APRIL 2010


Terry Weaver

The solid waste industry, ranging from collection services to operating landfills, is facing new challenges to maximize the diversion of recyclable materials from the waste stream, operate in a more environmentally responsible manner, and reduce costs while complying with strict government regulations.

To learn more about how the solid waste industry is coping with the many challenges facing them today, American Recycler spoke with Dr. John H. Skinner, PHD, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

How is the solid waste industry faring in the economic downturn?

Skinner: There are two issues that the industry has faced. One is the decline in volume and the most significant decline has been in C&D waste because the construction of new homes and commercial buildings is really down – I’ve heard of reductions of over 50 percent. Municipal and residential waste has declined as well, where people are buying fewer things because of the economy – I’ve heard numbers in the range of 15 percent.

The industry has also been hurt by the decline in recycling revenues due to the complete failure of the recycling markets that occurred about a year ago. The markets have come back somewhat, but not back to their higher prices of two years ago.

Both issues have squeezed the industry and most SWANA members are from local government, which are facing severe cutbacks in types of revenues, so it is affecting solid waste agencies as well. They have been cutting back in services and trying to improve their efficiencies. Some have been running deficits because of the economic downturn, which has led to layoffs, furloughs for certain job classifications, and reductions in the frequency of collections.

What steps has the industry taken to reduce fuel costs, be it installing more efficient engines or purchasing lighter vehicles?

Skinner: There is a lot of interest in all of those types of vehicles – lighter vehicles, hybrids and things like that, but those tend to be longer-term types of issues. Interest is growing in natural gas-powered vehicles – compressed and liquefied natural gas – because of the lower fuel costs and communities are starting to do that. It just takes time.

What is being done to develop recycling facilities at landfill sites, including projects to recover gases and mine for recyclables?

Skinner: The costs of recycling are not being covered by market prices for commodities as they have been in the past, but there is quite a bit being done to recover methane gases. This has been stimulated by the tax credits that were provided under the economic stimulus bill where recovery of methane is qualified as a renewable resource and they receive a production credit. That has led to a lot of interest in gas recovery. There are probably about 500 landfills (about 1/3 of the total across the continent) that are currently recovering landfill gas and selling it as renewable energy or using it to produce electricity.

Also being considered in Congress are renewable portfolio standards and other financial supports, and those will make it a lot more economical for other landfills to recover methane. Maybe another 400-500 can do that if the economics are right.

There is a little bit of interest in mining for recyclables, but not on a wide scale. I know of one or two projects, but they are not being driven by the value of recyclables, but by wanting to reuse the capacity in the landfill. All the landfills that were not developed very efficiently may want to mine out some of the recyclables and refill in an efficient manner.

Is it becoming harder to secure permits to expand landfills and or to build new ones? If so, what is being done to extend the lifespan of existing landfills?

Skinner: There is a considerable amount of effort to expand the life of existing landfills. It is very difficult to get permits for new ones, but if the landfill has a good operating record and history and has dealt with adjoining properties and their owners in a positive way, they can expand their facilities. In some instances expansion has been vertical – an expansion on the same property that the landfill has been operating on originally. Quite often landfill operators will acquire property beyond what they need for their immediate needs, with the idea of going back and expanding it in the future.

Is America facing a situation where landfills will soon be reaching their capacity? Are there ongoing discussions between industry and government to develop solutions before the problem becomes acute?

Skinner: The landfill shortage is a myth and there is considerable capacity in many landfills across the country. There may be some local issues where planning was not done right in a community and particular communities have some capacity issues, but there is over 20 years capacity on average across the U.S. Some landfills have 30 to 50 year capacities, so there is not an immediate problem that we are going to run out of space. The solutions that are being considered for affected communities are long-haul shipments to remote landfills where there is capacity and there is a fair amount of inter-state transport of waste, including rail.

There is also interest in waste-to-energy and other technologies that would reduce the reliance on landfills and this is because people are taking a much longer-term perspective, because at one point we are going to have capacity issues.

New York City no longer landfills within city jurisdictions and it transports its wastes to Virginia, Pennsylvania and even to Ohio. Los Angeles County had a very large landfill that is reaching capacity, but they opened a new one out in the desert and they are going to rail haul – they have many years capacity out there. The first thing that larger cities are doing is looking for capacity elsewhere.

Where do you see the industry in the next five years?

Skinner:  The big issues driving the industry right now are climate change and renewable energy. We are all watching very carefully in Congress and at the state level with respect to climate change regulations, renewable energy and how landfills and waste-to-energy facilities would be treated under that legislation. There are great opportunities to harness the energy from solid waste, recycling and through landfill gas that can fit well in the goals of that legislation. This will drive practices not only for the next five years, but for several decades.