The world’s population is now 7.6 billion. This number is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050. That’s an additional 150,000 people projected to be living on the planet every day for the next 32 years.

Of the population-growth related issues we are expected to face in the coming years, waste is one of the most challenging. Waste programs and facility decisions made today will be felt throughout the next generations, which begs the question: What are the most sustainable waste management and market solutions we should be focused on now to meet these needs?

China’s recent National Sword recycling import ban, backed by a 0.5 percent contamination threshold, has raised serious questions of the U.S.’ ability to conform to the world’s shifting recycling demands. Meeting the 0.5 percent contamination threshold is nearly impossible, and as a result, we are seeing specialty facility closures in our communities and more materials ending up in landfills. To make matters more complicated, the most advanced municipal recycling facilities in the U.S. are approaching their mid-30s this year.

While these realities are daunting, perhaps the global recycling market disruption is what the U.S. needed to realize its export model for commodities, primarily paper and plastic, is not sustainable. If the U.S. is going to take the lead in building a more circular economy focused on zero waste, the recipe for sustainability must include visionary leadership to take us beyond what is visible and into what is imaginable.

Perhaps the global recycling market disruption is what the U.S. needed to realize its export model … is not sustainable

The city of Monterey, California, is one example of a community embracing this vision. The waste authority of this seaside region is on a path toward sustainability and now has a mixed-waste processing facility coming online this month with five optical sorters and robotics, plus advanced anaerobic digestion for food waste energy capture and eventual composting. This facility will limit the use of the town’s expansive landfill area and will provide energy and resources for production in return.

Kent County, Michigan, has a similar vision for recycling. Its Sustainable Business Park is now taking shape and altering western Michigan’s disposal mindset. Shifting to a circular economic model, the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) is aiming to reduce waste 20 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030. To do this, they are using 200 acres adjacent to the current landfill as a model of truly circular thinking.

The reduction of outlets due to China’s National Sword ban and contamination import stringency means that there is a glut of materials on the market, which has driven commodity values down drastically. Using circular models, however, we can work with manufacturers to find uses for raw materials locally. We must develop industries to take recyclables and convert them into raw materials, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) products and even consumer products. Pilot technologies and scalable processes are ready (see NOVI Science Park in Aalborg, Denmark, for a good example of innovation pairing with industry). It’s possible.

For communities throughout the country, no matter the distance from markets and MRFs, one sure response to China’s National Sword is keeping markets local with circular models. With more than 40 percent of most jurisdictions’ waste streams being biodegradable, organics must be a focus. The city of Phoenix has taken the challenge of diverting organics to the next level through its newly developed circular innovation campus capable of processing 25,000 tons of organics annually on five acres, with modular plans to build out the campus even more for greater capacity.

The world we want is possible and waiting for us. We just have to be willing to take the lead of communities like Monterey, Kent County, Aalborg and Phoenix to get there.