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How the Waste and Recycling Industry Prepares for Natural Disasters

Waste360 spoke to various waste and recycling companies about their pre- and post-disaster precautions and procedures.

Hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters can have a major impact on the waste and recycling industry. And while industry members can prepare in advance for some natural disasters, others arise unexpectedly and require on-your-feet thinking at a moment’s notice.

Last week, much of the East Coast was affected by Hurricane Matthew, which came up the Atlantic Ocean after it left a path of devastation in the Caribbean. Luckily, communities had plenty of notice about the approximate days and times that the hurricane would hit the U.S. and major waste and recycling companies like Waste Connections, Republic Services, Waste Pro and Waste Management jumped into safety mode and temporarily halted collection services and operations.

Prior to the hurricane, Waste Management released pre- and post-storm preparations to help its employees and members of the community prepare for the storm. The company also briefly suspended services in a variety of areas on October 6 and 7, 2016, and resumed most services on October 10, 2016. Due to the impact of the storm, some areas are still experiencing collection delays, which could last up to a week.

Waste Connections also temporarily suspended its collection services and operations in the Miami and Orlando areas last week.

“On Thursday, we shut down collection services and operations in Miami-Dade County and Broward County in advance of the hurricane,” says Damian Ribar, Waste Connections division vice president of Florida Atlantic. “On Friday, as of daybreak, we resumed services in those areas and shut down services and operations in Orlando, where the hurricane was expected to hit next. We resumed services and operations in the Orlando area on Saturday once all curfews were lifted.”

Waste Pro is one of the well-known companies that was affected the most. In the last 30 days, the company has had the misfortune of dealing with two hurricanes: Matthew and Hermine. For both hurricanes, Waste Pro was invited on the EOC calls with its municipalities so everyone was on the same page for the preparations and planning of the cleanup.  

“For the most recent storm (Matthew), the City of Jacksonville, Fla., was very proactive in announcing plans to move Friday's residential collection services to Sunday, which allowed us to schedule our employees accordingly,” says Dave Schneider, Waste Pro regional vice president for North Florida. “We also reached out and conveyed those service changes, which included the closing of the landfill, to our larger customers. Additionally, we made sure they had points of contact for emergency service needs. Our phones started ringing at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday after Hurricane Matthew came through the Jacksonville area, and they never stopped ringing until mid-morning on Monday. We were there for our customers and took care of all their needs as they arose.”

Waste Pro's transfer station in St. Augustine was also shut down during Hurricane Matthew, and it reopened on Saturday after the hurricane passed through. 

“We had previously set up additional transportation, anticipating higher volumes,” says Schneider. “Currently, we are running our St. Augustine transfer station and our construction and demolition (C&D) landfill on extended hours to help accommodate cleanup crews and help speed up the cleanup efforts.”

Being in the eye of the storm is never an easy task, but being well prepared for the impacts that natural disasters can cause will save both time and money in the long run. On issues ranging from managing collection disruptions to post-disaster cleanup, Waste360 spoke to various waste and recycling companies about their pre- and post-disaster precautions and procedures.

Safety First

When a natural disaster is on its way, the first thing haulers and municipal solid waste (MSW) departments do is put safety first. From checking in with employees to alerting local communities of safety tips and service changes, precautions are taken to prepare not only waste and recycling industry workers but the members of communities that may be affected by natural disaster-related dangers and service disruptions.

“Depending on the natural disaster, you will typically know the approximate time of when you need to shut down operations so that employees can go home or evacuate if needed,” says Santek Waste Services Executive Vice President of Operations Eric Kolb. “The most important thing for us is to keep our employees safe before, during and after a natural disaster.”

To ensure that employees have the proper necessities before, during and after natural disasters, Republic provides its employees with a range of resources that are pre-staged outside of impacted areas. These necessities include items like bottled water, dry food, first-aid kits and batteries. It also helps employees with lodging and financial assistance when necessary.

“With any natural disaster, our top priority will always be the safety and well-being of our employees and their families in the affected areas,” says Tim Stuart, Republic Services executive vice president of operations. “For us, it’s imperative that employees in the impacted areas are assured that any needs they may have as a result of any storm will be handled.”

Managing Collections Disruptions

First and foremost, haulers that are in areas that may be affected by a natural disaster will often roll out announcements via phone recordings, emails, media outlets and websites to alert customers about any service disruptions.

After that is taken care of, many haulers will work hand-in-hand with local municipalities and law enforcement to evaluate when it’s safe for drivers to hit the streets for waste and recycling collection. And depending on the severity of the natural disaster, normal service schedules may be delayed and additional trucks and containers may be brought in from outside areas to help with the additional waste volume.

“At EC Waste, our environmental compliance and safety manager monitors any major weather disturbance and follows those disturbances until they are well out of our service areas,” says Randy Jensen, CEO of EC Waste, a portfolio company of Post Capital Partners with operations based in both Puerto Rico and Alabama. “This action results in constant updates to our field teams and allows them to make the appropriate plans to mitigate collection disruptions. Our field teams have done a tremendous job to date, and this has allowed the company to engage in normal collection activates as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Protecting Equipment, Landfills and Transfer Stations

Elevated winds, rain and extra leachate caused by natural disasters are some of the major concerns for those who manage landfills and transfer stations.

To prepare facilities and equipment for natural disasters, the employees at ​​Lee County Solid Waste in Florida make sure that all tractor-trailer rigs are parked together in a tight formation underneath the transfer stations in concrete tunnels that are blocked at either end with trailers. They also make sure that other onsite trucks are parked in the fleet maintenance buildings as room allows.

For Lee County’s C&D processing area, the employees ensure that material is processed or removed from all sites ahead of the natural disaster to eliminate airborne debris. In addition to that, all roll-off containers are relocated and parked in a tight formation, and heavy equipment is parked under metal structures in concrete loading bins for protection.

The equipment at Lee County’s transfer stations is also parked inside, as much debris as possible is moved to nearby disposal sites and leachate tanks are pumped down before the natural disaster hits. Leachate is also monitored and pumped down as necessary after the storm passes through.

“Leachate ponds are also lowered pre-storm to allow capacity to accept incoming rain and additional leachate,” says Tim Engstrom, communications specialist for the Lee County Government. “Landfill operators plan for equipment and materials to be available to repair erosion on the landfill cover systems.”

Similar strides were taken at Republic last week when Hurricane Matthew was on its way. To prepare for the storm, Republic implemented preparedness measures at its hauling divisions, landfills and recycling centers in the affected areas, according to Stuart. Republic also secured collection vehicles, fueling stations, landfill and recycling infrastructure and facilities.

“In the days leading up to the storm, our local manages in the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina began implementing preparedness measures in the communities that we serve,” says Stuart. “Those measures included ensuring continuity of service for customers that provide critical functions, such as hospitals, utilities and furling stations, as well as removing commercial and construction containers from the path of the storm wherever possible. Additionally, our local divisions staged hundreds of replacement containers in locations outside of the path of the storm in order to quickly support customers with critical disaster response and recovery responsibilities.”

In preparation for any natural disaster, Santek moves smaller equipment like files and laptops to higher ground so that those items are clear of possible damage from flooding or debris. The company also stores dirt and rock and makes sure that its wet-weather roads are ready at the landfills in the affected areas.

In addition to landfill preparation, Waste Connections goes through a lot of extra effort to make sure that the transfer station and materials recovery facility floors are cleaned and that everything is emptied out so that we are at maximum capacity.

“We take the time to do this because we know that after a down day, our facilities will be really busy once they open back up,” says Ribar.

To maintain business as usual after a natural disaster passes, both EC Waste and Advanced Disposal are equipped with backup power sources in its facilities.

Handling the Fluctuation of Waste Volume

The most common build-up of waste after a natural disaster is yard waste and C&D waste. And according to Stuart, responsible operators plan and prepare for such circumstances by often working very closely with emergency management officials and community leaders to smoothly accommodate the increases in materials.

“Following a storm, we see an immediate increase in landscape-type waste and, depending on the length of power outages, an increase in food waste,” says Mark Nighbor, Advanced Disposal vice president of marketing and communications. “As the cleanups progress and inspections are made to building structures, we see increases in construction debris and damaged household goods as well.”

To manage the fluctuation of waste volumes in areas placed in a state of emergency, EC Waste is prepared to operate 24/7 to bring order back to its customers. Other waste and recycling companies are also prepared to extend their operational hours as permits allow.

But before you start working around the clock to accept and manage additional waste, Kolb says that it’s important to know your current operating capacity at your landfills and transfer stations because you need to know if you can handle the additional volumes that may come in.

Post-Disaster Cleanup

Post-disaster cleanup for residential customers is often contingent upon the provisions within a contract for each municipality that the hauler services. And in some cases, the cleanup may require coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other governmental agencies. Most contracts include a third-party contractor that handles disaster cleanup, but some contracts include provisions for the hauler that handles the regular waste and recycling collection. When it comes to commercial waste and recycling collection, customers who require extra disposal will often contact their hauler to schedule additional pickups or to request extra containers.

“In addition to having the proper amount of staff on hand for cleanup purposes, you need to keep up with the business side of things, which means pricing,” says Kolb. “If you receive a surge of demand in services, you need to make the appropriate adjustments to your prices to cover your added costs for picking up and managing the extra waste.”

Currently, debris waste from Hurricane Matthew is piling up in certain areas of the U.S., including the cities of Jupiter and Tequesta in Florida. And while haulers and MSW departments are doing the best they can to clean up this waste buildup, it may take until the beginning of next week for waste to be fully cleaned up.

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