Headwinds as we face the future

June 28, 2022

Eco Partners President Elizabeth Roe gave the keynote address at SWANA’s Pacific Chapter Northwest Regional Symposium this past April in British Columbia. Under the theme “Winds of Change,” she discussed both the tailwinds and headwinds impacting solid waste management today. In our May 24, 2022 blog post we shared Elizabeth’s view of the “tailwinds” that helped lead to today’s modern, integrated solid waste system. This month, we share her thoughts on the “headwinds” we face going forward.

The inflection points of the past for solid waste management have given us “tailwinds” that carried us forward, such as reduced litter, engineered sanitary landfills, expanded and improved recycling and composting, and climate activism. But the work is not done – not by a long shot. We have miles to go and we do face some stiff headwinds. Here are the key ones I see.

Not Our Product But Our Problem

The “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are having their own Cuyahoga River fire or Mobro moment as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.”

The solid waste management industry is the “lucky” recipient of the castoffs that contain PFAS compounds. We didn’t create these products. Our facilities didn’t purchase or use many of these products. But we are at the end of the pipeline, along with wastewater treatment plants, and we have to deal with them.

As an industry, we need to follow the science on these forever chemicals carefully, but we need to be even more diligent about tracking the regulations that may be headed our way. We know that our facilities may be one of the near‐ or even long‐term best options for sequestration of PFAS compounds, but we need to continue to participate in the research and advocate for the positive role we can play.

A New Focus on Methane at Landfills

We all know that landfills generate methane as waste decomposes under anaerobic conditions. We capture much of this gas and use it to fuel our facilities, and our fleets, and even provide base load natural gas to the pipeline. However, because methane is perhaps as much as 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, we are seeing landfills targeted in regulations.

Some of these regulations limit landfill inputs, potentially affecting the output of existing gas systems, as well as revenue streams. Some are looking at fugitive emissions – the methane we haven’t been capturing. Earlier this month, David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of SWANA, sent a discussion paper from SWANA and on behalf of the five Canadian chapters to the Waste Reduction and Management Division of Environment and Climate Change Canada, about the potential scope, logistical issues, and costs surrounding the proposed objectives for methane emissions under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). One of the concerns addressed – and this is a concern across both Canada and the US – is the potentially negative impact of one‐size‐fits‐all regulations, which don’t allow for local needs, site particulars, or budgets.

And while drones and hand‐held monitoring are making our jobs easier at our facilities, we also need to be aware that activists and citizen scientists have access to these same technologies, so we will most likely face more scrutiny, not less, in the years to come.

Food Scraps & Wasted Food

You can’t talk about methane without thinking about food. Food scraps and wasted food are landfilled at a higher rate than other organics, such as yard debris and paper and cardboard products. Plus, we are wasting edible food even as we continue to see a hunger crisis in our nations and abroad.

More and more jurisdictions are wholly or partially banning food from landfill disposal. In some cases, these bans are being put into place ahead of the facilities that will be needed to handle the volume of material diverted, creating significant challenges and pinch points in the system.

Also, dealing with wasted food, in particular, requires us to leave our lanes – working with farmers, food manufacturers and distributors, and food rescue organizations, many of which have been somewhat itinerant and are not prepared for the types of contracts and reporting required under some of the new regs.

But details aside, food is “ripe” for its Three Rs moment – it’s time to reduce food waste, capture and redirect more edible food, and recycle more through composting or anaerobic digestion.

Marine and Microplastics

The “garbage patches” in the world’s ocean gyres have captured all the cool headlines – and led to plenty of seafaring expeditions to show celebrities and corporate honchos the problem. But microplastics (and now “nanoplastics”), the ever‐tinier pieces that result as plastic degrades, are everywhere. We’ve known for years that microplastic is in our food chain. But now, we know that microplastics have joined PFAS in our bloodstreams. We don’t yet know the long‐term effects of microplastics on the environment, the food chain, wildlife, or humans. We also don’t have a way to remove it.

Using less and capturing more for recycling in a circular system are two possible strategies to create less new microplastic. The SWANA Chapters’ 2020 letter to Environment and Climate Change Canada, as well as SWANA’s 2020 “State of Plastic Waste Management in the United States and Canada” report, both go into more detail about the steps we need to take to decrease the use of certain, especially single-use, plastics, and increase capture of plastics.

Plus, we now have some tailwinds blowing from brand owners who seem to be more serious about both recycled content in new packages and capturing more end‐of‐use packaging for recycling.

Mountains of Textile Waste

Used clothing is part of a vibrant global marketplace, as outlined in Adam Minter’s book Secondhand. However, we are now “consuming” clothing at such a rate – and so much of it is of such poor quality – that these markets are overwhelmed with the volume and underwhelmed with the quality, meaning that as much as half must be disposed in the receiving countries.

Between 2000 and 2017, textile waste increased 54% per person despite a 5% overall decrease in waste generation in the US, according to a recent white paper by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS).

We are beginning to see textiles targeted for reduction. In the US, Massachusetts recently banned textiles from landfill disposal. But as with all bans, the question becomes, “So now what….?” Do we yet have the facilities or processes in place to recycle the type and quantity of material that is not suitable for reuse through existing systems? That remains to be seen and will be a question that we must help answer in the coming years.

Fighting for the Right to Repair

Repair is an essential component of the first two Rs – reduce and reuse. However, many manufacturers would like to keep you from repairing the products you purchased. Planned obsolescence as a business strategy doesn’t work too well when your past buyers are extending the life of your products “unnaturally” – which is to say by repairing them.

However, from farmers who want to repair their tractors to do-it-yourselfers who  want to fix a broken cell phone screen, there is a movement for a “right to repair.” Many argue that without this ability, we are merely “renting” items that we thought were rightly ours.

Continue to watch for legislation and evolving corporate stances. Those corporate sustainability plans may eventually create a tipping point in favor of the right to repair.

Finding the Right Staff & Keeping Them Safe

We need people! Many in the solid waste industry have open jobs and difficulty filling them. We are competing with trucking and the construction industry for drivers, we are competing with Amazon and distribution facilities for laborers, and we are competing with all sorts of businesses for white-collar workers. And sometimes, the perception of our field – the “ugh, trash” response – and our pay structures, put us at a competitive disadvantage.

But we in this room know a secret – once you get into the solid waste business, you usually don’t leave. Jim Fish, WM CEO, said at WASTECON a few years ago, that if you keep a driver for 6 months, you may well have that driver for life. These are good jobs. They are important jobs. They are meaningful jobs. And many of them keep you close to home and family, able to attend the play or coach the little league team. We all need to be better salespeople for the advantages of our industry – and this is one of the goals of SWANA’s new strategic plan, “Forward Together.”

Another goal in the plan is to get solid waste workers OUT of the top ten for workplace fatalities. We have seen improvement, especially, as I mentioned earlier, in collection, but where machines and people interact in MRFs and WTE facilities, we sadly still lose too many coworkers.

Environmental Justice & Meaningful Participation

Where we site and how we run our facilities will – and should – take into account environmental justice. Many of our facilities are impactful, although not always in the ways our neighbors think. But we can be good neighbors by being as transparent as possible and running all of our facilities using best practices, the kind of practices that you learn at every SWANA conference and webinar.

Successful NIMBYs have traditionally been white and middle to the upper-middle class – in other words, folks who have the time and money to weigh in, be heard, hire attorneys, and fight back. The path of less resistance has often led to poorer communities and communities of color. We had no ill intent, but years of political battles and zoning laws led us where we are.

The meaningful opportunities for everyone affected by our facilities to participate and be included to the greatest extent possible in decision‐making matter. That has always been a best practice, but it is often more difficult to achieve than simply holding an open‐door meeting. Communities will be demanding more participation and higher levels of government will most likely be requiring it of us. I would wager that every single person in this room wants to do right by their entire community. We have found ways to communicate better with more people in the past and we will continue to find new and innovative and meaningful ways to do so.

We can do this!

So, yes, we are facing these and other headwinds, but remember the tailwinds? Remember what we’ve already done? We did that – WE CAN DO THIS!

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