Disruptive changes to the natural environment resulting from the climate crisis are causing fundamental shifts in behavior and raising greater concerns about the future health of the planet and global population. Whether it’s sea-level rise, droughts, wildfires, or increasing frequency of extreme weather events, every part of the world has been impacted and forced to confront the implications to current and future generations. The importance of clean air, water and food are obvious, but what sets regions apart are the investments they make to secure these needs now and in the future.
China ban on waste imports. In 2018, China banned the importation of waste materials for recycling or disposal.161 The economic impacts can now be seen, as governments in the U.S. begin to shut down recycling programs because they are no longer cost effective. European nations will have similar struggles as they also exported a substantial amount of trash. This challenge comes at a time in which developed-country consumers are the most educated they have ever been about waste management issues.
Increase in lithium ion battery production and recycling. Due to the increasing demand for electric vehicles and energy storage for renewable energy in grid infrastructure, lithium ion batteries are being produced in larger quantities and sizes. As of 2019, 90% of global grid battery storage was lithium ion batteries, causing a higher demand for the precious and base metals used in their production.163 This surge in production is also causing a growing demand from the public and regulatory bodies for recycling these materials at end of life.
Food waste awareness. Consumers are increasingly aware of the negative climate effects of food products in landfills, where they decompose without oxygen and create methane gas, significantly contributing to climate change. Driven by landfill emissions and other factors, food-waste composting initiatives have increased globally.162 Typically, these initiatives are organized at the regional level, but in some cases are national. Changes in soil due to industrial farming and rainfall due to climate change are also creating a growing demand for compost as a soil amendment.
Landfill constraints. Currently, designated landfill space is limited in many developed nations, and with added pressures caused by limits on exporting waste to China, space is running out more rapidly than previously projected.
While consumer awareness and positive sentiment around recycling has grown, the economic driver of profiting from selling recycled materials moves the market more forcefully than consumer preference. Additionally, recycling of precious and base metals will continue to increase as regulating end-of-life electronics – specifically batteries – becomes more stringent. In-process scrap elimination and recycling have nearly been maximized in industrial settings, though producers will continue to look for ways to repurpose waste created during the manufacturing process, making the upstream ever more efficient.160
Industry can expect a similar optimization within the food supply chain as consumers become more aware of such waste and as producers look to improve efficiencies. The relative lack of economic viability of more traditional recycling programs (paper, plastic and glass) will cause stagnation in these programs, perhaps driving consumers to reduce consumption or demand stronger government regulations as the long-term consequences of China’s ban on imported scrap become clear. Efforts to decrease landfill rates, particularly with limitations on compostable (methane-producing) materials, will continue.While landfill mining – the practice of digging through old landfills for recyclable materials (typically, metals) – remains a possibility for the future, it is unlikely to take off in the short term. Corporations across the globe will feel pressure from governments and consumers to limit their creation of waste and dispose of it responsibly when it cannot be eliminated.