Change is on its way with this month's presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, and industry officials say they are excited about the direction the new administration is apparently headed. Besides tackling the enormous task of getting the economy back on track, the Obama administration is expected to bring a renewed focus on fundamental environmental issues, which will impact the solid waste and recycling industry. Some officials say they expect a revamping of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Still, the economy remains the biggest issue facing the new administration, which essentially puts everything else on the back burner. The ongoing recession has significantly slowed manufacturing and commercial construction. That drop off has severely hurt the recycling industry by crippling commodities prices.
"It's very important that recycling comes back," says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), who adds that increased consumer spending, whether from a federal stimulus package or elsewhere, will be a major catalyst for rejuvenating manufacturing, construction and, subsequently, recycling markets. "Sixty percent of [the country's gross domestic product] is driven by consumer spending. The stimulus package needs to get disposable income down to consumers, which is the only way to start pumping money back into the economy."
Both Parker and John Skinner, CEO of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), say climate change remains the biggest issue facing the new administration that will impact solid waste and recycling. NSWMA and SWANA, like many environmental groups, have opposed the use of the federal Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gasses. "It's not the best statutory form to use because it identifies only local sources, not global ones," Parker says. "Congress needs to pass a much more focused piece of legislation."
The Clean Air Act has not been enforced by the Bush administration as it was intended. In October, the Environmental Defense Fund sued EPA for not updating its greenhouse gas emission standards for landfills. The legislation requires EPA to update its standards every eight years. The standards, which only require the flaring of gas, haven't been updated since 1996.
Skinner says he expects the Obama administration to make climate change a much higher priority than the Bush administration did. In addition to federal regulation of greenhouse gasses, he also says he expects the new administration will advocate the use of landfill gas as a renewable energy source.
"In the short term, it is way too early to figure out what the new administration and Congress will decide on these important matters," says Seth Myones, president of Covanta Energy, Fairfield, N.J. "Over the long term, we believe that the administration will recognize the important contributions that energy from waste can have in mitigating climate change, generating additional renewable power for the grid, improving our energy security and creating new job opportunities in a green economy. The job potential for these extensive capital projects is tremendous."
The new administration's focus on the environment and renewable energy is certainly apparent in Obama's staff appointments. Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, was selected to head EPA. Steven Chu, energy specialist and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was chosen to be the next energy secretary. Nancy Sutley, deputy mayor of Los Angeles, is slated to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. Carol Browner, board member of the Center for American Progress and former head of the U.S. EPA during the Clinton administration, is Obama's choice for a newly created position to oversee energy, climate and environmental issues.
"We all know what the needs and wants are," Parker says. "We just don't know the answers."