Solid Waste 101: Applied Experience

The Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), Chesapeake, Va., evaluated more than 20 candidates nationwide in its search for a new executive director in 1998. However, SPSA found the best man for the job in its own backyard.

Appointed SPSA's executive director in March of this year, John Hadfield has had a leadership role in the authority since 1978, helping it to negotiate a contract with the U.S. Navy for the purchase of refuse-derived fuel from SPSA and overseeing financing, construction, operation and maintenance of SPSA's integrated solid waste management system.

Hadfield remains busy overseeing SPSA's waste disposal services, which include waste-to-energy; yardwaste composting; drop-off, curbside, tire, used oil and other recycling programs; household hazardous waste collection; landfilling; landfill gas-to-energy; and education programs, but this solid waste veteran took time out to share his thoughts on the future of solid waste operations with World Wastes. [For more information on SPSA's integrated solid waste system, see "Integrated Waste Systems: Making the Puzzle Work," World Wastes June 1998, page 28.]

WW: The industry is becoming increasingly competitive. How has competition affected SPSA's operations during your tenure?

JH: Overall, we have become more cost-conscience and revenue-sensitive, because our board of directors, member communities and other customers will not accept tipping fee increases.

To prevent waste diversion to private landfills and to recapture lost waste, we have lowered fees for certain commercial waste classes and recently have offered further reductions for contracted capacity based on quantity and time of delivery. We also are becoming more involved in niche market activities such as proprietary waste incineration. And, we are involved in several revenue-sharing enterprises, such as soil remediation, ferrous metal recovery, tire shredding and landfill gas recovery for power generation, with private companies.

To control operating costs, we have:

* consolidated management and maintenance at our waste processing plant and power plant;

* installed two-way radios for dispatching transfer tractor/trailers;

* staggered work hours and days to match waste flow;

* changed to four 10-hour days for curbside recycling collection;

* installed on-board scales and increased municipal solid waste (MSW) trailer size from 90 cubic yards (cy) to 110 cy to maximize loads; and

* plan to use an alternative daily cover to supplement the use of soil at the regional landfill.

We also have installed a shredder at our waste processing plant to use otherwise non-processable waste for fuel. In short, we continue to seek capital investments that have quick payback to reduce operating costs.

WW: How is SPSA preparing for the next level of competition?

JH: As a public agency, we have certain competitive advantages. We are tax exempt, do not need to make a profit and enjoy governmental purchasing pricing. Furthermore, by providing a stable work environment and competitive pay and benefits, we expect to maintain a productive and motivated employee base that will continue to be competitive in the marketplace.

WW: What are the disadvantages of being a public-sector solid waste manager?

JH: The disadvantages are mostly inefficiencies related to state mandate compliance; restrictions on the types and scope of services we offer; environmental issues; managing the image that accompanies being a public agency; and [maintaining] the service level to member communities. Also, getting the eight independent member communities, whose representatives comprise our board of directors, to reach a consensus on major decisions is sometimes a lengthy process. Finally, because we are required to do our business in public, we are unable to develop competitive business strategies in private.

Most of the disadvantages are inconveniences and frustrations that "go with the territory" rather than major impediments to daily operations. Our advantages outweigh any disadvantages.

WW: It's evident that the industry is consolidating. How is the consolidation of private contractors affecting SPSA?

JH: Many of these consolidations tend to reduce competition; none enhance it. The impacts, therefore, are more apparent to waste generators that have fewer collection and/ or disposal options. However, maintaining a public disposal option for those few remaining independent haulers keeps them competitive.

In the first quarter of our fiscal year, commercial waste quantities were up considerably, primarily because of fee reductions. However, the potential for diversion to private landfills is ever present and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, haul distances and traffic delays to these private facilities work in our favor.

WW: You mentioned that maintaining a productive and motivated employee base was important to remaining competitive. Describe your training and safety programs.

JH: SPSA offers a variety of courses that were developed in response to suggestions from employees, supervisors and managers. Our courses target personal accountability and motivational training to improve employee development and communication skills, and training courses to increase critical thinking skills. Our Employee Assistance Program also assists us in conducting courses that concern wellness and stress management.

Currently, we are developing an internal certification program aimed at first-line supervisors. The program's objective is to recognize and validate rofessional growth. It will identify the aptitudes or skills needed to succeed in our organization, then offer the training resources to develop those skills.

We also offer training opportunities outside the organization that are supported by a tuition reimbursement program. We arrange for employee training and Virginia Waste Management and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification. In addition, all employees can attend the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles' defensive driving classes, which we offer on-site.

All of us at SPSA are responsible for safety, but we also have a full-time safety department with three full-time employees who are responsible for safety programs, training and inspections, as well as employee physicals and audiometric and pulmonary function testing.

Our comprehensive safety program focuses on accident and injury prevention. We require new employees to attend an eight-hour orientation that introduces them our programs and to the hazards associated with working in a solid waste industrial environment. For example, we train employees to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards in a variety of issues.

The safety staff inspects each operating unit quarterly to ensure that all work centers adhere to our safety programs. And, when a loss occurs, we conduct a comprehensive follow-up accident investigation. The investigation results are sent to management and supervisory personnel, as well as to our insurance carriers to ensure that all recommendations for preventing re-occurrence are discussed and evaluated.

The key to our successful safety program is employee participation at every level. For instance, employees from each department serve on the safety committee, which meets monthly to evaluate accidents and resolve related problems. Additionally, employees and their spouses attend an annual, formal safety awards banquet, where we recognize good safety records with cash awards up to $1,000.

WW: How do you find and keep good employees?

JH: With budget constraints and reduced tipping fees, it has become more difficult [to find and keep good employees], but our basic policies remain in place. We examine salary ranges annually to remain competitive in the local market, and we use an annual performance appraisal system with a merit pay plan. Our benefits include a generous leave policy, paid membership in the Virginia state retirement system and paid health insurance for employees. In addition, the relative stability of public employment is attractive to many [people], especially more mature people, and we try to use this to our advantage.

WW: You mentioned working under budget constraints. What advice do you have for our readers who are trying to do more with less?

JH: We have heard and read a lot about entrepreneurial government. Since Carbone, an entrepreneurial spirit has become a way of life for us. The status quo is no longer an option. Nonetheless, we have to realize that we suffer from "bad press." Government agencies at all levels are perceived to be overstaffed, inefficient and less competent than their commercial counterparts. "The private sector can do it better and cheaper" is a statement many still believe. Public trust should not be taken for granted. We must take the necessary actions to increase productivity and reduce costs from top to bottom.

Private companies have targeted most governmental public works activities as market expansion opportunities. We are part of a competitive industry and must be prepared to compete if we are to survive.

WW: What is the recipe for success in your job and for being an effective solid waste manager?

JH: Building relationships with our members, customers and even our competitors is important for success. We also need to have a vision of where the organization is going and how that vision can contribute to the members and to our customers. Finally, we must communicate that vision to the members.

WW: In regard to relationships, what benefits has SPSA derived from networking?

JH: When we began operations 15 years ago, we actually knew very little about solid waste management. However, we recognized early on that the industry tended to "reinvent the wheel," and we resolved not to do that. We visited facilities up and down the East Coast and relied heavily on our own intuition, vendors and engineering consultants to provide us with the expertise that we lacked.

Today, we continue to compare notes, share information and seek advice from our public sector friends. We strategize, seek solutions, exchange fee schedules and unit costs, observe other operations for different ways of doing things and, in general, build trust and respect for the opinions of others in similar circumstances.

WW: Which other solid waste operations do you admire, and what "best practices" of theirs have you incorporated into your own operations?

JH: In our visits to other operations, we seek out their unique activities as well as their mistakes. One activity that interests us is Monterey's (Calif.) "Last Chance Mercantile," which is a unique form of recycling - a program that removes "gently used" items from the waste stream and offers them to the public in a kind of public garage sale.

Another is Lancaster's (Pa.) creation of a private subsidiary company that is able to negotiate prices and offer services in a broad market, and that isn't handicapped by the public's rules of engagement.

WW: How do you see the industry changing during the next five years?

JH: Shakespeare wrote, "The past is prologue." During the past five years, we have seen dramatic changes, including the loss of flow control, industry consolidations, and a deliberate move by EPA to eliminate a sound waste management hierarchy.

In the next five years, consolidations will slow; public agencies, especially single-purpose agencies, will become increasingly entrepreneurial; and the public will come to recognize the intrinsic value of waste management strategies that do not rely on landfilling. There is likely to be renewed pressure on controlling interstate waste flow, though I am doubtful that Congress will allow regulatory control.

The next five years will not be more of the same. Change is the only constant.