If 2012 has taught us anything, it’s something the ancient Greek statesman Pericles said some 2,500 years ago: “If you do not find politics, politics will find you.”
The waste and recycling business is by nature particularly sensitive to politics and public opinion. The only people more sensitive to public opinion are politicians. As we look back over the waste industry in 2012, we are reminded of this point more than ever. It was an incredibly busy year that saw political forces shaping our industry in unexpected ways. In particular, four things jumped out:
Flow Control. This summer, waste industry observers watched a messy process play out in Dallas. What began as a city ordinance to restrict commercial waste intake to a specific landfill escalated into a pitched courtroom battle and ended in a judicial verdict striking down the initial ordinance. It continues in the form of an appeal by the municipality. Everything about this case had its roots in the particular politics of waste and recycling. In 2013, despite the current appeal by the City of Dallas, we expect flow control issues to continue to gain prominence in legislatures and courtrooms across the country.
Safety. We dedicated a column to this issue earlier in the year, but it bears repeating: truck traffic and its attendant problems are important to the perception of the waste industry. Midway through 2012, it seemed industry accidents were on pace for an all-time high. Perhaps no one has done more to combat this perception than David Biderman, a column neighbor here in Waste Age (pg. 18) and counsel to the National Solid Wastes Management Association. David and NSWMA are the authority for statistics about workplace safety for employees and drivers. Citing reliable statistics is critical in maintaining a good public image.
In addition to the good work David and NSWMA do on the macro level, companies must do a good job locally. In the case of safety, keeping accident and violation incidents low creates a better business climate for new facilities in the waste industry. In addition to having the latest facts, more firms should follow the Middle Point Landfill example. Republic Services Inc. recently made the switch to a longer but safer route for trucks entering and exiting their Murfreesboro, Tenn., landfill. The more direct route was narrow and winding, and locals stopped traveling the road due to the trucks.
The extra mileage Republic’s trucks will cover is certainly expensive, but not nearly as expensive as how much an accident could cost. Given the attention to driver safety in 2012, as 2013 rings in, we predict a number of other haulers will reconsider their truck routes for landfills and transfer stations.
Politics and Hauling Contracts. As 2012 showed us, politics in the waste industry isn’t just saved for traditional NIMBY fights. Politics can enter business decisions surrounding hauling contracts, mandatory recycling programs and disposal contracts. Community opposition can play a major role in determining which provider receives a municipal contract, or whether a town adopts a recycling program and how it’s implemented. We’ve seen both sides of the coin this year in Broward County, Fla., Fresno, Calif., and San Francisco.
In 2013, as contract terms get shorter and municipalities begin to shop around for increased savings, expect more contract fights over existing waste streams.
Infrastructure Still Public Enemy Number One: Despite the rise of local politics within contract negotiations, high-profile failures of big projects remind us facilities are still the number one most-opposed.
Chicago, Nashville, Raleigh, N.C., and other communities all lost opportunities to permit new facilities, and stand as testaments to the dangers of the permitting process. In each case, the rejection came after a public outcry forced governing bodies to issue denials. As the permitting process becomes more political, we foresee even more of these cases grabbing headlines in 2013 and beyond.
A Note of Thanks: We’d like to thank our readers for a great year of helping us compile NIMBY Notes. Please continue to send your feedback, and keep the ideas and suggestions for this column coming. Above all, have a wonderful holiday season, and remember to keep an eye out for the political forces shaping our industry — because they’re keeping an eye out for you!