Lanny unplugged

Few have inspired and agitated as many people in our industry as Lanny Hickman. Even fewer have had careers as long and distinguished.

After serving nearly twenty years as Executive Director of The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., Lanny retired in September at the association's national convention in Port-land.

I recently interviewed my old friend and mentor shortly after the show. Although Lanny really doesn't need an introduction, allow me to quote our legal editor, Barry Shanoff: Lanny speaks in primary colors.

WW: What are the most controversial solid waste ideas you've heard during your many years in the industry?

LH: There are several. I heard ideas like we were going to compost every damn thing in the United States. That still is a dumb idea. If somebody had told me 20 years ago that we were going to have umpteen zillion yard waste composting programs, I never would have believed it. Now, we've got them everywhere.

I remember when we worked on composting municipal solid waste in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the late '60s, and all we did was prove what we already knew: You can make compost out of garbage. So what? You can't get rid of compost. If it's such a big opportunity, the private sector would have gone after it years ago. I don't see a future for municipal solid waste composting; it's just another way to make very expensive dirt.

I also remember a process where we were going to melt solid waste and make rock out of it. Pyrolosis is another weird idea that died. Then, somebody came up with this high pressure cannon: They'd fire solid waste in it and change its characteristics.

We really haven't come up with any new technology since I went to work in this industry. We had landfills - mostly open dumps and some really bad incinerators - and we had composting which was basically the same technology as now.

We just keep improving on what we have. Maybe that's part of the problem: not spending money on research and development. We've got a field that's going forward with no foundation of R&D to help it move forward. So what do we wind up doing? Tinkering with what we've got.

WW: Which of the many twists and turns in the industry have surprised you the most?

LH: I think the EPA has been a hindrance to the movement of environmental improvement; they've moved away from science. The EPA should be an enforcement agency only, and should make decisions based on science from other sources, not on what is politically expedient, which is what the agency has been inclined to do as it has matured.

We don't have a valid research program in any part of the environment that can create truths and facts unhindered by where the research is conducted. That's been a real handicap to changing the way we do business in solid waste management. I don't think the Feds can solve all the problems, but the Feds have to provide leadership; they have to fund research.

Look at the other countries, at the partnerships between business and government. It's OK for government to help business develop a new product if it will bring another million jobs and another zillion dollars into the country. We just don't have that over here. As far as science and engineering - its direction and policy - all we do is talk about it.

The current administration? All they did was talk about it. Bush? He didn't do anything about it. The fellow that just ran against Clinton, he doesn't even know how to spell "environment."

WW: How do you think the public sector regulator and operator is going to change in the next decade?

LH: The states are hampered by a lack of ability to pay people what they ought to be paid for their work. Most of the states can't keep their good people. Except for about 15 states that represent fairly significant, positive, forceful agencies, the rest struggle. They hire young people, and once they are trained, somebody else will hire them at twice or three times the salary. The hard core of many state programs are the retired military guys and gals who've already got an income so they can come home to work in their state again.

Will this change? Not in solid waste. That still will wind up in the hands of the public and private sector at the local and regional level, with regulation at the state level. I don't expect to see the federal government do a damn thing in solid waste, and I'm not so sure they should since their track record is so poor.

Those same states that do a good job will always do a good job, and the other 30 will just do what they always have done - just enough to get by. Those local governments that have always done a good job, that are committed to doing a good job, will continue to do it, and those companies that keep buying each other up will continue to do it because that's the nature of the beast.

There will be leadership from the same kind of people who have been providing it for the last 25 years. While I am not anti-private, it is not from the private sector that we have seen leadership in this field; it's come primarily from the public sector. The same thing is true in water and air; it has been local government people who have provided the leadership to try to move the issue forward.

The two sectors function in different ways. Both want to try to provide efficient, effective, valued service, but they have different purposes. There's a bottom line in the private sector, so they think differently. They're not prone to jump out and lead the field just because it's the right thing to do. From time to time, they may lead the field, and it may be the right thing to do, but the purpose behind it is to make money.

WW: How do you think public and the private operations will change in the next few years?

LH: The public sector is going to own less and operate less. The private sector is going to continue to convince local elected officials (who are always looking for the easy way out) that it's better to turn it over to them.

The most important decision for many of these local governments is to maintain control. This is the essential question that the solid waste management field will face in the next 20 years. Are we going to be laissez faire to privatized industry, or are we going to be a field of practice that recognizes certain things that have to be done, under local government control?

There will be a core of local governments that will never give it up, and they will do a good job. If they can't do a good job, maybe they shouldn't be doing it, which tells me they probably can't manage a contractor worth a damn either.

WW: What is a significant challenge for SWANA?

LH: SWANA has to make a transition from being thought of as a representative of local government to a voice for professionalism and practice in the field. Part of that is the recognition by both public and private professionals that local government is going to have to be the fundamental decision maker on planning and delivery of service. That doesn't necessarily mean they have to own and operate it.

WW: Who has had the most influence on your professional life?

LH: A couple of guys have probably influenced me as much as anybody, but for different reasons. I had a bunch of sorry bosses for many years. I never worked for a boss who nurtured me until I worked for Dick Vaughan, who was then head of the EPA's solid waste office. He was a lot slicker than I was, but his style of management was a good deal like mine: "hands-on"; go-down-the hall-and-stop-in.

I found that most bosses never give a poop; if you don't ask for it yourself, you don't get it. Few bosses think about their people. He did.

I learned much about the field and about being analytical from Dick Eldredge. Additionally, a close, personal friend, Clay Ervine, had a lot of influence on me, both personally and professionally.

I've learned a lot from the people who worked with me, both at the federal solid waste program and again, at SWANA. My legacy is the young people who stayed in the field, grew professionally and are out there making contributions.

WW: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career in solid waste management?

LH: Go for it; it's a wonderful field, but not easy to get into. It's tougher now, because there were more avenues open when there was a very aggressive federal program that was intimately involved. It's also tougher now because the leadership is so diverse and spread everywhere.

WW: How would a young college graduate get into the solid waste industry?

LH: It's tough to get into local government. Private sector also is tough, and there aren't a lot of jobs out there. Ours is a field that can absorb a wide variety of talent and educational backgrounds because it's still as much an art as it is a science. The industry's management people seem to be coming in laterally now rather than vertically. They're coming over from other fields. For example, we've created a whole new cadre of people who we call "recycling coordinators" who probably didn't know jack diddly about solid waste, but they're into it now.

WW: Professionally speaking, knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently? . LH: I would have gotten into it earlier. I'm satisfied professionally. I wish I had been a little more clever when I was at the EPA because I think I could have made greater contributions. I could have played the system better but it just isn't my nature.

WW: What are your plans for the future?

LH: Like when I went to work for GRCDA in 1978, I don't have big plans. I want to stay involved with SWANA's training program as long as they'll let me. I've taken over as the technical secretary for the ISWA sanitary landfill working group, an extremely high level of people from around the world who are invested heavily in the art of sanitary landfilling.

I would like to do some consulting work. I believe that I can help local governments make decisions. I developed a credit course at Maryland, and that book can be revised and made into a solid waste primer.

I think a year from now if you ask me what I'm going to do, I will know a lot more about it. Retiring is a lot more difficult than going to work.