2020: The Shape of Things To Come
The benefits are going to outweigh the complexities.
What will 2020 look like for the solid waste industry?
Transformed. 2020 will demand a very different approach to waste management. It will require us to address burdens that are emerging now. Collaboration will be essential and involve roles and relationships from both inside and outside of our traditional boundaries.
Our industry is used to transformation. Over the past 30 years we have overseen the introduction of controlled sanitary landfills, recycling programs, and automated trucks. We witnessed and participated in the development of modern waste-to-energy plants. Each of these strategies amassed significant performance records to be considered along with new strategies to be considered as we make decisions between now and 2020 that will result in impacts that extend over the following decades.
Looking back, change was driven by local concerns. Economics, environmental risk, and a desire to recover more were very common objectives. In hindsight, they were simplistic with little anticipation of the massive economic shifts that we are now experiencing. Now we know that local systems have an impact on regional performance. Those impacts matter when it comes to energy supply and demand, climate change, national security, and competitiveness in the global marketplace.
In light of these new considerations, it is fair to ask if our industry made enough progress over the last 30 years? We thought that efforts aimed at recycling would wean us from the need for landfills and that ultimately “everything” would be recycled. That goal has been illusive.
Looking backward we can see that by placing so much emphasis on recycling recovered materials and not enough on recovering energy from the wastestream, we missed opportunities to address problems that have been emerging since the 1980s. Claims used to oppose energy-recovery facilities have been disproved by actual performance records. Concerns that recycling would suffer due to the need to “feed the beast” were also unfounded as statistics from the US and Europe show that communities that rely on integrated solid waste management systems including WTE, recycle more material and generate otherwise wasted energy in exchange for a greater number of skilled jobs, fewer GHG emissions, and less dependence upon landfills. The unfortunate reality is that we are nearly as dependent upon landfills today as we were in 1980. Opposition to waste-to-energy facilities and a lack of emphasis on integrated systems and resource management contributed to our dependence.
Landfill dependence is a symptom of wasted resources at a time of need for renewable energy, reductions in GHG and other emissions, job creation, water conservation, and a range of manufacturing feedstock. While the solid waste industry has done a commendable job in the creation and operation of cost-effective waste management systems, 2020 will bring emphasis on integrated models that include energy and material recovery in more significant roles. Going forward, we will leverage our knowledge to maximize the use of technology, producer innovation, and collaboration in order to adjust to managing a broader range of responsibilities.
Our Emerging Role
2020 will bring more complexity than ever, but the results that we achieve will be worth the effort. Our industry will have a role to play in addressing the implications of multiple factors:
- Population growth
- Transportation bottlenecks
- Water shortages
- Demand for raw material
- Carbon and GHG emissions associated with fossil fuels
- National security issues linked to the need for imported oil
- Global competition
2020 will place our industry at the center of all of these issues and more. Waste managers will be working with a variety of partners. We will function as “resource managers” with roles to play across the entire product development, manufacturing, distribution, recovery and disposal chain. Traditional partners like Republic, Covanta and Volvo (to name a few) will be joined by companies including Coke, Dell, Procter & Gamble and Nike. Together, we will produce systems and solutions that reach much further up the product development and down the material-sourcing life cycle. Those new companies and many others will make significant strides in product innovation that will reduce waste material. They will also organize and participate in markets for waste-sourced material and energy.
The global economy will demand increasing levels of consumption. Even in a serious recession, consumption is at levels that exceed the planet’s ability to regenerate or digest. Our biggest challenge as an evolving industry will be to help in achieving a balance that will lead to “sustainable consumption.”
Making the change from waste to resource managers will require some adjustment. We will need to expand our knowledge, skill and operations capacity in order to address broader regional and global challenges. We can take a leadership position by adopting a “No Wasted Resources” mindset. Our goal should be to focus our efforts on recovering the full value of material up and down product life cycles.
For a glimpse into the future roles of resource managers, consider work that began in 2009. That year, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization led by former President Clinton, created its Rethinking Waste Action Network (Action Network). The Action Network is made up of thought leaders in the public, private and NGO sectors. Each participant has interests in resource management and active involvement in both developed and developing regions. Those resource managers were challenged to seek the balance between sustainability and consumption. They set an overarching goal of “eliminating the concept of waste as we know it.” Action Network objectives (deliberately limited based upon expertise of the individuals making up the group) were focused on avoiding the waste of natural, human and economic resources. They were linked to producer and technological innovation, progressive public policy, consumer education, and initiatives that are responsive to the informal economy (addressing global waste issues).
Since 2009, the Action Network has made significant strides across the four objectives listed above through its determination to capture the value of material even before it enters the wastestream. The experience provides a strong hint as to the future of our industry. Lessons learned suggest that by 2020, resource managers will concentrate on five areas.
- Supply chain security—a shift from residuals to resource management. Manufacturers will be concerned about their ability to respond to demand with competitively priced products. They will want to have confidence over the long term that supplies will be adequate, competitively priced and associated residuals are kept to a minimum (if not eliminated altogether) and managed in a sustainable manner. Resource managers will work with or for manufacturers in jobs that monitor and manage the flow of raw material including streams to be derived from recycling and recovery from the wastestream. They will focus networks of sources, transport systems, distribution and delivery as finished products, and residual disposal systems. They will play an active role through product life cycles to increase the level of manufacturing efficiency, product reuse, and residual recovery. They will work with local management systems that will be owned and operated by public and private organizations.
- Collaboration with product producers and technologists—Resource managers will concentrate on encouraging market based incentives to influence consumer behaviors in ways that will dramatically influence the selection products that contribute to waste minimization and management solutions. They will advocate for product reuse; participate in packaging design; collaborate on formulation and concentration strategies; advise residual management planning including recovery, composting, and energy conversion strategies; and work to assure acceptable biodegradability of materials destined for landfills, waterways and the oceans.
- Energy and water—Resource managers will rely on WTE and its emerging derivations to accomplish volume reduction and to offset growing demand for renewable energy including capacity lost due to fossil fuel plant closures. They will adopt energy production practices that reduce process water requirements and embrace disposal management solutions that minimize water consumption. They will act to minimize surface as well as ground water exposure. They will optimize leachate recovery and treatment.
- Community health—Resource managers will advise product manufacturing and distribution as well as waste collection, processing, transport, and disposal techniques will be altered. Their goals will be to reduce emissions, energy and water consumption and to enable local sourcing of as much of the consumption stream as possible. Community health will also be on their radar as post consumption activities that maximize recovery and reuse in the forms of raw materials, soil amendments, energy, and manufacturing materials can positively impact residents and visitors. Resource managers will encourage and help to facilitate local sourcing programs for food and other materials in order to enhance quality while reducing transport and disposal impacts.
- Investment prioritization—Resource managers will change the way they make investment prioritization decisions. They will focus on assessing the combined value of direct cash plus non-cash plus external costs and benefits associated the options available to them. They will use sustainable business cases to account for financial return, jobs creation, social, environmental, economic and resilience costs, benefits, and probabilities of outcomes. Decisions will be influenced by the level to which investments lead to job creation, address the sustainability triple bottom line, enhance regional resilience, and strengthen competitiveness in the global marketplace.
We can also expect changes when it comes to the systems and facilities we operate.
Our recycling systems will focus on waste avoidance and high-value recovery.
Our WTE facilities will be viewed as modern power plants that support local economies while avoiding GHG emissions and protecting community health.
Our landfills will operate like giant filing cabinets and energy production facilities. We will be reusing landfill space in order to maximize the use of limited capacity as we strive to spread the cost associated with long-term custodial obligations. We will also be adjusting landfill lining systems to compensate for limitations associated with 40-plus years in service.
In 2020, resource management will be all about system planning, development, and operations strategies that span entire product life cycles. We will focus on extracting the full value of the resources we manage. We will work through eco-parks like the Communiprise model developed by New Jersey–based Transload America Inc. Communiprise is focused on the creation of centers of resource-based commerce where local entrepreneurs create business around material recovery and remanufacturing. Small, locally owned and operated businesses take advantage of opportunities to create value (and jobs) up and downstream and in the midst of the manufacturing process. WTE will power these businesses and the adjacent communities. District heating and cooling systems will be part of the formula for sustainable communities that use waste sourced fuel.
In 2020, resource managers will play an integral role in developing community and regional resilience—energy efficiency and production as well as the creation of high skilled jobs will be at the center of all of our investment decision. Our facilities will be viewed as resilience strategies designed to keep critical systems powered and operating within the community during times that encounter either man made or natural extreme events.
In 2020, resource managers will understand their role in creating a competitive edge for residents and businesses within their regions. They will address the connections between resource management and the ability to attract and keep high-quality jobs, desirable neighborhoods, strong social networks, healthy environments, and resilient communities.
Transformed. Yes, but from doing good work to doing the great work needed to survive and thrive in the changing world where resources are limited, opportunities are earned in global competition, and waste is recognized as waste of social, environmental, and economic resources. We will be experts at creating the greatest sustainable return on investment for the communities we serve.
Author's Bio: John F. Williams is based in New York City, where he serves as chairman and chief executive officer, Impact Infrastructure LLC.