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Where to focus our attention


bitterjug_magnifying_glass_clip_artBrian Tippetts, a director with the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) contacted me recently via Linkedin (hey, maybe Linkedin is useful after all!) and shared a blog entry from John Trotti, editor of US-based MSW Management magazine, which I’ve reproduced below.

Tippetts is an Editorial Advisory Board member of that magazine, and Trotti agreed to blog on a topic that Tippetts had suggested, that being, where should the waste management industry focus its attention in future? i.e., where should waste professionals focus their planning?

It’s clear that MSW Management, as per its name, focuses on municipal waste. SWANA deals with all aspects of waste management but arguably has its greatest “bench strength” in landfill issues and landfill technology. Its MOLO landfill operator courses are, for instance, the industry standard.

So it’s not surprising (and I mean this in an entirely positive way) that the focus of Tippetts and Trotti’s blog piece is on the benefits of landfills and how they could be re-purposed in various ways, such as waste management industrial parks. For the record, I agree with this, and most or all of the ideas Tippetts puts forward.

In Canada, landfills have certificates of approval (C of A’s in industry parlance) which are damned difficult to obtain. It makes sense that as higher-tech disposal and increasingly complex waste diversion (processing, recycling, composting, etc.) gains traction, landfill facilities should become the location of these activities. And where the landfills are “mined” for their buried treasure (e.g., aluminum and other metals), not only will fresh disposal “air space” be created, but space for the other diversion activities.

Anyway, here’s the short blog entry from John Trotti (and the direct link), and please note that I offer a few more thoughts of my own below.

http://www.mswmanagement.com/MSW/Blogs.aspx?bloggerid=c9d06da1-dd88-42eb-b619-c76eff305aee

 

Where to Focus Our Attention

by John Trotti, Editor, MSW Management magazine

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I received an e-mail this morning from my Editorial Advisory Board member, Brian Tippetts, wondering whether we in the waste management industry are spending enough time planning for the future.

I’d like to present some of his thoughts, asking you to respond with yours:

Landfill properties are huge assets; but more important than the landfill itself is that the space can also be used for processing and managing materials that don’t need to be buried. Look at the benefits landfills have:

* People in the waste materials management business know the landfills and their locations.

* Transportation logistics are known.

* Landfills have knowledgeable staff who can readily manage new activities.

* Infrastructure at landfills can readily support additional functions (roads, equipment, energy, utilities).

* Landfills are zoned in a way that would make it easy to do materials management and/or transfer.

* Landfills could easily have synergies with other businesses.

* It’s is much easier to expand activities at a landfill property than start at a new site.

Two consultants gave me their perspectives of the future of solid waste management. Allow me to grossly paraphrase and add some more substance to their thoughts.

As society demands more and more waste diversion from landfills while also focusing on financial austerity:

* There will be a push to maximize collection efficiency through organized collection and uniform services within a collection region (this will reduce costs).

* Landfills will not go away, but they will not be the industry’s cash cows of days past (landfills must transform themselves into waste management industrial business parks).

* And to organize efficient collection and waste diversion, local government will have to play a larger leadership role in planning (local government’s role will grow).

My question is: What types of solid waste professionals will it take to lead us into our next era?

Brian raises several issues ripe for discussion, and while all of us are involved in “the daily grind,” I see it as imperative we set aside time to dialog with our staffs, governing boards, elected officials, vendors, and other waste professionals to plan for a future that promises to be different from where we are today.

 

That’s the end of the Trotti blog entry. Now here are a couple of quick thoughts of my own.

The main thing I’d like to add is that this discussion is (understandably) framed as a challenge and planning exercise for professionals who self-identify as waste management practitioners, of the municipal and landfill variety. Which is fine, except the problem is that the most interesting and compelling future changes to the waste management system may not reside in their hands.

I mean no disrespect, of course. These are hardworking folks who have (literally) done the heavy lifting in waste management for decades. As long as we think of waste as “waste” and as long as the consumer society chugs along uninterrupted, aside from the occasional genuflection to sustainability like the blue box, then the conversation Tippetts is opening up is worthwhile.

But to my Canadian sensibilities there’s something especially “American” about the framework within which that conversation is likely to unfold, in the sense that the USA, in most places, accepts the concept “garbage” and the “garbage” industry, i.e., the disposal industry. And I hastily add that Canada is just as “bad” in that regard. I’ve seen the data that reveals we generate a shocking amount of waste per person in the Great White North, so don’t think I’m being smug.

The distinction I would make, and it’s the thing with which I would challenge the audience of MSW Management (much as I do my own audience in Canada) is that we need to stop thinking of waste as “waste” and start rethinking the entire economic system, with a view to transforming it into one of cradle-to-cradle production, as is advocated by groups such as the Product Policy Institute (www.productpolicy.org) of which I’m a huge fan. Under the PPI paradigm, the waste management business would (to an extent) disappear as producers switch to truly sustainable means of producing products, eliminating packaging, or at least using packaging that’s easily and economically recyclable.

Of course, the path towards making that happen is to make producers responsible — legally and economically — for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging, via what’s known as extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Okay, now I will get a little smug and say that Canada is way further ahead on the EPR front than the United States. I admit that we’re nowhere near as far as we need to be, but in Canada these days, the conversations are more and more about how to implement EPR for every conceivable product and package, and not so much with the landfill of the future.

And in Canada, the conversation has turned toward action, most recently with British Columbia implementing some very powerful EPR regulations and programs that are changing the product and waste landscape dramatically. And Ontario, with its proposed Bill 91, Waste Reduction Act, is attempting to do the same. The “facts on the ground” aren’t terribly impressive yet, but the tone of the conversation is serious and it’s clearly a matter of when, not if, producers will pay for and in some cases directly manage their products and packaging from start to finish (and reuse).

I recall Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) once saying in a presentation that the contemporary automobile is the last relic of the Iron Age and that computer companies like Microsoft would likely be the inventors of the car of the future, not the traditional Big Three car companies. (It turns out that it’s Google, but Google wasn’t around yet when I heard this speech.)

Similarly, unless they reinvent themselves dramatically, the waste management system of the future will not be designed and operated by traditional municipal waste management staff, who today manage collection routes, landfill operations and curbside recycling programs. These municipal managers will certainly continue with their traditional duties during a transitional period. But if we’re planning for the future, as Tippetts invites us to do, instead I envision a new generation of savvy professionals overseeing process changes and system redesign at the wholesale and retail level, such that products and packaging never finds its way into any traditional waste stream.

In Canada, the talk these days is already about next-generation EPR, sometimes called “individual producer responsibility” (IPR). While most of the American programs the PPI is calling for have been limited to a finite list of offbeat waste materials (e.g., household hazardous waste), in Canada the movement is toward having industry pay for end-of-life management of all the materials in the municipal waste stream, with the exception perhaps of compostable organic material.

Some companies will continue to use the services of municipal collection and processing systems. (This is what’s happening in BC.) But with IPR, they can’t just hive off their responsibilities to a collective of stewards (sometimes called a  “producer responsibility organization” or PRO). While they can band together with other companies to exploit economies of scale, the law holds the companies individually accountable for results. At the moment, the deadlines and diversion levels are vague (as well as how diversion will be enforced) but, again, in Canada this is the conversation we’re having. And it’s becoming real, not just talk in the corridors of recycling conferences (which it certainly was only a few years ago; I know, I was there!). Waste professionals in the private and public sector are scrambling to figure out what their roles will be when IPR becomes a full reality across the country. (For an update, visit the website of EPR Canada and read its latest province-by-province “report card”: www.eprcanada.ca)

No one knows what it will all look like in a few years. Maybe the waste management landscape will look a lot like the way it is today (a thought I find depressing). But if the policymakers get it right, and if the elected officials have the intestinal fortitude to see IPR through and resist lobbying from certain industry groups (a dubious proposition, admittedly) the situation could look quite different. Canada (at least) could have more of a European style in the way it does business.

To finish off, here’s a short list of some features I imagine in an IPR-oriented economy:

  1. Much less plastic packaging and laminates and more fibre-based packages. For example, think of those clear plastic containers in which screws and nails, etc. are sold at places like the Home Depot: when producers have to collect and recycle all that stuff, even if it comes from China, they’re going to switch to the least-cost easiest-to-recycle package. No more “mystery” plastics that gum up recycling equipment or lead to high contamination rates. Much more of this stuff will be sold in bulk, as it was in our grandparents’ hardware store.
  2. Speaking of bulk, Bulk Barn stores are perfectly positioned for an IPR future. As companies switch toward greater sustainability, they’ll have to rely less on individual packages to “carry their advertising message” and will rely more on social media to get their message out. Bulk and bin purchasing will be commonplace.
  3. Watch for the return of the refillable bottle. This is anathema for the soft drink industry (that’d be “soda” to you American readers) and also the beer and beverage industry in general. These industries have lobbied against refillables for decades and have dismantled the bottle refilling plants that used to be ubiquitous. With IPR, refilling will become a competitive advantage for some producers. Watch for the soft drink industry to adopt the refilling model exemplified by The Beer Store — one of the world’s most successful models of IPR in action.
  4. As they’re forced to internalize their packaging costs or pass them along to consumers in higher prices (but are disallowed from displaying them as a separate eco fee or “tax” at the cash register), watch for companies extolling the benefits of their “green” products and packages. Better labeling will tell consumers where to return their product or package, and what its recycling future may be. Apps on smart phones will read bar codes for more detailed information.
  5. There will be a lot of return-to-retail for items like batteries and old cell phones, but this will show up in other less familiar areas. The example I like to think of is those plastic and foil laminate disks used in single-serve coffee machines like the Tassimo, the Keurig etc. Consumers will stop buying these machines and purchasing the disks at all, unless they can return them for recycling. Currently in Ontario, where I live, there’s no clear program for these items. However, when chatting with a relative who lives in Montreal recently, I learned that she saves them in a clear plastic bag and returns them to her supermarket in Quebec. It’s ridiculous that there’s a program there for these materials, and not one where I live. Eventually all jurisdictions will have such programs, and producers will no longer get away with dumping their crap on ratepayers wherever they can get away with it.
  6. I could go on and on, but let me wrap up by saying that a plethora of novel businesses and “cottage industries” will likely spring up that we can’t even imagine today, recycling materials that are currently landfilled, or gathering empty containers for washing and reuse. If given a chance, market forces will “solve the problem,” so it’s important that policymakers not be overly prescriptive in what specific packaging materials industry should use, and government should not intervene heavily in negotiations between producers and municipalities (if these are hired to continue collecting and processing material). Government should write the rules, set targets and timelines, and enforce them. But it should not micromanage the process by creating new bureaucracies and special agencies. It should “steer, not row” (to use the old adage). Note that this is not the same as saying EPR or IPR programs should be voluntary. Regulation is needed, and it should be enforced by environmental regulatory agencies; this will work much as it did for the reduction of chemical wastes that used to be spewed untreated into our waterways and air sheds.

(Note that the October/November edition of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine delves into these issues in depth. The cover story is about a new industry-led recycling guideline that has been developed by the Ontario Waste Management Association and the Canadian Standards Association that would hold recyclers to certain thresholds of performance. The page four editor’s page editorial discusses what’s happening on the EPR front in Ontario and BC. The op-ed “Blog” column on page 46 provides an article by Barbara McConnell and Geoff Love on EPR Canada’s latest Report Card on EPR performance across Canada.)

 


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1 Comment » for Where to focus our attention
  1. Thanks for sharing this Guy. I really appreciate the insights that you added.

    I can’t stand the idea of waste and I would like to see a world in which it doesn’t exist. So I spend time thinking about what the waste management companies of tomorrow would look like. One opportunity I see with extended producer responsibility and individual producer responsibility programs is how do we get the products made from various materials and used by busy consumers back as a resource?

    I see the waste management company of tomorrow as the expert in reverse logistics. Able to collect different products from consumers, sort the products into material streams and deliver raw materials back to the producer to be remake a product.

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