Landfills generate a valuable by-product from the decomposition of waste materials present at their facilities – a methane rich gas stream that can be used to fuel boilers, dryers and heaters, power generators for engines and turbines, or even be sold into a natural gas network. Using the gas in any of these applications is preferred over the historical practice of flaring or venting. Flaring and venting represent environmentally irresponsible practices, as both contribute to greenhouse gas development with no positive benefit.
It is indisputable that some industry projects have been disastrous to the communities they are supposed to serve. Accidents happen. Poor planning and decisions based on economics instead of sustainability and environmental stewardship have surely resulted in a few serious problems. Those who oppose waste and recycling industry projects in an organized manner have seized upon these mistakes and branded the industry in a certain light. The question we have to ask is has this worked?
The answer is yes. Every year we track public attitudes toward large-scale development in a survey we call the Saint Index. While more than 3/4 of the American public is opposed to all new development, landfills and other waste-related facilities top the list of those projects Americans oppose the most.
Yet, every year at our myriad of industry conferences we hear about how this dynamic is changing. I, too, have become excited at this prospect. We roll out new marketing programs devised to convince the public that the perceived problems are fixed. We devise clever new ways to describe how the industry works and what it does. We trumpet that company X diverted Y tons of waste last year.
Arguably the permitting environment has gotten even more difficult despite the fact that the number of Americans opposed to expansion of landfills has dropped from 87 percent to 76 percent since 2007. Virtually all demographic groups, regions and income brackets oppose plans to expand these and other waste treatment proposals in land use battles that pit developers against highly motivated and organized stakeholders.
The various public hearings that take place on these issues around this country are the clearest illustration of the problem. Opponents are highly motivated and present for each hearing. The people who got your lovely mail piece last year about your cleanup efforts are at home going about their lives. But the opponents are out on the street organizing. That is what we call the “passion gap.”
What we have learned through the Saint Index as well as from observing more than 1,700 controversial projects is that opponents believe they are being divested of something. Whether it is a proposal’s impact on their property, air quality or quality of life, opponents turn out in droves. But the supporters without a definable property interest in your development stay at home and watch American Idol.
In today’s permitting environment, your project needs vocal advocates that mobilize to say yes to the project. Your project needs supporters to get off of the couch and engage the opposition head on. They need to be as vocal and passionate as those who oppose.
So how do we bridge the passion gap? We must work to create a property interest with supporters. They need to understand that they have a stake in your development, and they need to understand your views on how your project will affect their community and the value of their homes, because those impacts can be real and positive.
For instance, the facility will likely pay county property taxes. Those taxes many times flow to institutions that have a real impact on people and activists in the community who are constantly advocating for increases in their budgets. Be it a forest preserve tax district or a library district, the taxes your facility pays will have an impact. So, there is an opportunity here to connect with unengaged stakeholders who are normally not part of the process. To bridge this advocacy gap we must bring new parties to the table.
That is why we approach the passion gap as we would a political campaign. How do we build community support? We believe that developers today must work to identify and create support, in the form of vocal advocates. People in the community must lend their voices at meetings, make phone calls to decision makers, send emails and demonstrate public support for your project to balance out or counter the voice of opposition. This advocacy changes the dynamic and the political landscape for your project. It also gives cover to elected officials who may support your project and now suddenly realize there is more than just vocal opposition on this issue. It shows them that it is safe to say yes.
Waste companies must go into the application process ready to run a campaign, anticipating that citizen opponents will begin organizing to protect their turf against waste or landfill expansion as soon as they learn about the proposal. With this fact in mind, the first step should be a comprehensive community and political due diligence investigation.
Understand the political climate in and around a project before going public. If it is an expansion, make sure you talk to your neighbors frequently. Identify the likely opponents and potential supporters. What are the political views on land use of the politicians who must approve the project? What is the history of the site?
Once their support has been identified and harnessed, these advocates must make their feelings known – and in this age of social media, it is more important than ever to ensure that supporters plant a flag to show public support. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow advocates to fly the flag of support in a very public way.
But old school tactics still help win the day. Letters to the editor, phone calls to elected officials, e-mail campaigns and video petitions can all raise the profile of vocal advocates speaking out on behalf of waste companies. But all of these measures of support are impossible if you have not identified your supporters through engaging the public in a very direct manner.
Jay Vincent is senior vice president for business development and manages the Waste and Recycling Practice for The Saint Consulting Group, a land use political consultancy with offices in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. You can e-mail him at [email protected].