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ATL
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Atlanta
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Effective waste management remains paramount to the smooth operations of any facility. With increasing pressure for environmentally-conscious and sustainable business practices, though, how can facility managers enact new approaches to mitigating their waste production? Loi McLoughlin, Senior VP of Business Development and Sales—U.S., at UBQ Materials, shares some of the drawbacks and advantages of modern strategies along with up-and-coming sustainable practices and innovative technologies that can change the policies—and scope, at large—of facility waste management.

Loi McLoughlin, Senior VP of Business Development and Sales—U.S., at UBQ Materials

Facility Executive: What are some of the most common waste management strategies implemented in buildings today? Do you think these strategies are effective?

Loi McLoughlin: The most common waste management strategies used worldwide include uncontrolled dumping, sanitary landfills, recycling and incineration (thermal treatment). However, each of these solutions has significant drawbacks, requiring us to rethink how we manage residential and commercial waste.

Recycling prevents resource depletion and improves the circularity of materials. However, current conventional recycling methods are inefficient. Most companies, when creating consumer products, mix multiple types of plastics and hard to recycle materials, making it difficult for recyclers to separate individual recycling streams within municipal solid waste.

In addition, the recycling process is complex. It requires shedding, pre-sorting, washing, sorting again, extrusion, as well as intense energy and water. There will also always be scraps left over, and the material’s quality will degrade. Equally, some products will never be recycled, like coffee cups or tetra packs.

It’s, therefore, not surprising that of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021, just two million tons were recycled or composted equivalent to an around 5% recycling rate.

Organic waste, such as food, decomposes within landfills in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), releasing methane into the atmosphere—a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its warming potential over 20 years. Landfills also produce carbon dioxide and other polluting gases, which can further contribute to climate change without proper monitoring and capture. Additionally, despite a federal requirement to line landfills, many still leak leachates contaminating the surrounding water sources and damaging local ecosystems.

Additionally, studies have also shown that populations living in close proximity to landfills experience a multitude of health issues including nausea, asthma attacks, respiratory infections and sleep disorders.

In an effort to mitigate the impact of landfills and remove vast amounts of waste, regulators and waste management companies have turned to incineration. Waste is combusted to generate steam to power turbines for electricity production and heat that can be used for warming residential and commercial properties.

Waste incineration releases harmful gases and toxins into the atmosphere and requires high temperatures. Incinerators are expensive to build, costing between $190 million to $1.2 billion per facility.

The non-sustainable and non-circular nature of these waste management strategies demonstrates why we need new, alternative ways to dispose and use waste.

FE: How can facility managers embrace new approaches to waste diversion? What are some changes they can implement to make improvements?

McLoughlin: As the gatekeeper for a building’s waste management policy and the person responsible for choosing which waste management company to contract, facility managers can play a key role in driving new approaches to waste diversion.

Prior to any tender process to assess potential waste management contractors, facility managers should identify a key list of sustainability priorities they want to achieve through waste management. They can introduce recycling to their facility, encouraging everyone working or living in the building to play their part by separating materials.

Additionally, facility managers can actively seek out companies that work with waste-to-materials manufacturers, enabling circularity, reducing and avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing resource depletion.

Facility managers can also lobby and advocate for better sustainability practices, using their financial capital to require waste management companies to change their practices and aim for greater sustainable impact.

FE: How does waste management technology convert all organic and unrecyclable waste in landfills to a thermoplastic replacement? Can you tell us more about what this process entails?

McLoughlin: UBQ Materials’ patented waste conversion technology breaks the organic waste down to its basic particulate constructs—lignin, cellulose, fibres and sugars—and then reassembles them with the plastic into a matrix. The plastics are melted and bound into a matrix to create a composite material with thermoplastic characteristics.

Waste conversion is unique and unlike either mechanical or chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling requires a highly sorted and cleaned waste system with significant losses throughout the process and, as a result, limits the recycling rate. Chemical recycling is expensive, energy and emissions-intensive, and leaves toxic by-products.

UBQ Materials utilizes all residual municipal solid waste including organics and hard-to-recycle materials. The process has been developed to use lower energy compared to other materials. Its process is run from renewable energy sources with zero combustion, minimal water usage and no residuals or effluents to deliver a homogenous, biobased material that is fully recyclable.

FE: Can you provide a few examples of how thermoplastic replacements can be used in different applications?

McLoughlin: The beauty of creating materials from waste with thermoplastic characteristics is the versatility of the material. As these waste-based bioplastics behave similarly to conventional, fossil-based plastics, they can replace plastics in most applications or products. Companies integrating these materials also do not have to compromise on the durability or performance of their product.

Waste-based materials offer an opportunity for facility management executives to achieve multiple sustainability goals within commercial properties. By contracting suppliers that utilize this material in a wide array of building and construction applications, facility managers can improve the carbon footprint of their properties and meet emerging sustainable requirements for buildings.

This is mission critical as states introduce new policies on carbon reduction. For example, in California, buildings that are larger than 100,000 square feet need to comply with new regulations. These include conducting a lifecycle assessment, providing an Environmental Product Declaration or reusing the building space to show the extent of their carbon footprint and implementing changes to reach net zero targets.

Some key proven applications for this material in the building sector include flooring, decking, cladding, decorative surfaces, piping and tubing and sheets and substrates. Facilities managers have the power to lead this sustainable transformation by asking suppliers for more sustainable options across these applications.

FE: Will waste conversion become a mainstream technology?

McLoughlin: Most of the world is prioritizing net zero carbon emissions as an achievable goal in the next 30 years. However, without significant lifestyle changes, we will not be able to reduce our consumption; we will continue creating waste and contribute to growing greenhouse gas emissions. This is where innovation like waste-to-materials conversion can be of assistance.

Over time, as awareness of the global waste crisis grows and companies come under more pressure to meet increasingly ambitious sustainability goals and regulations, waste-to-materials conversion will grow in use and popularity.

Waste is a ubiquitous resource. Where there are people, there is waste. As a result, any location in the world with an existing waste management system that can provide a consistent waste supply should be able to introduce this technology to both address waste management challenges and provide a renewable material resource for manufacturing.

This versatility and necessity for innovative solutions to address our consumption habits and meet corporate sustainability goals will see waste-to-materials conversion become mainstream. In the same way that recycling was niche when it was introduced, I see this as the next stage of embracing technology to ensure the welfare and continuity of our planet.

Loi has over 20 years of executive leadership experience in the building materials and consumer durables industries. A native of Vietnam, Loi immigrated to the U.S. as an orphan at the age of 10. He attended Boston College on an ROTC scholarship, graduating with a BS electrical engineering, and serving four years in the US Navy. He earned his MBA in business management from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.

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