Industry Issue Update: Fizzle or Sizzle

WasteExpo is a busy time for the waste industry - a time when waste haulers, recyclers, manufacturers, municipal officials and many others convene to discuss the news of the day. Sometimes the hot topic is the latest big-ticket merger or acquisition; sometimes it's the fluctuating marketplace; and sometimes a company's new CEO makes headlines.

Every year Waste Age's WasteExpo issue covers the industry's most pressing and timely issues. Once these stories are reported, however, they receive sporadic attention as new issues compel the industry forward. Now, as the industry prepares for WasteExpo 1999 in Dallas, Waste Age revisits four big stories from past WasteExpo issues to find out what happened next.

RFID Five years ago, the last time WasteExpo was held in Dallas, the world of waste was significantly different than it is today. In 1994, consolidations were less frequent, recycling markets ran with the bulls and more small businesses thrived. High expectations coincided with a boom in research and new technologies, including radio frequency identification programs (RFID).

A 1994 report dubbed RFID technology as the "missing link" to comprehensive automated refuse collection and recycling [see Waste Age, April 1994, page 143]. At that time, hundreds of communities had reported reductions of up to 40 percent in disposal tonnage through variable rate and pay-by-weight programs, which RFID made more efficient by enabling load weight and customer information to be collected and stored on an on-board computer.

With an RFID system, each customer has one or more roll-out carts installed with a transponder, or "tag," containing identification information. When the cart is dumped, customer information and load weight is sent from the tag to the on-board computer. Using this data, haulers can review route service and productivity continuously, and note when a cart has been lost or damaged, or has not been used.

Despite general acceptance of the technology conceptually, RFID was met with resistance because of potential usage complications and significant implementation costs. A hauler with many large routes, for example, would have to outfit numerous carts with transponders.

Since 1994, RFID usage has increased in tandem with the industry's shifts toward automation. But, some doubts remain. Several cart manufacturers are considering RFID technology but are not using it because of its perceived imperfections.

Some manufacturers have indicated that the industry, especially municipalities, would like to have RFID because it would allow for a strict accounting of the number of units or stops on their routes. In addition, RFID can lead to weight-based collection systems, which are the most equitable.

Right now, though, the systems are not perfected to the extent they should be, and the industry is leery of using them.

Also, the federal government must approve electronic systems that weigh refuse before people can be billed, adding another wrinkle to implementation.

More than 1.5 million transponders have been mounted on bins and trucks throughout the world, according to LAN-Link Corp., St. Louis, one of several manufacturers specializing in RFID technology.

Several communities have been successful with RFID programs. In Hampton, Va., for example, an RFID program allows city administrators to track recycling program participation by recording information about recycling cart use. Residents who recycle at least four times in a typical eight- or nine-week billing cycle are charged far less than those who don't. Shortly after the program launched in mid-1997, the city reported a 70 percent recycling participation rate.

The WTE Uphill Climb The waste disposal method that has received the most negative press in recent years is possibly waste-to-energy (WTE). In the 1990s WTE has faced opposition because of environmental health and air pollution concerns, especially emissions of heavy metals, acid gases and dioxin.

In 1995, with WasteExpo in nearby Chicago, Waste Age reported the controversy surrounding a large WTE plant opened in Robbins, Ill., by Foster Wheeler Power Systems, Clinton, N.J., [see Waste Age April 1995, page 113]. The facility was designed to process about 1,600 tons per day (tpd) from the Chicago metropolitan area. Once completed, the Robbins facility would be among the first in the United States to use circulating fluidized-bed boilers to burn refuse-derived fuel to produce electricity. The plant's proponents argued that enough electricity would be produced to serve the equivalent of 50,000 homes. In addition, a host community agreement was expected to garner Robbins more than $150 million in 30 years.

"It will be the largest facility of its kind in the world," a Foster Wheeler executive said at the time. "It also will remove 25 percent of all waste up-front for recycling, which will be the highest percentage of any WTE plant in the world."

Despite these claims, the plant faced opposition from neighboring communities and environmental groups. This sparked an effort to repeal the state's retail rate law, which governs the amount of money such a plant would receive from the state from electricity revenues and tax exemptions. At the time, 13 of the 15 communities located within 10 miles of Robbins in Chicago's south and southwest metropolitan area as well as Chicago itself were opposed to the plant.

With such vehement contention, it was hard to believe that the plant would open on schedule in early 1997. But it did actually a little ahead of schedule.

According to Jim DiBiasi, director of commercial development for Foster Wheeler, the plant has been successful in the past two years, and already has exceeded its goal of recycling more than 25 percent of its 1,600 tpd of waste up-front. The plant is processing some metals and composting about 20 percent of the accepted waste, DiBiasi says.

But the facility still faces some obstacles. Legislators did succeed in repealing the state retail rate law, and Foster Wheeler now is involved in litigation to reclaim those benefits.

Zero Waste in Georgia Georgia may not seem like a hotbed of progressive recycling activity. Yet the state has seen some grassroots activity in recent years. For example, in 1997 - the last time WasteExpo was held in Atlanta progressive Democratic state Sen. Donzella James introduced a broad-minded package of recycling legislation unprecedented in other states, except possibly California [see Waste Age, May 1997, page 136].

The legislative package included a bill to create a Georgia container deposit law commonly known as a bottle bill. As an incentive for citizens to recycle soda, beer and water containers, the bill would have placed a 10-cent deposit value on those bottles and cans. Proponents say bottle bills reduce litter, boost recycling participation and help states meet waste diversion goals, as evidenced by the high recycling rates in the 10 states that currently have such laws.

But advocating a bottle bill in Coca-Cola's backyard was considered complete folly by many. The powerful and well-monied bottling and beverage industries argue that bottle bills reduce sales, threaten jobs and are not effective in reducing the waste stream. "Soft drink packaging is a very tiny percentage of solid waste in this country," a Coca-Cola spokesman said in 1997, "and aluminum cans account for 60 percent of our sales. The vast majority of those are recycled."

Rounding out Sen. James' package were bills to set a zero waste goal by 2020, to create a tax incentive to recycle and to require minimum recycled content levels in Georgia-manufactured products.

So how did this legislative package fare? Not well, according to Bill Sheehan, network coordinator for the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), who reports that nearly all the bills failed.

Although the bottle bill was not reintroduced in this legislative session, efforts to pass it the first time resulted in the creation of a new advocacy group called "Georgians for a Bottle Bill." In addition, grassroots recycling activists are furthering their agendas in other ways.

"What we've done since then is pull back and push for advocacy instead," Sheehan says, noting that GRRN received a $30,000 grant from the Turner Foundation, Atlanta, to try to eliminate waste. "We're looking to build a network of supporters for more than a bottle bill," he says.

The controversial notion of zero waste, or a world of total reusing and recycling, is catching on around the country, Sheehan says, although not yet in Georgia.

However, one bill that did become law will bring Georgia's paper procurement practices in line with federal executive orders requiring up to 30 percent recycled content in government-purchased paper.

And, Sheehan says, another new advocacy- and education-oriented group is forming in Georgia.

"I think the mission of the new group will be to move Georgia away from being a disposal-based society, and instead focusing on producer responsibility and eliminating waste," he says.

OSHA's Cooperative Program In 1998, many waste haulers were outraged over a new voluntary safety initiative the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Cooperative Compliance Program (CCP).

With this program, OSHA, Washington, D.C., gave waste industry employers an opportunity to voluntarily upgrade their safety plans, asking them to develop a comprehensive safety and health program; identify and correct hazards; train all employees on the new plan; and submit workplace injury records to OSHA [see Waste Age, May 1998, page 118].

Although the program seemingly would benefit the industry by improving workplaces and reducing the chance of unexpected OSHA visits and fines, the outcry against CCP was fierce.

Soon after the initiative was unveiled, organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Trucking Associations and the Food Marketing Institute filed a lawsuit to halt the program. The plaintiffs argued that CCP was "coercive" compliance, and that OSHA was sidestepping the federal rulemaking process. They criticized OSHA's failure to engage in the typical public notice and comment periods.

With CCP, OSHA was engaging in "de facto rulemaking," Quentin Riegel, deputy general counsel for NAM, said last year. "[OSHA is] placing companies in the position of complying with regulations that haven't been formally adopted."

Although several waste companies had agreed to participate, the industry was suspicious of the program. Most insiders agreed that improving safety programs is good, but they were concerned that once OSHA had a foot in the door, employers would be subject to massive expenses to correct hazards.

Some said that OSHA was doing with CCP what it was forbidden by Congress to do with ergonomics - issue a standard designed to limit ergonomic problems in the workplace.

In February 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and temporarily halted the program pending a review of the case on its merits. In response, OSHA implemented an "interim" plan, which would allow the agency to "carry out its duties to protect workers," OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said.

Since the plan was implemented, hundreds of OSHA inspections have taken place at solid waste facilities, although it is unclear whether these are related to the interim plan.

In December 1998, the court heard oral argument in the case. The primary issue was whether CCP is a substantive standard. If not, the court wouldn't have jurisdiction to decide the case. If so, the question was whether OSHA was in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act for not allowing the public to comment.

Interestingly, the Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., attempted to intervene in support of OSHA, yet it missed the official deadline to do so. Ford supported CCP as an excellent opportunity for companies to work with OSHA to improve workplace safety and health conditions. The car manufacturer also denied allegations that OSHA had granted the company immunity from current inspections.

Last month, the court struck down CCP, saying that the program was a "rule" that should have gone through the public notice and comment period, says David Biderman, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Industry Associations.

Now, OSHA intends to develop a new enforcement program that likely will focus on the same high-risk facilities CCP would have targeted.

Biderman says that companies that received notice from OSHA about CCP in late 1997 and early 1998 should realize that OSHA is aware of their safety problems and those companies should take steps to improve.

"The industry should be glad that OSHA isn't allowed to bypass federal procedural requirements," Biderman says. "But the industry should take appropriate action to ensure that worker safety remains a priority."