Taking the Diversion Initiative
As the nation continues to wrestle with diversion goals and recycling rates in solid waste management, the state of Iowa is in the midst of an experiment that values overall impact on the environment. Employing an environmental management system, solid waste management is being revolutionized to provide added environmental protection and to encourage safe and smart practices and programs.
Like many states, the success of Iowa’s landfill agencies has been based on diversion. Measured against landfill activity in 1988, a calculation is used that adjusts for population changes, economic indicators, and other factors to arrive at a diversion rate. The first level of attainment was set at 25% with the ultimate goal of 50%.
Under the diversion system, the burden of meeting the goal is placed on publicly owned landfills and their respective service areas. Additionally, our landfills are responsible for complying with a myriad of environmental regulations. In central Iowa, about 70% of the waste comes from business and industry, which are not under any legislative or regulatory requirements to recycle or divert waste. The cost to recycle or divert waste is typically higher than the cost to dispose of it in the landfill. With the economics against use, programs and outreach have little effect in changing business behavior and moving the needles on the diversion meter.
From this situation, a continuous improvement approach was legislatively created by former Iowa state representative Donovan Olson. Representative Olson worked with planning areas and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to arrive at an Environmental Management System that evaluates a landfill agency’s ability make progress in six areas: recycling, education, water quality improvement, household hazardous waste collection, yardwaste management, and greenhouse gas reduction. The system was designed to allow all sizes of landfill agencies to participate, and to customize objectives based on their current status with the goal of making incremental, continuous improvements. Regulatory compliance is also a key element of the system. In no case does one landfill agency and its objectives and progress get compared or used to evaluate progress of another landfill agency. Rather, the landfill agency is evaluated from year-to-year based on progress against its own baselines and objectives. Participation in the Environmental Management System is optional; landfills are not required to participate. They can opt to remain in the diversion system.
There are six landfill agencies that are now entering their third year in the system and three others who are just getting under way. The greatest challenge to getting the Environmental Management System established is that of the detailed record-keeping instruments necessary for measuring progress. Once it is up and running, though, a landfill may reap the benefits of a more engaged and aligned work force, increased operational efficiencies, better compliance with environmental rules and regulations, and a change in organizational culture that is more focused on environmental integrity. These are some of the same benefits manufacturers and other industries have gained from using such environmental management systems as ISO 14001 and LEAN.
Participant improvements in the Iowa system are incremental and add up from one year to the next. Furthermore, they are improvements, in some cases, that were not likely to have happened under the diversion system. This optional system gives landfills the “financial credit” of being at 25% diversion rate, which has lower fees that get paid to the Department of Natural Resources. Opponents of the new system believe it takes away from the urgency to divert waste from the landfill. We believe the system encourages smarter diversion. With focus areas in recycling of all types, hazardous waste collection and yardwaste collection, diversion will continue to climb. Recycling programs will be developed in areas with proven end-markets rather than by wishful thinking that a waste product can be turned into something valuable but inevitably ends up being an abandoned waste stockpile. In fact, our landfill agency established a shingles recycling program through the Environmental Management System. The shingles are being processed and used in hot asphalt paving. This use became a viable market when the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) approved the use of recycled shingles in DOT road projects.
Progress of all the participants is tracked and measured on an annual basis. In time, we believe, this new system will improve solid waste management throughout the state through better environmental stewardship and safe, smart operations and programs, while still working toward diverting the “right” waste from the landfill.
Author's Bio: Contributing columnist Thomas B. Hadden serves as the executive director of the Metro Waste Authority in Des Moines, IA.