Fortune Telling

I'VE NEVER CLAIMED TO BE A FUTURIST. If I were one, I'd play — and win — the lottery more frequently. Yet the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) recently tapped me to speak on a panel about waste industry trends and future challenges.

“You shouldn't underestimate the media's influence on the solid waste and recycling industry,” the association said. So with that billing, and in honor of the lunar new year, I figured I'd go ahead and crack open the fortune cookie.

When asked where the industry is going, I said, “to the landfill.” And why not? Forty-two states have 10-plus years of disposal space left. So capacity is fine, even if 88 percent of the landfills that were operating in 1984 have closed, leaving about 1,850 nationwide today. Landfilling is the disposal option of choice, and it will be for years to come.

The federal government, in fact, has solidified landfills' dominant disposal position, particularly with two policies: one that is encouraging bioreactor technology research and the other that is rewarding owners who develop landfill gas-to-energy and waste-to-energy projects with tax credits. The resulting bioreactor data could eventually help 80 percent of today's landfills use their airspace more wisely and move solid waste management beyond the dry tomb. And the tax credits should boost renewable energy project development.

Legislation is motivating the processing and recycling sector of the industry, too. Communities that have been recycling for some time are finding it difficult to raise their diversion rates. So many are imposing disposal bans on specific waste streams — e-waste, office paper or yard waste — or creating recycling incentives. In the meantime, new equipment is making single-stream recyclables collection more convenient, cost-effective and contaminant-free. Thus, communities might convert to that collection method.

Generally speaking, however, garbage collection is becoming more difficult, not easier. Cost increases in fuel, tires, trucks and insurance are forcing haulers to be more efficient. Haulers also are facing employee pressures. Metro area workers such as those in Atlanta and Los Angeles have discussed forming unions, for instance. New federal rules regarding training requirements, seat belts and idling limits add to the difficulties in finding and retaining drivers.

While the waste industry faces certain challenges, let's not lose sight of the big picture. We continue to generate more and more garbage. The global economy has created such items as disposable $25 DVD players. This means your jobs are indispensible; no matter how much we recycle, there's no talk of throwing away the waste management profession anytime soon.

I'm not sure I'm ready to take over for Miss Cleo yet. Nevertheless, after looking at some figures and analyzing the trends, I feel more than confident predicting that your businesses will live long and prosper.

The author is the editor of Waste Age