And the Trash Goes On

It seems irreverent to speak of trash collection problems during the aftermath of what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But just as life must go on in the wake of so much death, so must mundane tasks — including solid waste management.

Natural and man-made disasters disrupt everyday life, but living must continue. And one of the hallmarks of life is trash production. Wherever there are people, including at the heart of the horrific, trash will continue to be produced and must be picked up.

In Los Angeles, earthquakes have rearranged the topography and terrain, and undone government infrastructures as easy as if a bowling ball were dropped on a gameboard. After such disasters, none of the pieces are in the same place, and the face of the board is askew.

So how do you keep waste collection on schedule when the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar?

First, try to understand the people affected by the disaster who will continue to produce trash and will expect their waste to be picked up on schedule.

As the former manager of Los Angeles' Refuse Collection and Disposal division, I have had to plan for solid waste management disruptions, although none were as destructive as the recent New York City building collapses. As a brand new manager, for example, I prepared for the advent of the Olympic Games. This meant handling all of the waste generated daily at the venues scattered across the face of Los Angeles, plus collecting regular refuse on schedule.

Obviously there was a heavier amount of refuse than normal, due to the influx of people in the area.

But my secret to successfully managing the waste was to collect as much trash as was feasible from the indigenous population first, before others arrived in the area and blocked access points.

In the case of earthquakes or other disasters, collection crews should be sent in to clean out the surroundings before the regular population can fill the streets. Concentrate your forces on the wounded area while it is available to you, and only if it doesn't impede emergency work.

Remember that cleaning up a disaster demands total cooperation and flexibility in dealing with the people overseeing relief operations. If it requires some night operations so be it.

The columnist is an independent solid waste consultant for governments and private organizations. He was formerly with the city of Los Angeles' refuse division.

Got a question about your solid waste operations? Contact Bill Knapp c/o Waste Age. Phone (770) 618-0112.