The Next 50 Years

Aug. 23, 2013

Last year at WASTECON in Washington DC, SWANA celebrated its 50th anniversary. We had the opportunity to look back at the changes in solid waste management since SWANA’s inception. We reflected on how SWANA has grown and developed during that period, evolving into the premier professional solid waste management association in the world and becoming a primary force in leading the transformation to environmentally and economically sound solid waste management across North America.

This year’s WASTECON in Long Beach will focus on some of the issues and challenges that SWANA and its members will face over the next 50 years. Through a series of plenary Mega Sessions, in particular, we will introduce several new and emerging concepts (new at least to us in North America) to stimulate discussion about options available as we embark upon SWANA’s second 50 years.

As we begin this journey, keep in mind these wise words by Winston Churchill and Isaac Asimov. Winston Churchill said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” Your thoughts and dreams today can be tomorrow’s reality. You can create your future. “Your assumptions are your windows on the world,” said Isaac Asimov. “Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Leave your doubts and preconceptions at home, and think about what might be possible rather than what won’t work here.

The first Mega Session will focus on Global Solid Waste Management. Things are being done very differently in other parts of the world, and in some places they are working very well. How differently? How about a $70 per ton landfill tax, which drives wastes away from landfills and to recycling and alternative technologies? How about countries that are building hundreds of new waste-to-energy facilities as part of a strategy to produce distributed, domestic renewable energy supplies? However, some parts of the developing world still have a very primitive waste management infrastructure with limited collection systems, uncontrolled dumping, scavengers living on disposal sites and wastes dumped in canals, rivers and lakes. Is this an opportunity for North American expertise and technology? We can learn from some countries, and perhaps we can be part of the solution for others.

In a second Mega Session, you will hear from an entrepreneurial plastics engineer, Mike Biddle, who set up a lab in his garage and began experimenting with complex plastics separation and recycling processes, borrowing ideas from industries as diverse as mining and grain processing. He has developed a patented 30-step plastics -recycling system that magnetically extracts metals, shreds the plastics, and sorts them by polymer type to produce graded pellets to be reused by industry-a process that takes less than a tenth of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil. Today, his company has plants in China, Europe, and Japan but none in the US. Why? Because the US does not have in place the collection and recycling policies that would assure access to the plastic waste materials and justify the investment. In fact, most plastic scrap from North America is exported to the very unstable and unreliable recycling markets in China. We must think about what policies are needed to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in the establishment of new -domestic recycling markets for plastic scrap and other recyclables.

The third Mega Session will be the SWANA Safety Summit, where an expert panel from both the public and private sectors will discuss what programs and actions can make the solid waste field a safer industry. This is extremely important, as solid waste management is in the top tier of unsafe industries, with one of the highest accident frequencies and fatality rates. The panelists will present case studies of successful safety programs and explain how investing in safety can actually improve an organization’s bottom line. Employee awareness and training are very important, but we also need to be proactive in removing workers from unsafe working conditions. Automated collection is a good example that eliminates workers behind the truck in potentially dangerous traffic conditions and eliminates many puncture wounds, cuts, and muscle strain -injuries. We can learn from several foreign cities that use pneumatic systems to collect solid waste through underground pipes and ducts. For the most part, we don’t use trucks to deliver drinking water and remove sewage from our homes and businesses; why do we have to use them to collect garbage?

The last two Mega Sessions will cover conversion technologies and extended producer responsibility. Both will introduce very forward-looking concepts. The Waste Conversion Technology Panel will discuss the status and challenges of bringing innovative technologies online, technologies that hold the potential to derive very high-value fuels and chemicals from solid waste. If any of these technologies live up to their potential, they will be game-changers with respect to the economics of resource recovery systems. The Extended Producer Responsibility Panel will explore efforts to increase recycling by involving producers in the recovery and recycling of discarded products. State and provincial legislation in this area has made significant progress toward a goal of making product recycling a significant -aspect of product design early in the production process.

Regardless of the challenges and opportunities of the next 50 years, there is one thing I know for certain: SWANA members will be leading the innovation and shaping the future. We know we can learn so much from each other at WASTECON and from our other education programs. We appreciate the undeniable value of the diverse perspectives and knowledge of thousands of solid waste professionals, sharing information and working together. As the enlightened Gautama Buddha said: “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”

Join us September 17-19 in Long Beach. Bring your dreams and ideas, and help take the next steps along the path through the Next 50 Years of Advancement. For complete event details or to register, visit us at
About the Author

John H. Skinner

John H. Skinner, Ph.D., is Executive Director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

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