Today many would proclaim that the solid waste field is in a paradigm shift, while others would suggest solid waste remains the same as it always has: collect, haul, dispose. I believe both views are correct.
The backbone of the solid waste field lies in the operations mantra of waste/ recycling collection: hauling from the point of collection, followed by processing or disposal. Unless something is invented near term that allows disposal or processing where the waste is actually generated (think of the Mr. Fusion concept from the 1985’s “Back to the Future”), this basic model is not likely change in the foreseeable future.
However, as the cliché goes, the devil is in the details. And this is where the paradigm shift is occurring. Below are a few examples of this shift in each primary facet of the waste industry and how research and technological innovation continue to define the path forward.
Collection. While waste collection remains a standard operation, today more technology is being brought to bear on that operation than ever before, from dynamic routing heuristic programming to asset tracking techniques such as GPS-location and radio frequency identification tagging. These tools are being used to increase collection efficiency, maximize safety and conserve resources. Haulers are more in tune with their customers than ever before and the use of innovative technologies like automated side loaders and front- to side-load conversion technology, such as the Curotto can, continues to expand at a rapid pace.
Hauling. Today, entire truck fleets are being converted to alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and hybrid technology. At EREF, research is under way to track and monitor emissions from different types of garbage trucks and their unique duty cycles, which will better characterize the industry’s emissions footprint and likely show a historical trend of reduced emissions from waste hauling.
Disposal. Fifty years ago, to “dispose” of waste meant with near certainty that the waste was destined for a landfill and, to a lesser extent, incineration. Today, waste disposal increasingly means something other than landfill, with recycling facilities and the mass of diverted or recycled materials growing at a near exponential rate. Additionally, end of life options such as waste-to-energy, composting, anaerobic digestion, and waste conversion continue to grow and develop.
Given the above, the pace of change seems to be one of the fastest in the modern waste industry’s relatively short history. While waste volumes are used in some cases to predict where the economy is headed, the growth and pace of solid waste research can be used in a similar manner to assess the degree of paradigm shift within the solid waste industry.
For example, 30 years ago the majority of U. S. waste research centered primarily on landfills and waste incineration. Today, while research continues in these more traditional areas the number of research topics has exploded at a rate commensurate to that of the Big Bang. This isn’t surprising when one considers that research tends to be one of the catalysts that fosters paradigm shifts or helps solve the problems that arise while change is occurring.
Research helps provide answers to an industry that is growing, in some cases into uncharted territory. Here at EREF, we’ve seen this shift firsthand. This year, for the first time in our history, the number of non-landfill proposals submitted to the foundation outpaced landfill-related proposals. While landfill research continues to be funded, EREF has funded more non-landfill-related research on topics including recycling, waste conversion and waste collection than ever before. At universities nationwide, researchers are doing work that touches on all aspects of the integrated waste management stream.
This trend also is evident in the industry technical conferences, such as the Global Waste Management Symposium (GWMS). The program for the GWMS that will take place in October is the most holistic that it has ever been. If the pace and breadth of solid waste research is any indication, rapid change will continue into the foreseeable future as the industry continues to become more and more sophisticated.