Every once in a while, I am asked to discuss our industry, describe its evolution and predict its future. I would like to offer a couple of my observations, although I'm not sure how many of you, after watching the national elections, are convinced that journalists have developed a brain stem. Nevertheless, our industry has seen significant changes and here are a couple of frequently asked questions:
Is the solid waste industry a tadpole or have we developed into a frog yet?
From what I can tell, we're still closer to the tadpole than I'd like us to be. Several communities are sprouting legs, however, automating their collection fleet or communicating with their customers through the Internet. If you know anything about our industry, though: Nothing. Moves. Quickly.
What has been the most painful part of the industry's evolution?
Although you could construct a considerable list, I think most items would pale in comparison to the split between the public and private sectors. These differences have been manifested most profoundly through flow control issues. I also see these differences developing into battles over the most basic element of our business: who picks up the garbage?
How have the people changed?
The average person working in our industry is different than those I met in the mid-1980s. I suspect that increased competition has driven highly qualified candidates toward us and, more importantly, has led management to hire them. Both sectors have been affected by this phenomenon because, more than ever, competition affects everyone.
Examples of this part of the industry's evolution are apparent when you compare the topics covered in the educational sessions at WasteExpo, at Wastecon and in the stories this magazine covers vs. what was covered 10 years ago. For example, when I assigned my first privatization story 16 years ago, it seemed like we were writing about a taboo subject. When we covered our first major "managed competition" story concerning the city of Phoenix a couple of years later, I felt like the genie had been let out of the bottle.
As these changes were happening to government solid waste officials, the private sector was being jumbled through consolidations coupled with the near evaporation of "middle class" operations. The strongest to survive have become the foundation of the the modern solid waste industry, a tough bunch to be sure.
If the solid waste industry is still at the tadpole stage, which evolution most closely parallels ours?
Human evolution. We're not much further down the evolutionary trail either, otherwise why would it be so easy to make a monkey out of almost any one of us?