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
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
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
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,
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
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