A Climate of Change

Waste industry will feel effects of climate legislation.

As A Lobbyist, I Track Recycling and Solid Waste legislation, keeping tabs on bills that could harm or benefit the industry. Normally, the state legislative tracking service I use identifies about 1,200 bills each year. While that seems like a lot, only a small number will actually pass.

This year, I added climate change to the list of subjects that I follow. It's a hot topic, so I expected to find maybe 100 new bills to track. Much to my surprise, I've already found more than 370. While many of them only mention climate change in passing or are “study” bills, their sheer number shows the importance of this issue to state legislators and their constituents.

As I note in a story in this issue reviewing last year's legislative activity (see “The Green Arm of the Law,” pg. 114), some states, frustrated over federal inaction, already have passed significant climate change legislation. I also said that Congress is moving much more slowly than the states. Only one bill, “America's Climate Security Act,” (S. 2191, or the Lieberman-Warner bill), has passed the committee stage. The Senate might vote on it in June. Aimed primarily at reducing emissions from larger industrial facilities, the bill has several provisions related to solid waste and recycling.

When the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved S. 2191, it rejected a proposal to include “offsets” for recycling projects, even though it supported them for some other solid waste projects such as landfill gas recovery systems. Offsets are emission “credits” that are earned by projects that lower greenhouse gas emissions. These credits can be sold to companies that are having trouble meeting emission targets to help “offset” some of those emissions.

Offsets were rejected for recycling due in part to the unique complexities involved in applying them to recycling. At the risk of oversimplifying, offsets go to new, innovative projects that meet an “additionality” test. This means an offset project must go beyond “business as usual.” It must create benefits that otherwise would not have been achieved. A new recycling program, for instance, might simply shift the collection or processing of recyclables from one company to another instead of creating a new, previously untapped supply of recyclables. The cyclical nature of recycling tonnages and the complexity of tracking recycling also create major challenges, not to mention the issue of who receives the offset credit: the collector, the processor or the end market.

I'll be surprised if Congress and the White House agree on climate change legislation this year. But this remains an important issue for solid waste and recycling companies. Landfills produce methane, but the reality is that garbage collection, recycling, composting and disposal are relatively minor sources of total greenhouse gas emissions. Land disposal regulations were significantly tightened and recycling and composting increased dramatically in the last two decades. As a result, our industry's net greenhouse gas emissions have decreased dramatically. Nonetheless, like all industries, we need to continue to reduce our carbon footprint.

Climate change presents us with a unique challenge. We have much to offer to help lower greenhouse gas emissions. Given all the legislative proposals out there, I suspect I'll be busy working to ensure that new laws help us meet that goal.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.