This Recycling Company is Taking a Step Forward with Circular Economy

March 29, 2016

Takeaways

Republic Services wants to take recycling to the next level, as it looks towards circular economy innovations.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Achieving a Circular Economy: How the Private Sector is Reimagining Business. Author Jamie Bohan, Senior Director, Recycling & Technology Development, Republic Services will also be speaking at the 2016 Sustainability Forum in Washington, DC. Register now to secure your spot for the event!]

Given the expected rates of population growth and the doubling of the middle class in just 15 years, rethinking resource usage is becoming a business imperative. Decreasing a company’s dependence on extracted or grown resources can help to mitigate price volatility, supply disruptions, and the costs of increasing regulations. One method for decreasing the usage of or extending the life of resources is through circular economy practices.

As companies look to redesign their products for the inner loops of the circular economy (“product as a service” business models, reuse, or refurbishment), Republic Services recognizes the growing importance of recycling and minimizing valuable materials going to energy recovery or landfill (“leakage”). While the inner loops of the circular economy offer optimal savings in materials and emissions, recycling is an intelligent option for products whose economics do not justify creating new business or service models.

Although recycling has been around for decades, at Republic Services, we have been modernizing our infrastructure and capabilities to support and scale recycling across the United States. In keeping with our brand promise—“We’ll handle it from here”—our goal is to make it easier for companies to incorporate recycling into their sustainability programs. We accomplish this through expansion of access to recycling and the innovative use of technology. This is of growing importance today, as over 50% of waste generated in the United States is still sent to the landfill, and close to 80% of that landfilled material is recyclable.

Access to Recycling

Recycling results in a significant reduction in greenhouse gases, compared to growing or mining those same commodities for use as virgin raw materials. Republic’s goal is to increase society’s ability to recycle, by adding capacity each year to our recycling infrastructure. Communities and businesses can add or increase recycling only when the infrastructure exists. Our goal is to add an additional 150,000 tons or more per year of recycling capability by 2018 to enable growth of recycling. This will result in a reduction of 480,000 tons a year of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)17 for a total of 2.4 million tons of CO2e reductions over the next five years. That’s in addition to the 15 million tons of CO2e that we already avoid through previous recycling investments. In markets where we don’t have recycling infrastructure, we’ve developed partnerships and alliances to ensure that our customers have access to recycling.

Innovative Use of Technology

Another key aspect of increased recycling is making it easier for customers to recycle. Republic’s industry leading All-in-One Recycling program accepts all recyclables in one container at work or at home, and our advanced sorting equipment ensures that recyclables are processed responsibly and reliably. We equip our recycling centers with the latest advanced technologies to detect and separate the different recyclables from one combined stream. Highly automated systems enable facility operators to continually monitor the sorting process, moving up to 110 tons of recyclables per hour and automating the baling and storage of finished commodities. For example, optical sensors can detect and separate plastics into as many as eight different types. In addition, we are testing and piloting technologies to leverage the value in materials that are suited for biological cycle, such as food and yard waste, and contaminated fiber.

Challenges

While these efforts are advancing our goals, we are the first to acknowledge that there is still much to be done. Recycling requires cultural and behavioral changes, and it is an ongoing endeavor. New employees require training in the mechanics, purpose, and benefits of recycling. Managers must continually analyze their company’s waste stream to identify opportunities for recycling improvements.

At Republic, we help customers analyze their diversion rates, and we work with customers to design and implement education programs that incorporate recycling into employee workflows. We recognize the responsibility we have in managing the nation’s waste stream, and we see the opportunity to provide renewable materials for our economy. Through our Blue PlanetTM sustainability initiative, we embrace innovation, and we are constantly exploring new ways to capture value from materials in the waste stream, while ensuring environmental responsibility and sustainability. We believe in circular economy practices and their potential for increasing recycling participation and preserving precious resources.