I used to describe the waste industry as deceptively simple. Today, I say that changes that have occurred in the past decade are as deceptively simple as our industry once appeared to be.
Although the rampant consolidations in the private sector have reshaped the hauler's world, the profound changes in waste collection, processing, transportation and disposal actually will have the most lasting effects.
When I was asked in 1984 where the industry was going, the answer was simple: to the landfill. Now, I see our dependence on landfills slowly declining. Four out of five landfills that were operating in 1984 have closed, and the percentage of waste headed to landfills has decreased from 57.2 percent to 55.3 percent.
A continuing push toward recycling and other disposal options also means tipping fees and capacity will not be an issue. In the next few years, though, look for steadily increasing amounts of waste reaching the curb. Recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) numbers show waste generation tonnages are up and per capita generation is down from 4.62 pounds per person per day to 4.5 pounds per person per day. Despite the best efforts of governments and private organizations around the country to reduce what we throw away, waste is built into the dynamics of our economy. As evidence of this, in 1960, long before any recycling or diversion movement, per capita waste generation was 2.7 pounds, a whopping 40 percent less than it is today.
Impressive gains have been made in processing and diversion, with the amount of waste being recycled or composted having increased to 30 percent. But I don't see the diversion rate growing significantly more, unless the country successfully manages specific waste streams such as electronics, yard waste, construction and demolition waste, and food waste.
Nevertheless, waste collection is changing because of increasingly sophisticated haulers and a new emphasis on regulations. Today's haulers are survivors with knowledge and experience. They face new regulatory pressures, such as lower engine emissions, and increased insurance costs — both of which will increase operating costs.
Possibly the most impressive changes have come from waste transportation. Using a network of more than 3,000 transfer stations, 47 states exported 31 million tons of waste, or 8 percent of all waste generated last year. While the percentage isn't impressive, the trend is: Imports and exports have tripled since 1989, and I see more waste being hauled down the road.
You see, nothing in our industry was ever simple — and it's safe to predict it never will be.
The author is the editorial director of Waste Age and the Nostradamus of garbage.