Kevin McCarthy's varied background in recycling gives him an
interesting outlook on where the industry is heading.
McCarthy first appeared on AMM's radar in 2003,
when he was director of electronics recycling at Recycle
America, a unit of trash giant Waste Management Inc. McCarthy's
earlier Waste Management work had included four years running a
California transfer station, expanding its recycling, and a
stint as regional manager for a network of material recovery
facilities. Now he's executive director of the South Bayside
Waste Management Authority near San Francisco, with projects
including a $46-million processing and transfer facility and
franchised home pickup of hazardous items and defunct
With an assortment of vantage points dating back to 1989,
how does the 45-year-old McCarthy assess the state of play?
Upside Technology gains, with equipment increasingly able to
pull scrap from the municipal waste stream. Downside He's a
skeptic on the "producer responsibility" path to electronics
recycling, believing that the frequent bypassing of local scrap
processors associated with the approach leads to unnecessary
"Can a company that isn't based in this country tell
Minnesota or other states that they know exactly what's best
for collecting and processing this material? Old friends in the
e-waste business tell me these manufacturers run the material
out of state to other processors. You may be putting local
recyclers out of business if you shove all the responsibility
back on the manufacturers."
And even when computer and television makers do defer to
locally savvy organizations, it's sometimes by committing
themselves to a nationwide parent. An example is McCarthy's
former employer, Waste Management, which coordinates U.S.
recycling for the brands owned by LG Corp. and Sony Corp.
McCarthy would prefer that the end-of-life cost of discarded
electronics be borne, in advance, by buyers of new products.
Equipment producers, even if they write the checks for
recycling, will be getting the money from higher price tags,
not from narrowed profit margins. Lawmakers "know darn well
that Panasonic or Sharp or Apple is eventually going to pass
those costs back to the consumer. But it's easier to vote for
that than to vote for an explicit tax or fee on a product,"
On the positive side of the ledger, McCarthy is gratified by
the advances made in sorting in recent years.
At first, the goal was to handle mixed recyclables. Now
those design principles are being further tinkered to detect
and divert various materials in the commingled waste stream.
Scattered examples exist in California, the upper Midwest and
some mid-Atlantic states.
"It's like walking into a world-class manufacturing
operation," McCarthy said. "There's optical systems that can be
set up to sort out different types of plastics. There are all
different shapes and sizes of screens that sort out, based on
size and dimensions, different commodities from the waste
stream. Through trial and error, in the past 20 years people
have figured out the different screen sizes and angles of
screening. Put that together with optical technology and the
traditional recovery of metals, and you can put MSW (municipal
solid waste) through these systems. The throughput and
productivity of these plants is so much ahead of where we were
even five years ago."
Eventually, McCarthy believes, sophisticated sorting of
waste streams will lead to new types of waste-to-energy systems
that won't resemble incineration.
"You're seeing companies out there that want to segregate
portions of MSW and use it as feedstock for anaerobic digestion
and some other technologies, as opposed to mass burning. We're
starting to see a wave of conversion technologies out there,"
he said. "The organics are are probably the single-largest
component of the waste stream. If we're meaningfully going to
achieve a national recycling level above 50 percent and start
to reach beyond that-which people have aspirations for-we've
got to figure out how to manage these organics at a reasonable
We don't want some $25-million or $50-million high-tech
plant that looks like an oil and gas refinery. In the next
couple of years I think we're going to get close to what it
costs to dispose of organic waste today. We're going to be able
to convert organics into energy."
The hangover from the economic slump is going to require
careful targeting of recyclables, McCarthy said. "If the
economics don't work for a particular material, then you have
to ask whether we should be keeping it in the program.
In California, we're blessed with export markets for metals
and fiber. We have a large glass recovery infrastructure, with
a large demand pull from (E. & J.) Gallo (Winery) for the
bottles that they produce. It's the same with Coors (Brewing
Co.) in Colorado. But many other states don't have a local
glass market. It becomes a tough sell there."
Recycling isn't going to pay its full fare across the entire
materials spectrum. "Collectively, it's a net cost business. If
you set up your own processing station, even if it costs you
$20 or $30 a (short) ton, you're saving money from what it
would have cost to send it to landfill," McCarthy said.