Tailwinds carry us forward

May 24, 2022

Eco Partners President Elizabeth Roe gave the keynote address at SWANA’s Pacific Chapter Northwest Regional Symposium last month in British Columbia. Under the theme “Winds of Change,” she discussed the inflection points she sees looking back and the “tailwinds” they created that helped lead to today’s modern, integrated solid waste system.

Looking back, what are the tailwinds that carried us to this point in solid waste management?  During the mid‐20th century, our environment issued a wake‐up call. We discovered that the solution to pollution isn’t necessarily dilution. This is especially true when industrial processes and consumer habits create an ever‐growing quantity of outputs.

Here are four key historical inflection points and the “tailwinds” that followed them.

The inflection points

The Cuyahoga River around Cleveland caught on fire – not the riverbank, THE RIVER – several times in the 1950s and 1960s. This helped build momentum that led to a sit-in / teach‐in for the planet on the first Earth Day in the U.S. in 1970.

In the years that followed, both the U.S. and Canada began to address water pollution, not just flooding, when it came to our streams, lakes and rivers, as well as air pollution. This was done with new and tighter regulations that had a dramatic, positive impact on water and air quality in the intervening decades.

Recycling was in its infancy but gained support from beverage container deposit bills in some states and provinces. Although they were originally designed to address litter prevention, not resource recovery.

Then, there was the ship that built a thousand recycling programs. In 1989, the Mobro 4000, loaded with garbage from the New York City area and seeking a landfill to call home, became a symbol of the problems wrought by our consumption. As news channels followed the barge up and down the eastern seaboard, residents – many for the first time – thought about where their trash went when it went “away.”

At the time, the US recycling rate was maybe 16% (and much of that largely industrial scrap) and in some regions of Canada only 21% of residents had access to recycling services. There were early adopters who were leading the way, but much work remained to be done to capture the resources in our discards.

And then, in 1990 to kick off the last decade of the century, Earth Day went global with a 20th anniversary celebration and call to new and renewed action. In April 1990, people in 141 countries celebrated Earth Day. Not an annual event in the years between 1970 and 1990, Earth Day 1990 reinvigorated a grassroots environmental movement and started to become the annual event we know today.

So those are some of the inflection points that created the tailwinds.

The resulting tailwinds

Here are the tailwinds that are carrying us forward.

Creating less litter.

Keep America Beautiful completed its third large‐scale litter study in 2020. The two previous studies were completed in 1969 and 2009. The overall count of litter has dropped dramatically – by 61% during the period from 1969 to 2009 and by another half in the period since then.

In 2020, KAB still found plenty of litter – nearly 50 billion pieces of litter, which was still 152 pieces for every person in the US. For the first time, the study found, not surprisingly, a lot of disposable masks and gloves. A smaller scale study during the pandemic in Canada made a related finding – single‐use food and beverage packaging spiked. The pandemic, as we are all well aware, created its own unique trash signature.

About those masks and gloves: KAB’s study estimated 207.1 million PPE items were littered along United States roadways and waterways. Because PPE is unique to the litter stream, scientists can use it to determine how, and to what degree, litter moves from roadways and populated areas to our waterways. This understanding can help us address the litter problem more effectively in the future.

Engineered Landfills

The garbage barge created waves because supply and demand crashed into each other in the 1980s in the U.S. Older, smaller, unlined landfills closed at a rapid rate, replaced by larger regional facilities with more sophisticated systems and higher tipping fees.

But don’t call these new facilities “dumps”! Modern, engineered sanitary landfills manage more material better than the dumpsites of old. In the U.S. and Canada, the 1980s and 1990s brought new regulations which have continued to evolve. Liner systems, leachate collection, gas wells, beneficial reuse plans, post‐closure care and planning…you name it, everything about landfills is better today than it was 50 years ago.

Expanded and improved recycling

We have also massively expanded recycling – collecting more types and quantities of recyclable commodities. The first generation MRFs, which relied mostly on human eyes and hands, have been gradually upgraded to add mechanical and now robotic and machine learning systems that increase efficiency and capture rates. We have seen how much safer automated collection made curbside pickup; we can hope that increased automation at MRFs will lead to similar reductions in worker injuries and deaths.

At present, Canada and the US nationwide recycle one‐quarter to one‐third of their discards. In both countries, recycling varies greatly from place to place, with standouts like British Columbia in Canada and Maine in the US close to 75% recycling.

Meanwhile, the debate continues on both sides of the border about how to pay – and who should pay – for these services. Extended Producer Responsibility is already more robust in Canada, but emerging by category and state‐by‐state in the U.S. In 2020, the five Canadian SWANA chapters took an official stance on federal expansion and harmonization of EPR programs (particularly with regards to plastics, which was the subject of the letter). South of the border, SWANA, thru the SMM Tech Division and the Core Advocacy Group, is activity involved in discussions around federal beverage container deposit legislation that would create a national “bottle bill.”

Composting grows up

Composting has grown up. In the past, composting was largely for the backyard gardener or farmer.

But bans on lawn and garden organics in landfills, like Nova Scotia’s ban in 1990, started a trend. Today, there are hundreds of full‐scale composting facilities across Canada and the US. These are complex facilities that create nutrient‐rich soil amendments and mulch, for which there are robust markets.

Climate Activism

Climate activism, embodied in many ways by the young Greta Thunberg participating in one of 2021’s Earth Day Live events, has ignited discussions in city and town halls, in the chambers of Parliament and Congress, and at the tables in corporate boardrooms.

You might still get into an argument about who or what caused climate change with an uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, but almost no one is denying that it is occurring and that we are and will be dealing with its consequences. Last year’s wildfires across Canada and the western US illustrate how urgently action is needed. In the solid waste industry, we are part of the solution because reducing, reusing and recycling lower emissions of greenhouse gases, conserve natural resources, create a circular use for embodied carbon, and generally require less energy when compared to virgin materials.

Corporate sustainability plans and local resiliency plans are here to stay.

But we aren’t done – not by a long shot. We have miles to go and we face some stiff headwinds.

Be sure to catch the future blog post in June to read about the headwinds Elizabeth sees the solid waste industry facing.

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