Leading the Solid Waste Industry

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
Written by Claire Suttles

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) has been the leading association in the solid waste management field for over sixty years. With forty-seven chapters in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, and more than ten thousand public and private sector members, SWANA is the largest member-based solid waste association in the world. The organization provides technical conferences, certifications, publications, and a wide variety of technical training courses to support the industry.

The industry faced tremendous pressure during the global pandemic, and SWANA has been there to support members through the tough times. “SWANA and the industry have overcome a lot of adversity over these last eighteen months,” says SWANA Applied Research Director Jeremy O’Brien. Residential waste spiked by twenty percent at the onset of the quarantine, and commercial waste plummeted, as people stayed home from work.

The industry had to navigate the shifting landscape while meeting the challenges of operating safely to reduce the spread of the virus and coping with a high number of COVID-related employee absences. “That’s created some delays in the collection of waste in certain areas and some concern, especially the residential sector,” O’Brien says. “They are used to having their waste picked up on a regular and efficient basis, so this is a new thing for them. But, I think through all of this society, in general, has really begun to recognize how important and essential solid waste management is as a public service and how much they depend on it. It’s just one of those things where, I guess [like the singer] Joni Mitchell said, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’”

Now, the public has developed “a renewed appreciation for good solid waste management systems and services, and we appreciate that as an industry, especially our workers because their work is hard and often overlooked and underappreciated.”

An ongoing focus for SWANA is waste-to-energy (WTE), the thermal treatment of solid waste that produces baseload electricity and/or steam. WTE is “universally ranked above landfill disposal in every waste hierarchy,” O’Brien reports. He explains that the technology is commercially proven and reliable for a community’s non-recycled residual waste and that “many WTE facilities in the U.S. have been operating reliably, safely, and consistently for over forty years.”

WTE reduces the volume to be landfilled by a whopping ninety percent. The residue, or ash, is stable, inert waste and does not generate methane or create acidic conditions—which can cause serious problems for the environment. And, WTE goes a step further to eliminate harmful substances. The thermal process destroys pathogens, pharmaceuticals, and hazardous chemicals that remain in waste disposed of through traditional methods.

One substance that does remain in the residue is metal and aggregates, which can then be recovered and reused. “More metals are recovered than from source separation recycling programs,” O’Brien reports. WTE also enables recovering the energy value of discarded waste products, conserving fossil fuels.

However, there is opposition to WTE throughout North America, particularly over concerns that thermal treatment harms the environment and public health. O’Brien explains that SWANA is focused on “overcoming the negative public perception of WTE,” and is working hard to win over environmental groups through education. He points out that, according to the EPA, WTE “generates electricity cleaner than coal and almost any other source,” and that “WTE emissions are 70 percent below MACT standards.” O’Brien also shares that, in 2007, the National Research Council found “no association between human health impacts and the operation of WTE facilities. Health benefits may outweigh health risks.”

Over 96 percent of residual waste in Europe is diverted through WTE, but there are some key challenges to implementing the method in North America. In addition to environmental concerns, there is the fact that setting up a facility is “significantly more expensive than landfilling,” O’Brien says. “[It] requires large upfront capital cost investment.” Another problem is that the energy sold by these high-cost WTE facilities is bringing lower prices due to competition from low-priced natural gas recovered by fracking.

There is also the concern that low-income populations might be negatively affected by any new WTE facilities. In the past, people with more privilege typically pushed these sites out of their neighborhoods into the backyards of the underprivileged. “Siting of new facilities is always difficult, but will be more so due to the need to address environmental justice concerns,” O’Brien says.

SWANA’s role in promoting WTE begins with educating local government policymakers, solid waste managers, and the general public about the benefits of thermal treating solid waste before its disposal in landfills. The organization also provides performance and cost data on other residual waste management options—such as mechanical-biological treatment and sending untreated waste directly to landfills—so that communities can choose the best option for them. It conducts and publishes applied research on all waste management options to ensure members and the public has access to reliable data and analysis.

O’Brien predicts low growth in WTE facilities over the next decade due to the relatively low cost of landfill disposal and low energy prices coupled with the high cost of building new WTE facilities. “Most activity will center around the replacement or rehab of the seventy-plus existing WTE facilities which are reaching the end of their service lives.” But, he believes there will be “renewed interest in WTE/thermal treatment over the long term as the drawbacks of other options—long haul disposal, mechanical biological treatment—become more documented and recognized.”

Protecting public health from a group of manufactured chemicals known by the acronym PFAS is another important SWANA initiative. PFAS are found in a wide variety of products from antilock brake systems and firefighting foam to nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpet. These highly durable chemicals have incredibly strong bonds that do not break down easily, so they remain in the environment. “It is showing up in our drinking water, and pretty much every human on the planet has a little bit in their bloodstream because it’s so ubiquitous,” O’Brien says.

The issue has been given a considerable amount of attention at both the state and federal levels, and Congress has passed the PFAS Action Act requiring the EPA to designate these chemicals as hazardous within one year. SWANA is issuing two reports on PFAS in WTE emissions and landfill leachate this year to keep the industry abreast of the issue.

Another notable SWANA report that came out this year promoted opportunities for women in the industry. “We produced a report on the need for women to get involved in solid waste collection, how it could be a good option for them,” O’Brien says. The report highlights a couple of communities that are making a special effort to promote woman drivers—an effort worth recognizing in an industry in which fewer than three percent of drivers are women.

In yet another initiative, SWANA helps the solid waste industry in other regions of the world to overcome challenges. “We have an interest in helping developing nations modernize systems, and we have a focus in Latin America,” O’Brien says. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve received a grant to aid Colombian solid waste managers in developing their systems, and we developed a course on landfilling for them and also brought them over to the U.S. to tour some of our facilities.”

Another SWANA initiative is to improve safety throughout the industry. “Safety is a big priority for us, and the pandemic has increased our focus on health and safety,” O’Brien says. A specific issue the organization is addressing involves lithium-ion batteries, which are used in a wide variety of commonly used items including smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, electronic cigarettes, power tools, and electric vehicles. “Unfortunately, some people put these batteries in their recycling bins and when they get to the materials recovery facility they hit the concrete on the tipping floor and they can tear open their packaging and it can cause a fire,” O’Brien says. “It’s a growing problem, so we’re trying to address that.”

SWANA is developing a new five-year plan this fall. Moving forward, the organization will help the industry become more sustainable and support its role in the circular economy. SWANA will also help the industry address new challenges such as food waste diversion, plastics recycling and litter management, extended producer responsibility initiatives, and materials recovery facility automation and robotics. The industry has overcome a lot in recent years and has many challenges yet to overcome, and SWANA is committed to leading the way through it all.



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