Wasting No Words: A Q&A with SWANA's John Skinner

Waste Age queries John Skinner of SWANA about pressing issues facing the waste industry.

August 1, 2011

9 Min Read
Wasting No Words: A Q&A with SWANA's John Skinner

On the eve of WASTECON, we take time out to query John H. Skinner, president and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), about the latest happenings in the world of waste and recycling. SWANA organizes WASTECON, which this year will be held in Nashville.

Read on to glean Skinner’s take on how municipal waste departments are adjusting to the lackluster economy, the challenge municipalities face in tracking diverted waste, pending legislation that affects the waste industry, and more.

Waste Age: How is the sluggish economic recovery impacting municipal solid waste departments? What are some of the ways in which they are trying to cope?

Skinner: Senior executives in public sector solid waste agencies and authorities recognize the importance of funding their operations through service and user fees on an enterprise fund basis, where these fees are kept separate and distinct from local governments’ general funds. They also recognize the importance of full cost accounting where rates and fees are set based on an accounting of all costs of the operation, including the establishment of financial reserves to help support the operations during sluggish economic periods.

In addition to tapping these reserves during the economic recession, local government solid waste agencies have responded with a combination of strategies that include increasing revenues from non-traditional sources, adding fees for new services, reducing service levels and generally tightening their belts.

For example, the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority [in Lancaster, Pa.,] generated new revenues from renewable energy sold to the [Pennsylvania] electric utility and local businesses. The authority established a wind power facility at its landfill, is building a solar energy facility at its transfer station and generates and sells steam from the waste heat from its landfill gas engines. Communities with waste-to-energy facilities have added new services that include confidential document destruction and combustion of special or difficult to handle wastes. In other communities new revenues are being generated from new services such as collection of bulky or special wastes.

Some local government operations have reduced costs by reducing service levels. Examples include the reduction in collection frequency of recyclables and yard waste from once per week to every other week. Similarly, operating hours at landfills, recycling centers and transfer stations can be reduced to lower costs. Local governments are also using traditional belt-tightening methods such as delaying the procurement of new equipment or not filling vacant positions.

Local government operations can work their way through an economic recession by operating in a business-like manner that recognizes that the term “non-profit” is a tax category and not a business plan.
WA: With greater and greater focus on diversion rates, is there more pressure on municipal solid waste departments to provide more comprehensive tracking of this information? How do you think the approach to diversion rates will change over the next few years?

Skinner: Tracking of diversion and recycling rates is becoming increasingly important. This is not only to demonstrate to governmental bodies and regulators that materials are in fact being recycled and diverted from landfills, but also to communicate to the public that the time and effort they take to separate materials is making a difference. Tracking of recycling also is one way communities and businesses can show that they are working toward reducing their carbon footprint.

However, the accurate tracking of waste recycling and diversion rates has been problematic for a number of reasons. Since there is no universally accepted definition of either “recycling” or “diversion rates,” nor is there agreement on what should be counted and what should not, it is virtually impossible to compare claims made by various entities. Also, there are the inherent difficulties in measuring the impacts of waste reduction programs that are an important aspect of waste diversion. Since businesses and industries are not always required to report their recycling tonnages to local governments, the effect of recycling in these sectors is not easy to determine.

As a result, state and local governments are moving away from relying solely on diversion rates and instead, focusing more on reducing the amount of waste disposed by a community on a per-capita basis. For example, in 2007, the state of California switched from a mandatory 50 percent diversion goal to a per-capita disposal measurement system that sets a reduction goal for local communities of 50 percent of the average waste disposed on a per capita basis during the 2003-2006 period.

In 2010, SWANA published a report recommending that local governments adopt the per-capita waste disposal reduction approach and begin to measure and track the “landfill disposal indices” (LDIs) of their communities. In addition, SWANA recommended that LDI reduction goals be established for each of the major waste streams (residential waste, commercial waste and construction/demolition waste) in order that the cost-effectiveness of the programs designed to reduce these waste streams can be more accurately evaluated.

WA: What federal legislation is SWANA tracking? Anything of particular interest at the state and local level?

Skinner: SWANA is closely tracking the EPA regulations that would establish requirements for monitoring of greenhouse gases (GHG) at solid waste facilities (the Mandatory Reporting Rule) and other regulations that would establish GHG controls on solid waste facilities (the Tailoring Rule). SWANA strongly supported the three-year deferral of biogenic emission controls under EPA’s Tailoring Rule, and we will work to make this deferral permanent. We are carefully tracking the requirements for reporting GHG emissions as of Sept. 30, 2011, and these requirements will affect a large percentage of landfills and waste-to-energy facilities throughout the country.

On Capitol Hill, there are a number of heated debates taking place that SWANA is closely monitoring. The House has passed a series of aggressive appropriation bills that would bar EPA’s ability to proceed with many regulations affecting SWANA members. A policy rider was included that would prevent EPA from taking any action to classify coal combustion ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Additionally, a number of riders would deny EPA the funds to regulate GHGs and issue permits to stationary sources for such emissions. Last spring, similar provisions were added on the House side, but disagreements with the White House and the Senate led to many of them being abandoned. It is unlikely that many of these riders will be included in final bills this year either. Despite Congressional pushback, EPA is moving forward with its suite of greenhouse gas rules.

SWANA chapters closely track state, provincial and local legislation affecting the solid waste field. We are very supportive of legislation that would classify energy derived from solid waste as renewable energy. We also are supportive of legislation establishing product stewardship programs that would encourage or require producers to participate in product take-back programs and develop products that are easier to recycle.

WA: At the end of June, a federal court in New York tossed out a provision of a county flow control law. In your opinion, is flow control largely a settled issue, or is there still potential for new battles to spring up?

Skinner: Local government’s authority to control the flow of waste to public facilities has been firmly established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the United Haulers Ass’n vs. Oneida Herkimer decision. The June decision by the federal district court in New York tossed out a county flow control law because the law itself was vague and contradictory, not because it involved flow control.

Some private haulers and waste facility owners believe that United Haulers has no bearing on facilities that are publically owned but privately operated and therefore local governments must keep hands off. On the contrary, strong arguments can be made that the thrust and rationale of the majority opinion easily cover situations where local officials have chosen to staff public facilities with contractors. That conclusion, however, awaits confirmation in a future court decision.
It is important to note that regulatory flow control is just one tool available for local governments to use to direct wastes and recyclables to facilities that they have established. A number of local governments have found that they can achieve the same ends by contractual mechanisms and through economic incentives. Sometimes just the option of using regulatory flow control brings independent waste haulers and local governments together to work out solutions that will benefit both parties.

WA: What do you consider to be the most pressing issue facing the waste industry?

Skinner: The biggest challenge facing the waste management industry is to redefine itself as a resource management industry rather than a waste disposal industry. According to the most recent EPA data, we currently landfill over 50 percent of our discards while recycling seems to be leveling out at about 35 percent and waste-to-energy at 15 percent. In this regard we are clearly lagging behind many other developed countries. Data from the International Solid Waste Association shows that many countries, with economies very similar to ours, have achieved significantly higher recycling and energy recovery rates, and as a consequence have been able to drive down disposal rates dramatically.

In order to achieve similar results in North America some significant changes will be necessary. More producer responsibility and product stewardship programs need to be established, and products need to be designed for less waste and ease of recycling. Producers also need to be involved in take-back programs to facilitate recycling of their products. Waste-to- energy needs to be more widely recognized as a reliable, local source of renewable energy and the use of this technology should be encouraged through national, state, provincial and local policies.

Demonstration and commercialization of waste conversion technologies that can produce fuels, chemical feed stocks and other products from waste need to be expanded. More industries need to adopt a zero waste philosophy and institute industrial process changes that significantly reduce the quantities of waste being sent to landfill. Finally, more attention needs to be given to the opportunities to increase recycling in waste streams, such as food wastes and construction and demolition debris.

However, we should recognize that this transition will not take place overnight and, for the foreseeable future, we will still rely on landfills to dispose of our discards. Therefore, there is a continuing need to assure that landfills are designed and operated to protect human health and the environment and that we maximize the recovery and utilization of landfill gas as a renewable fuel.

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