Changing Quickly to Industry Dynamics is Key to Survival

The years of experience as department head of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts has prepared Stephen Maguin well for his position as president of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md. Maguin shares his advice on how to live in today's solid waste world.

WW: What are the key issues in solid waste management?

SM: Having an adequate infrastructure to provide waste management in a responsible, reliable, cost-effective and safe manner remains the key issue in solid waste management (SWM). Facilities, services and funding must be in place to succeed. How we, as solid waste managers, provide appropriate infrastructure has been influenced and made more difficult by changes - most of which are beneficial - in the field in recent years.

For example, we have worked to improve our environment through air and water quality protection standards, as well as design and operating criteria for disposal facilities. And, as the public has become more aware and educated about the environment, it has become an active, vocal participant in the process.

Today, fundamental infrastructure elements with which managers must grapple include: facility siting, program funding, multi-jurisdictional permitting, public vs. private operation, regulatory oversight, flow control, recycling facilities and market development.

WW: What are the challenges facing today's solid waste manager?

SM: The major challenge facing solid waste managers is being able to respond quickly and effectively to the industry's dynamics. For example, during the late 1980s, the economy was on the upswing in Los Angeles County, which prompted significantly more commercial and residential development activity.

This activity generated increased amounts of construction and demolition (C&D) solid waste, which comprises about one third of the county's total waste stream. Existing facilities had to be ready to accommodate the larger daily disposal needs. The increased disposal accelerated landfill capacity use beyond what had been anticipated. Due in part to the dwindling landfill capacity, legislation was passed in 1989 in California mandating that local jurisdictions implement new programs to meet ambitious waste diversion goals. By the mid 1990s, the economy had taken a downturn and many cities have been faced with implementing waste diversion programs with much more limited budgets.

In addition to the economy, other factors affect the dynamics of SWM as well. Mergers and acquisitions affect relationships with service providers and between facilities. Planning for the future must be accomplished while wrestling with uncertainties as to disposal capacity and recycling success. Keeping abreast of ever-increasing regulatory requirements and technological advances is a must. A solid waste manager must be able to adjust to these many factors - all while maintaining excellent service.

WW: How is consolidation among private haulers affecting municipal solid waste professionals?

SM: In our region, most cities have opted for private collection, and they have been served well by active competition in the well-populated field of haulers. Consolidation reduces that advantage to local government and threatens to lift the competition lid on costs.

WW: What are your goals for SWANA?

SM: We plan to expand training and education programs, increase membership and provide better membership services and improve finances.

WW: What obstacles are you facing?

SM: Today's intensely competitive solid waste marketplace is forcing both private and public sector waste operations to undergo dramatic changes in order to survive.

In the public sector, several billion dollars of solid waste debt have been downgraded due to the 1994 Carbone vs. Clarkstown U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down local waste flow control ordinances that attempted to direct the solid wastes flow to particular facilities. Local government operations are facing competition and increasing pressures to cut costs and privatize operations. However, recent experience has shown that local governments can be competitive if they understand the market in which they are operating and use the full range of tools available.

WW: What are the solutions?

SM: SWANA's guiding principle is that local governments are responsible for SWM policies and programs within their jurisdiction, but not necessarily the ownership and operations of those programs. This principle provides the basis for effective public-private relationships, which can survive in this complex and rapidly changing marketplace. SWANA's guiding principle is not just wishful thinking but a fact of life. SWM policy is, first and foremost, public policy, and is an essential local government prerogative.

While local governments can contract out some or all of their solid waste operations, they never can contract out their accountability to protect public health and the environment, and to achieve waste recycling and diversion objectives. Even with privatization, local governments cannot abrogate their public policy responsibility. Therefore, local governments must retain control of their destinies and must not become captives to any particular operation. It is imperative for governments to keep operational options open, build flexibility into the system and use competition as a tool to improve operations.

WW: When do you expect to see the results?

SM: I believe we already have begun to see results. In a number of recent competitions for residential solid waste collection services, local governments have demonstrated that they can compete and win in the solid waste marketplace. In fact, communities have found that they can get lower bids by allowing municipal employees to engage in competition with the private sector.

Who does the work is not as essential as long as citizens and businesses are provided with environmentally and economically sound SWM services. This broadens the competitive field, and in the end, the public will be the winner.

WW: What are the most difficult aspects of your own work?

SM: The purpose of the LA County Sanitation Districts' SWM program is to provide more than 78 member cities with an effective and efficient regional system, which fulfills two primary goals:

1. make available sufficient and environmentally sound disposal capacity (6 million tons in 1997), as well as recycling programs at our facilities to aid the cities in meeting the state mandates; and

2. control private sector disposal facility costs by only the low costs of our facilities.

The difficulties we face in achieving these goals are maintaining adequate capacity to serve the cities' needs and be effective as a price control mechanism, and integrating large-scale recycling programs without inflating costs beyond price control effectiveness.

WW: What SWM trends do you see developing in the next five years?

SM: Local governments working to regain the control of their waste, which they may have lost in the Carbone decision, either through a negotiation process with a contract collector or by other means.

WW: What trends do you see developing in SWANA in the next five years?

SM: I see three main trends.

By moving many of our training and education programs out to the chapters, training delivery will become decentralized.

Increased and more effective advocacy will help professional SWM practices to become more visible.

Finally, SWANA certification will establish the standard of professional and facility operations competence for the industry.