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 electronics.
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 costs.
"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," McCarthy argued.
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 price point.
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.