Digitalization is a useful tool for recyclers with a wide variety of benefits. But while it’s had a presence in the industry for years, not everyone has adopted it. “There are facilities that still write paper receipts or have certain payment systems that require a lot of man-work,” says Virginia Buechel, marketing director at Rockaway Recycling.

Though making the jump to digital can be costly and appear intimidating, doing so can be beneficial not only for the individual company, but also for the industry.

What Digitalization Offers

Gordon Driscoll, co-founder and CEO of GreenSpark, launched the software company in March 2021 to help modernize the industry’s important processes. “I thought software could help improve recycling rates,” he says. “We’re enabling folks with deep ties to their communities to continue growing those relationships by giving them better technology; that was really important to me.”

Bond Danku, Trading Representative & Commercial Buyer at AIM Recycling, notes that going digital opens new platforms for recyclers to share information about their work. “The best way to reach people is digitally,” he says. “I think the recycling industry could benefit from digital marketing. You can share how your work benefits the environment like reducing carbon emissions and adding more recycled content.”

These efforts attract potential employees and encourage the public to bring their recyclables to facilities. “I think it will influence our generation and the next generation,” he says. “Recycling will be more visible if it’s on social media. The more it gets out there, the more circulation it gets, and the more it can help educate people about recycling.”

The First Steps

For those unsure how to get started, Buechel recommends companies look no further than their websites. While creating and maintaining a site was difficult 10 or 20 years ago, the tools available today make the process much easier. “I’ve seen many recycling facilities with static, one-page websites,” Buechel says. “But you can create a professional-looking website within a few hours on your own.”

She adds that companies ought to spend energy on their websites before turning their attention to other digital platforms. “I think websites are a very powerful thing that many companies in the recycling industry aren’t utilizing yet,” she says. “You don’t have as much control of what goes through your audience on social media platforms, but you always control what’s on your website.”

A Tool for Education

Digitalization can help provide transparency about the industry. Rockaway Recycling posts commodity prices through its iScrap App, and uses YouTube videos, vlogs [short, personal video blogs], and emails to share additional information with customers. “Our goal is to create more transparency through our videos, our website, and our price lists,” Buechel says. “We want our customers to come to our doors and know we can give them the highest price possible.”

Digital content can help give the public an in-depth look at the industry and its role in the economy and environment. “It’s hard for some people to conceptualize that the cans they recycle get crushed, sent to a smelter, melted, and then are produced into new cans,” Danku says. Educating people about supply chains, recycling, and sustainability efforts are important; it’s a matter of using an effective medium to tell the story. He recommends developing digital programs and educational videos for the public to learn about recycling operations.

Recycling software can help the public understand the industry by offering more transparency. “A modern, digital record of your operations can only improve your public image, so people know how your business is interacting with your community and how you’re being environmentally friendly,” Driscoll says.

He anticipates software playing a role in sustainability efforts for the industry and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs. “We’ve seen businesses of all sizes talk about compliance and ESG and a focus on emissions,” he says. “If we can leverage our platform for ESG the same way we’re doing now for transactions, I think that would benefit not only our customers but also the industry.”

A better sense of the industry and its work may lead to more positive policies and investments on the local, state, and federal levels. “I think it does have a huge economic value,” says David Babikian, GreenSpark’s head of operations and business development. “There’s also geopolitical value of localizing the supply chain to the degree possible.”

Saving Time for Big-Picture Plans

Going digital is a major time saver. “I don’t think I’ve met folks busier than recyclers,” Driscoll says. “If we can save them time and money, then they can do less data-entry tasks and spend more time thinking about how to grow their business.”

Recyclers can use recycling software to store facility information and data in one place without shuffling papers and causing headaches. “We focus on speed at the scales to make sure folks are moving through the yard quickly,” Driscoll says. “And the ability to leverage cloud-based technology on phones, tablets, and laptops to remove central choke points of the yard like a pay station or kiosk and bring our technology closer to the metal to improve the processes.”

These efforts can help improve facility communications, giving time back to employers and employees. “It may be the status of workflows captured in software or getting notifications pushed to you,” Driscoll explains. “This way you don’t need to hold 25 things in your head, we’re looking to augment and enrich the personal relationships in this industry.”

Greenspark also delivers insights on the data back to its users. “We help recyclers use and visualize the data with analytics, helping them aggregate the information and think through how they can use it to improve their day-to-day operations,” he says.

What Comes Next? Crypto, Robotics, and More

Buechel wonders whether cryptocurrency will be a future avenue of digitalization for recyclers. “Recycling requires a lot of payments back and forth,” she says. “There’s a lot of different payments currently being done now, and it could look totally different in one year or in five.” She adds Rockway Recycling has been asked by some customers about paying in bitcoin, but the company does not have a system for that type of payment.

Danku anticipates the industry adopting more robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve various processes like sortation. “The new downstream equipment that is coming out into the market is increasing the amount of recovered ferrous and nonferrous recycled materials out of the waste,” he says. “As recycling improves, sustainability improves.”

Recyclers who have already adapted to digitalization may find it easier to pick up new technologies. “We’re seeing different technologies come into the recycling space,” Babikian says. “Whether it’s sort optimization, robotics, or recycling software like Greenspark, I think recycling leaders of the future are going to be those major technology adopters. They’re not going to wait around; they’re going to get very comfortable with these new technologies and see the profits and benefits so they can master them efficiently.”

For those in the industry who may still feel hesitant about digitalization, Driscoll and Babikian are willing to take questions. “We’ll always be ready to talk about how software can help your business,” Babikian says.

Photo by Conny Schneider on Unsplash

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.