Overcoming Challenges in the Solid Waste Industry

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

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), the largest member-based solid waste association in the world, has been leading the industry for over six decades. From technical conferences and publications to certifications and technical training courses, it offers a variety of support to members throughout the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

In November 2021, Resource in Focus profiled the association’s efforts to lead the industry through the global pandemic. Six months later, the organization continues to navigate the challenges COVID has brought while simultaneously dealing with ongoing, industry-specific issues.

The workforce shortage remains a major concern. “The solid waste industry is experiencing a significant worker shortage, due to the confluence of a number of factors,” says Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer David Biderman. “First, the pandemic has meant that during each of the surges, including the Omicron variant in December 2021 into February 2022, an elevated percentage of workers were either sick or quarantining because someone in their family or household has the coronavirus. Second, some industry workers, particularly drivers and helpers involved in collection, have moved to other industries that offer higher wages. Third, there was a driver shortage even before the pandemic,” he explains.

“The industry has had to make operational changes in some places in response to the worker shortage,” he continues. “Trash and recycling collection was delayed in January 2022 in many communities. Fortunately, as the Omicron surge has receded, those delays have largely ended.” However, collection is still not back to normal in all places. “Some communities have reduced the frequency of recycling collection from weekly to every other week,” he reports. “Some communities have suspended curbside collection of recyclables or yard waste, hopefully temporarily.”

The association is actively working to help overcome the challenge. “As the worker shortage has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic, SWANA has shared best practices being used by waste companies and local governments to recruit and retain workers, including raising wages, paying recruitment and retention bonuses, targeting veterans, using social media to reach younger prospects, and highlighting the benefits of working in the solid waste industry,” Biderman says.

Most recently, SWANA’s March 2022 SOAR conference (named for sustainability, operation, action, resources) in Kansas City featured a session on recruitment and retention strategies for solid waste and recycling. In addition, the association has produced multiple reports on the worker shortage. In early 2020, SWANA’s Applied Research Foundation (ARF) issued a report highlighting innovative methods that communities are using to recruit and retain drivers, with a focus on the City of Phoenix’s efforts to attract female drivers.

In May 2021, SWANA published a report on the labor shortage, and then issued a warning in December 2021 regarding the delays caused by the Omicron surge combined with the increase in waste from the holiday season. This year, the association has been featured in several national-level media stories on the impact of the Omicron variant on the waste industry.

Another top SWANA priority is promoting safety throughout the industry. “One of the biggest challenges facing the waste industry is safety and, specifically, fatal incidents involving the industry’s workers,” Biderman says. “Collecting solid waste is currently considered the sixth-most-dangerous occupation in the U.S. by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Historically, nearly every week, a solid waste worker, often in collection, is killed on the job. Earlier this week (March 23), a private-sector collection employee in Florida died when the truck he was riding in overturned. Earlier this month (March 1), in a similar incident in Kansas City, the turning over of a truck caused a fire and two collection employees were killed.”

“SWANA has greatly expanded its safety program over the past five years, adding a variety of new resources and initiatives to provide training and information to workers in the industry,” he says. Perhaps most notably, the association boasts a chapter-based Safety Ambassadors program with a safety position in each of the organization’s forty-seven chapters, located throughout the United States and Canada. Some chapters even have multiple safety ambassadors.

“SWANA communicates frequently with its Safety Ambassadors who share information about chapter-led safety efforts, data, and upcoming events,” Biderman says. In addition, the association offers a new weekly safety newsletter, free safety posters, and ‘Slow Down to Get Around’ truck stickers.

A hauler outreach program provides safety information to waste collection crews when they arrive at landfills and other waste disposal facilities. This commitment to safety will continue long term; the issue is expected to be a core part of the strategic plan to be released in June 2022.

The safe disposal of PFAS chemicals is another key issue in which the association continues to be actively involved. It commented on a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report a few years ago and, more recently, a SWANA committee led by Ivan Cooper guided the organization’s technical response to the National PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which the EPA announced in fall 2021.

“Although SWANA and its members agree that PFAS needs to be regulated and discharges reduced, there is widespread concern that EPA’s regulations may have unintended consequences for many communities’ solid waste programs,” Biderman summarizes.

“Landfills did not manufacture PFAS nor did they use them in consumer products such as clothing, cosmetics, or kitchenware [such as] Teflon. Landfills—and waste-to-energy facilities—are passive receivers of waste materials that contain PFAS. During the decomposition of waste at a landfill, leachate is generated, and it contains PFAS, which typically is sent to a local wastewater treatment facility (WWTF). Some of these facilities have begun to prohibit or restrict their intake of leachate due to public health concerns or impending regulations. This has the potential to increase operational costs for landfills as the number of outlets for leachate decreases and/or landfills are forced to install expensive PFAS treatment systems to handle the sixteen billion gallons of leachate they generate annually.”

The EPA is expected to issue a proposed regulation later this year as part of the agency’s Strategic Roadmap that will designate two PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund program. “SWANA and other waste management stakeholders have met with the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to express concerns about the application of these proposals to landfills,” Biderman says.

“Specifically, if leachate from landfills contains a listed hazardous substance which creates Superfund liability, WWTFs are very unlikely to accept it, and past discharges by WWTFs of treated wastewater could create costly Superfund liability for landfills. This liability would likely be passed along to customers in the form of higher disposal costs. SWANA is educating federal policymakers and others about the potential for communities throughout the United States being forced to pay substantially higher waste disposal costs if the soon-to-be proposed Superfund regulation includes landfills.”

The association is eager to keep guiding the industry through these challenges and more. “SWANA intends to continue to be an industry leader,” Biderman says. “As the only national association in the United States and Canada that is coast-to-coast and includes members from both the public sector—cities and counties—and the private sector—haulers, landfills, recycling—SWANA plays a critical role in shaping the industry’s future.”

He explains that, “SWANA will continue to educate the industry, advocate for it in the media and in Washington, D.C., and provide safety resources and information to help get the industry off the list of the ten most dangerous occupations in the United States. Data released by SWANA in March 2022 suggests that SWANA’s efforts in this area may be paying off, as there was a 45 percent decline in solid waste industry worker fatalities in 2021 compared to 2020. At the same time, more work needs to be done in this area to ensure this was not a one-year blip.”

In addition, the association plans to become a ‘climate change champion,’ incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion principles into its operations and activities, and help make the waste industry a more attractive place to work.

“The solid waste industry is a terrific and important industry, and the pandemic has proven that it is essential as well,” Biderman summarizes. “Industry leaders need to continue to innovate, be responsive to customer needs and regulatory trends while providing cost-effective and environmentally protective services.”

This will not be easy, but the goal is within reach—especially with industry-wide support. “We have a lot on our plate and invite solid waste industry personnel throughout the United States and Canada to join SWANA and engage with our chapters and technical divisions,” Biderman says. “Together, we can shape the future of this great industry.”



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