By Celeste C.B. Bennett

Nabil Nasr, Ph.D., doesn’t like to use the word “waste.” What you consider waste Nasr calls “resource in another form.”

Nasr is an expert on the circular economy, a system that by design intentionally reduces and eventually stops waste byproducts. Creating a circular economy means creating products that are used in daily life, and then – at the end of their use – broken down into materials and repurposed in other items instead of being thrown away.

“The idea of a circular economy has been my focus for over 30 years,” Nasr says. “When I started, it was an area that a lot of people didn’t know much about, what to call it, and it evolved over the years.”

A circular economy views overflowing landfills as a modern, created problem, a byproduct of a system designed to create trash. In past decades, developed nations viewed trash byproducts as a major issue instead of focusing on the system that created the waste in the first place.

Plastic: A growing problem

The modern-day creation and consumption of single-use plastic products, in particular, has multiplied the amount of trash society produces. Plastic now constitutes 12% of the United States’ municipal waste.

And the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest culprits of plastic waste. The nation must tackle its waste problems if it wants to build a better environment for future generations.

In response to the growing concern around trash and waste management in the U.S., multiple industries and organizations are creating innovative solutions to combat the issue.

A company called Rubicon uses artificial-intelligence-enabled cloud software and other technological products to help local governments more effectively run their municipal waste management and recycling operations.

RUBICONSmartCity is the cloud suite used by trash and recycling fleets. Its software creates GPS routes and safe driving metrics for drivers, handles truck dispatching, and tracks pickup types, whether yard waste, recycling, municipal trash, bulk waste, appliances, or other kinds of items, says Conor Riffle, Rubicon’s senior vice president of smart cities.

RUBICONSmartCity is used by governments in more than 100 North American cities, including Houston, Denver, Miami, and Washington, says Riffle. Using the platform enables cities to collect data for all their waste systems, including where various materials went after being picked up from curbs.

“One of the first problems we realized we could solve on our initial platform is what’s called ‘track end destination,’” Riffle says. “We can track the life cycle of a load and prove that recycling actually ends up at the material recovery facility (instead of in landfills), which has been a problem for a lot of cities.”

Education is key

Local governments can also track where recycling is or is not happening and target education to specific communities. Recycling education is critical for helping communities learn to sort their trash properly so that materials can avoid landfills and be accepted by processing facilities.

Sorting is especially crucial for plastic, as multiple forms of plastic cannot be recycled at all or cannot be recycled once they’ve been contaminated. Once contaminated by food, household cleaners, or other environmental toxins, many materials must be sent to landfills.

Another U.S. organization called the REMADE Institute, of which Nasr is the CEO, helps create solutions for material contamination.

Nasr, also the associate provost for academic affairs and director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology, points to a REMADE program called MRFnxtgen, a material recycling facility that receives items that would have gone to landfills. It sorts and recovers materials in contaminated items and purifies them enough to be recycled.

The recycling recovery rate in the U.S. for plastic, according to Nasr, is under 10%. And in many cases, the processes used today to recycle materials generate a lot of waste. So recycling isn’t the go-to environmentally friendly waste disposal option many Americans believe it to be.

To reduce waste products and decrease the energy consumption required for material processing, there needs to be system changes across the board. “We don’t want to be doing incineration, and we don’t want to be landfilling material,” Nasr says. “We want to effectively come up with more solid processes that are good for the environment and good for the economy.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.

Further reading

Waste plastic repurposed for use in asphalt mix

EU nations reach major breakthrough to stop shipping plastic waste to poor countries

Why some countries are shipping back plastic waste

Empowering local communities to solve global plastic waste

What is a circular economy?

Learn about the International Resource Panel

A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled