overseas. The resources it takes to ship the materials to facilities overseas negate the benefits of recycling it overseas. And unless you are tracking the materials to the recycling facility, there is no way to validate that it’s being recycled. This compounds the local problem —and making it global problem is senseless.

The current issues that we are facing with the China import ban shed light on the fact that there needs to be more domestic infrastructure in place. This issue has allowed everyone to see the gap in the industry. Any country can take the initiative to invest in their own infrastructure. International collaboration in the budding global economy can help benefit this problem if domestic investment is not available.

Is “zero waste” achievable when dealing with such large systems (i.e. a state or a nation)? Can the varying needs of different areas be catered for by one approach?

In order to address this problem, there needs to be commitment, compromise, communication, and collaboration.

Adam: Yes, but there needs to be an immense amount of collaboration. This is a problem facing not just individual entities, but our entire planet. In order to address this problem, there needs to be commitment, compromise, communication, and collaboration. This would also not be possible without the use of new technology.

Regarding the various needs of different entities, collaboration around a strong mission statement can help simplify the varying needs of different areas. Every individual, company, and municipality has a variety of isolated challenges and goals. Given the complexities of the industry, I think that if you have a strong direction and keep things simple, the ambitious “zero waste” goals will follow. The simple goal should be to divert as much as possible, and approach each project or goal with a creative, problem solving mindset.

To learn more about the Benefits of Waste Management for Businesses, read here.