For most of my professional career I have worked in the solid waste and recycling arena. I started at EPA’s Resource Recovery Division, moved to the glass industry after the voyage of the garbage barge, and have spent the last two decades working for the waste and recycling industry. During this time I have watched our industry undergo a complete transformation. When I started at EPA, open, burning dumps were still legal. Shortly after I joined NSWMA, the agency promulgated the Subtitle D landfill regulations.
Municipal recycling was in its infancy when I started in resource recovery. Grocery stores were beginning to sell their corrugated boxes and some towns were collecting newspaper at the curbside. Today, recycling is widespread in this country. Most cities have a curbside recycling program that collects a multiplicity of materials. Of course, we are still faced with some daunting challenges, particularly in regard to food waste and creating a recycling culture in the anonymity of apartment buildings. But those are just the next challenges to overcome.
As these years have progressed I have been less sure what to call this industry. When I started at NSWMA, most of our members were happy to call themselves “the garbage guys.” And most still hold proudly to that term. But let’s face it; what we do has truly transformed over the years. So I started wondering: What term best describes us?
First and foremost, we are a public health industry. We got our start cleaning up America and we have succeeded at safely and efficiently collecting garbage. What we can’t recover doesn’t go to dumps. Instead it goes to environmentally protective and highly regulated disposal facilities. We are so good at protecting the public health that most Americans take these contributions for granted until a strike or natural disaster prevents garbage from being collected.
We are often called the “hauling” industry. That term makes sense because we have a large fleet of trucks – more than 120,000 – that haul trash and recyclables. As a trucking industry, we are leading the way among heavy-duty truck fleets in converting our trucks from diesel to alternative fuels such as liquefied or compressed natural gas. Some companies even have projects to turn garbage into a fuel.
We are a resource recovery industry. We do this in many ways. Landfill gas is turned into a renewable energy product that provides heating or electricity to homes and buildings throughout America. Waste-to-energy facilities also create a renewable fuel. Our compost facilities convert organics into usable products. Yet perhaps our most visible resource recovery activity is the thousands of trucks that collect recyclables at the curbside and the loading dock. They are taken to materials processing facilities where they are turned into raw materials for manufacturers to turn into new products. Without our collection fleet and processing facilities, recycling would not be as widespread as it is.
And of course we are a service industry. Our companies pride themselves on their ability to provide their customers with the best possible service. They work hard to provide better service at a better price than their competitors.
So what should we be called? Are we a public health industry? Haulers? Recyclers? Renewable energy producers? A service industry? Or are we all of the above?
What do you think we are?