Western society’s long term strategy to deal with its staggering output of trash has been to establish infrastructure to gather, transport, and dispose of it in landfills. While that is a far better outcome than the rampant environmental contamination that continues in many parts of the world, landfill capacity is finite and the organic waste that ends up there generates the potent greenhouse gas, methane. Leaders in the field of waste management argue that it is time for a paradigm shift from accepting a great deal of waste as an inevitable byproduct of our lifestyle to taking on the challenge of transition to a more “circular economy.” From the later point of view, something only becomes “waste” (the noun), if we “waste” it (the verb). If an item has potential value for reuse, recycling or re-purposing it doesn’t have to become waste. That all sounds great, but our basic infrastructure has been optimized to gather mixed waste categories, and even a sincere historical effort to move towards recycling has had limited success – particularly since China became unwilling to play the undesirable role of de-mixing it.
Radical reform of our basic trash collection and sorting system is a daunting task, particularly at the household level, but the picture is much brighter for the business sector where a higher degree of reliable pre-sorting can be arranged. There are more and more innovative, circular economy examples becoming available, but the availability of those options differs significantly between regions and between the materials in question. Businesses are typically self-motivated to reduce their waste profile. They may also need to do so to satisfy the demands of downstream customers or shareholders, or to comply with intensifying regulation (e.g. in a state like California). It is very challenging for businesses keep up-to-speed with all the latest options and to work out the logistics required to implement them. Fortunately, there are companies that are stepping in to help players in various industries to reduce their “waste footprint”. This article will describe three of these “waste reduction optimizers.”
One such company is RoadRunner Recycling. It was started in 2014 by Graham Rihn because he wanted to play a role in moving the waste handling system towards less landfilling. Roadrunner works throughout the US with restaurants, office buildings, manufacturers, and grocery chains to modernize their systems. They maintain a complete and current database of recycling options. They then optimize pick-ups from across their customer base to gather and transport those materials to the appropriate processing centers. This not only helps the players on the disposal side, it also helps the innovators who need specific feedstock for their particular circularity effort. RoadRunner is typically able to take a new client starting from a zero to 10% recycling rate and bring that up to 40%. It is possible to move as far as 70-90%.
Another “waste reduction optimizer” is called CheckSammy and it was founded in 2018 by Sam Scoten and Paul Botelho. Headquartered in Dallas, TX this organization is a waste and sustainability operator that helps businesses by using their expert knowledge about recycling options to efficiently gather and deliver potential waste to some better fate. An interesting feature of their business model is that they outsource quite a bit of their volume to independent waste haulers who are members of a growing segment of the “gig-economy.” Between their own staff and the gig operators they have more than 5,000 haulers available for both routine and one-time needs. They often get involved in streams that require some degree of post-pickup sorting. They have customers throughout the US and Canada including multi-family housing locations, retailers, and manufacturers. They also provide tracking information and analytics to document the extent of diversion that is achieved (e.g., material not going to landfill or incinerator). They can often achieve as much as a 5-fold diversion ratio compared to what the customer was doing before.
The company has taken on some unique challenges. For instance, one retailer was updating the mannequins in their clothing departments and had 55 thousand of them which would normally have been sent to landfill. CheckSammy was able to find a way to recover a significant amount of plastic and steel from them and use other parts to make geo-membranes for water storage ponds. CheckSammy’s Chief Sustainability Officer Cameron Funk recently received one of the “40 under 40” leadership awards from Waste 360.
There is a third company in this space called Quest which is based in Dallas but has operations throughout the US and in Canada and Puerto Rico. They use subcontractors to do the pickup. They also handle a wide variety of materials, but have a large presence in the retail space handling food waste (featured in this earlier article). In that part of their business the data often helps a retailer notice an anomaly – for instance a store that has unusually high produce losses which turned out to be a cold room temperature issue. They currently collect from 40 thousand sources and provide data to document waste diversion to support things like ESG reports. Clients who might have diverted 30% of their waste before are typically moved into the range of 70%.
The bottom line is that many companies can make progress towards their waste-reduction goals by outsourcing the need for specialized expertise and the resources to execute an optimized strategy.