The New Normal in Solid Waste Management
Understanding today’s trends is the key to creating tomorrow’s successes.
The “new normal” is a phrase that was coined shortly after the beginning of the present economic downturn to represent an economy with very slow growth, a high unemployment rate, and marginal returns on stocks and bonds. Growth in the US economy over the last two decades was taken for granted until the fall of 2008, when the recent recession resulted in economic stagnation with little growth, even creating a period with near zero inflation. In addition, the recent global credit crisis has created an even greater level of economic uncertainty. We appear to be experiencing not just another business cycle, but a restructuring of our global economy. How do governments, industry, businesses, and nonprofits plan for such a change? What does this fundamental change mean for environmental public policy and related debate?
In the fall of 2011, the 17th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) met in Durban, South Africa. Delegates from more than 190 countries gathered for a two-week conference to reach a new agreement on reducing the emissions of greenhouse gasses and other related pollutants. The UNFCC formulated its first formal agreement at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. In 1997 the UNFCC in Kyoto Japan established actual reduction targets for global greenhouse gasses. Thirty-seven countries agreed to reduce their individual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5.2% using a 1990 baseline. These emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol expire at the end of calendar year 2012. Much hope remains that new targets will be established before the end of 2012 and the underlying division between rich and poor nations will be bridged.
Only a few years ago, debate on how to make the transition from a carbon-based economy to a cleaner, green-technology-based economy was dominating public policy discussions and the media. The economic downturn, along with other factors, dramatically altered this debate. The “new normal” has tempered the momentum to transform our energy sector to include a more climate-friendly portfolio. The recent credit crunch has resulted in limited access to capital to support new projects of all types. The concept of cap-and-trade as applied to CO2 emissions is “dead” and no longer even uttered at the US federal level. Moving away from a carbon-based to green energy economy still has public support, but is generally discussed only in the context of job creation.
What About Integrated Solid Waste Management?
Integrated solid waste management can be defined as a comprehensive approach to protecting human health and the environment that includes waste prevention, recycling, composting, energy recovery, and disposal (US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA530-F-02-026a, May 2002.). Developing an integrated solid waste management plan requires consideration of the following factors:
The importance of the factors listed above varies from location to location, and each community chooses the combination of waste management activities that help meet its needs.
The waste management choices made by communities have a direct impact on greenhouse gas generation and, potentially, climate change. Before materials or products become discards, they have upstream environmental impacts due to the extracting and processing of raw materials, the manufacturing of a product, the transportation of the materials and products to market, and the actual operation of a finished good or product. All of these activities involve some level of energy consumption that generates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
Waste prevention and recycling also provide the benefit of carbon sequestration (storage). When wood and paper are recycled, fewer virgin materials are needed to manufacture products. Use of less virgin materials in the manufacturing process potentially results in more trees available to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store in the wood.
Finally, the decomposition of organic wastes at landfills can generate methane, a greenhouse gas. The methane can be managed through passive and active LFG systems. However, not all methane can be effectively collected at a landfill. This link between solid waste management and greenhouse gases generation has become more prominent over the last decade.
The “new normal” creates a greater degree of uncertainty in four key areas related to solid waste management. These include the following:
- Waste generation
- Energy costs
- Recyclable materials markets
- Decreased local and state government revenues
The “new normal” results in a slowing of economic activity. Solid waste industry analysis reflects a direct link between commercial waste generation and commercial economic activity. With little growth in the near term, overall waste generation may remain flat, or actually decline. Surveys of several local governments assisted by SAIC throughout the United States in the last 18 to 24 months have reflected a decline ranging from 10% to 30% in the quantities of solid waste disposed for many communities.
Energy prices in the last decade have been on the rise. We have experienced more frequent spikes in fuel prices over the last three to five years. Energy pricing has been influenced by an array of geopolitical factors, including the Japanese tsunami, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and others. However, the “new normal” creates a highly sensitive global environment with considerable amount of uncertainty in which minor events may cause large fluctuations in energy pricing.
The recyclable materials markets have historically been considered volatile. Yet, since the beginning of the recession in the fall of 2008, the recyclable materials markets have exhibited even greater volatility, going from historic highs to historic lows and back to historic highs for many recyclable commodities in fewer than 18 months. These dramatic pricing swings are caused by a supply-and-demand imbalance that is rooted in a variety of factors including but not limited to decreased consumer demand for manufactured products, large demand for recycled materials in Asia, and domestic capacity limitations for use of recycled materials.
Finally, slowed economic growth has resulted in not only high unemployment, but also decreases in government revenues. As a result, federal, state, and local governments have large deficits today and are projected to have deficits into the future. These deficits affect government’s ability to support not only new programs, but also existing solid waste management programs. In addition, government’s access to capital resources can be negatively affected with lower bond ratings.
Predicting the Future
What will the solid waste industry look like in 2020? Predicting the future is always challenging, but as the late Peter F. Drucker, a well-known author and management consultant, once stated, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” As discussed above, there are some critical drivers that are influencing the solid waste management industry today that we anticipate will influence solid waste policies and programs into the future.
Considering the above, I have identified a handful of trends that will shape the future of solid waste management. These trends exist today and will “create” the future of solid waste management through 2020. These four trends include the following:
- More frequent use of public-private partnerships to provide various solid waste management services
- Application of legislative flow control by local governments to provide more stability for solid waste management systems
- Retrofitting of existing transfer stations and/or development of new transfer stations with capabilities to handle and/or recover a wider array of substreams
- Broadening of extended producer responsibility legislation both geographically and to specific types of products
Please note that the above does not represent an exhaustive list of likely trends.
Historically, local government has the legislative responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. This has included creating a framework where private service providers offer services within a regulated environment. Many public-private partnerships exist today, ranging from refuse and recycling collection programs to solid waste facility ownership and private operation (e.g., transfer stations, MRFs, landfills, and WTEs).
Waste conversion technologies (CTs) include thermal, biological, and chemical processes that convert waste materials into energy. Specific CTs include gasification, anaerobic digestion, plasma arc, fermentation, and several others. With the economic forecast reflecting a credit “crunch” and continued interest in CTs, we anticipate the development of new CT projects through various public-private partnerships to address both technology and financial risks. Two recent project examples illustrate this trend.
Santa Barbara County Resource Recovery Project
Over the last four years, Santa Barbara County (County), in partnership with the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Buellton, and Solvang, has been evaluating alternatives to landfilling, including conversion technologies (CTs). In the fall of 2011, the County and its partner cities, through a competitive procurement process, selected a private developer, Mustang Renewable Power Ventures (Mustang), to develop a resource recovery project at the County’s Tajiguas Landfill. Mustang proposed to develop a project that includes the following components:
- Mixed waste processing (MWP) facility
- Anaerobic digestion facility
- Energy Generation Facility
As proposed, the MWP facility would recover recyclable materials from the mixed municipal solid waste received at the landfill. The facility will also separate the organics from the remaining materials, which become residuals. The organics will be used as feedstock for an anaerobic digestion process that will convert the organics into a biogas, which will be converted into approximately 2 MW of energy, digestate, and a compost byproduct. Residuals will be landfilled.
A thermal gasification facility was considered as an optional component of the project to reduce the mass and volume of the residual waste by up to 99% before landfilling. However, after extensive community input and review, it was determined that the thermal gasification component would not be included in the project at this time. The County agreed to monitor this emerging technology in the future.
The estimated cost to construct the proposed project is anticipated to be $48 to $60 million. Mustang plans to finance the project with assistance from the California Pollution Control Financing Authority with the County assuring the needed flow of waste to the facility. Per County staff analysis, it is estimated that the proposed facility tipping fees will be comparable or less than future projected landfill tipping fees.
In January of 2012, the County Board of Supervisors directed staff to initiate the review of the proposed overall project per the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and request formal resolutions from its partner cities indicating support for the proposed project moving forward.
Columbia Biogas Anaerobic Digestion Facility
An additional project that illustrates the public-private partnership model is the Columbia Biogas (CBG) proposed anaerobic digestion (AD) facility to be located in Portland, OR. Similar to the proposed AD facility in Santa Barbara County, biogas will be captured for energy production and digestate and compost byproduct will be produced for application as a soil amendment. Biogas will be used to generate electricity that will be purchased by a local utility.
The proposed project is estimated to receive and process approximately 60,000 tons per year of solid and liquid commercial and industrial foodwaste during its first year of operation. A site has been secured in central Portland, and CBG has received the needed local and state of Oregon DEQ permits. The facility is expected to be operational in 2013. The project will likely be privately financed but supported through an appropriate mix of local and regional regulations and competitive tipping fees to ensure the flow of feedstock to the facility.
The Portland Metro solid waste authority (Metro) has implemented several initiatives to foster both solid and liquid foodwaste diversion. Metro is responsible for solid waste planning and disposal in the Portland region. As part of these responsibilities, Metro develops and administers the Regional Solid Waste Management Plan (RSWMP). Metro is accountable for state-mandated waste reduction goals in the region, and works with local governmental entities and private entities to strive to meet these goals. Metro has established commercial foodwaste diversion targets and plans to promote foodwaste diversion through a recently awarded proposal for the receipt and processing of foodwaste at its Metro Central Transfer Station.
The two projects described above illustrate the continued evolution of integrated solid waste management systems. The proposed business model reflects local governments relying on the private sector to offer competitive solutions while limiting their financial, technical, and environmental risks going forward. With the likelihood that local governments will have limited access to capital and reduced revenues in the future, the public-private partnership model should continue to expand within the solid waste management arena through 2020.
The history of flow control includes many twists and turns throughout nearly the last two decades. The landmark case of C&A Carbone, Inc. v. Town of Clarkstown, New York (1994) found that by precluding out-of-state processors from having access to the market for Clarkstown’s generated wastes was in effect favoring in-state business over similar out-of-state businesses. Favoring local businesses discriminated against interstate commerce, and the local ordinance was considered unconstitutional.
The Carbone decision has been used to invalidate several local government flow-control ordinances since 1994. Subsequent to the Carbone case, several circuit court opinions were decided that attempted to interpret and clarify the Carbone decision, including the definition of a market participant.
In 2007, the US Supreme Court in United Haulers Association Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority distinguished local laws directing solid waste to publicly owned facilities from those that direct waste to a privately owned facility. Those directing solid waste to publicly owned facilities are more likely to be upheld based on this decision. Moreover, the court broadened its support for local governments to direct the flow of solid waste materials to include the rationale of promoting environmental benefits and/or generating revenues to support local governmental solid waste and recycling programs. The opinion also emphasized the need for the implementation of flow control to be supported by a local solid waste management plan describing the rationale for such a mechanism to be used.
City of Dallas
In September 2011, Dallas, TX, adopted an ordinance requiring “all municipal solid waste found, generated, or collected within the city, be placed at city facilities...” Ordinance No. 28427 was proposed to take effect on January 2, 2012.
The ordinance identifies the rationale for adopting the local flow-control ordinances to include but not be limited to the following:
- Advancing “green technology”
- Supporting the use of municipal solid waste as a waste-to-energy resource and offering reuse opportunities
- Enhancing the volume of MSW directed to its landfill to assist in the advancement and implementing of emerging technology
On January 31, 2012, the US District Court of the Northern District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction temporarily enjoining the City of Dallas from enacting Ordinance No. 28427 based on a lawsuit filed by the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). It is likely a legal hearing on the full merits of the case will be scheduled later in 2012.
Dallas’s legislative action attempting to capture all of its MSW to facilitate the development of an emerging solid waste conversion technology foreshadows similar action by other communities in the future. Communities will make the argument that the waste must be assured for such conversion technology–type projects to be feasible. In addition, other local governments have been taking action to ensure the flow of waste to existing publicly owned landfills. For example, communities with their own landfills have offered contracts with discounts to haulers in exchange for long-term agreements. We anticipate a broadening of the use of similar approaches in the future. Continued slow growth in the economy will result in waste volumes remaining flat or decreasing in the future.
The Reinvention of Transfer Stations
Transfer stations have played a significant role in providing effective solid waste management for decades. However, the primary purpose of these solid waste facilities has been to consolidate mixed municipal waste materials into long-haul transfer modes of transportation (tractor trailers, trains, and barges) to provide for the cost-effective long haul of materials to disposal facilities.
Certainly, integrated solid waste management facilities with the capability to transfer and process mixed municipal solid waste have existed for a number of years, such as the Burrtec West Valley Transfer Station/MRF in Fontana, CA, and the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Refuse Transfer Station in Sunnyvale, CA. However, we envision a larger subset of materials being managed at transfer stations as integrated solid waste management systems look for increased efficiencies around materials recovery and maximizing diversion. For example, the growth in the collection of source-separated commercial foodwaste and residential commingled yardwaste and foodwaste presents an interesting challenge in regions with limited processing capacity (e.g., composting, anaerobic digestion). Potentially, transfer stations will need to be capable of handling these material streams for long haul to various processing facilities.
Bow Lake Recycling and Transfer Station
The King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Solid Waste Division (SWD), is responsible for nearly 1,000,000 tons of mixed municipal waste, organics, recyclables, and moderate-risk waste each year through its system. Its core mission is to ensure that citizens have access to safe, reliable, efficient, environmentally sound, and affordable solid waste handling and disposal services. To continue this mission, King County is constructing the new 2,500 ton-per-day Bow Lake Recycling and Transfer Station to replace an existing station. The new facility is expected to set new standards for transfer stations with its strong focus on material diversion.
What really sets this station apart from its sister stations in King County, and from many other transfer stations around the country, is that the tipping and receiving floor includes a purpose-designed, recovered material sorting, holding, baling, and load-out area. This 10,000-square-foot processing area is located at the opposite end of the station from where the MSW is loaded out. The SWD estimates that about 6% to 8% of the current 270,000 tons per year of waste processed through the existing Bow Lake station could practicably be separated and diverted from landfilling to recycling and reuse. The Bow Lake station serves a large industrial, commercial, and warehouse area of King County in addition to a large residential population. Many of the commercial waste loads are rich in recoverable materials.
The materials targeted for recovery include clean wood, cardboard, film plastics, carpet and textiles, and scrap metals. Most of this material will arrive in mixed commercial loads and will require some sorting. Rich loads of recyclable materials will be directed to the sorting end of the tipping and receiving floor where they will be tipped, well away from the MSW tipping area. The SWD expects to use rolling stock equipment to sort the materials in these loads. Hand sorting will not be used.
Once the material has been sorted, it will be pushed to bunkers and held prior to baling, or, in the case of the carpet, wood, and heavy-gauge scrap metal, loaded into rolloff boxes. During the baling operation, the cardboard, film plastics, textiles, and possibly light-gauge scrap metal will be pushed from the holding bunkers onto an in-floor conveyor that will deliver the material to the heavy-duty two-ram baler. Baled material will be stored in a separate holding area or directly loaded into trailers or containers at one of two loading dock stalls. While the existing station has no capability to separately receive and transfer organics, the new facility has a separate area set aside specifically for this wastestream.
Overall, the area devoted to material diversion and recycling at the new Bow Lake station is about equal to the total area devoted to MSW transfer. This design represents a major step in the evolution of transfer stations. Customer demand for increased materials recovery at transfer stations is expected to drive this change in facility design into the future.
Extended Producer Responsibility
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is an environmental policy in which a producer's/manufacturer’s physical and/or financial responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. There are two key features of EPR policy: (1) the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically, fully or partially) upstream to the producer and away from municipalities, and (2) to provide incentives to producers to take environmental considerations into the design of the product.
It is estimated that there are 62 EPR laws in 32 US states and 51 EPR laws/programs in Canadian provinces (not including beverage container deposit programs). All of the US state laws cover specific types of products, such as electronics, rechargeable batteries, and mercury-containing devices. In addition to such products being addressed by Canadian provincial EPR laws, a number of Canadian provinces have EPR laws that are not product specific, but cover consumer packaging and printed paper.
One key objective of the implementation of EPR is to incentivize the producer to design for longer life, reuse, or recycling and minimize packaging and hazardous components. The result of the passage and implementation of this legislation is to shift responsibility for establishing a collection and processing recovery system away from local governments to the producers of the products.
EPR legislation has considerable momentum in Canada and Europe. To date, US state laws have focused on a narrow set of products. In the future, we anticipate state legislators considering the application of EPR to a broader set of materials in the US, such as various packaging materials. Again, with the continued financial stress on local and state governments, coupled with slow economic growth, we envision a shift in responsibility for management of the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle from local governments and consumers to producers of consumer products.
Understanding today’s key industry trends provides some insight into future solid waste management policies and programs. Future solid waste management industry trends will be influenced by an array of institutional, social, financial, economic, technical, political, and environmental factors. The “new normal” represents a critical factor for shaping tomorrow’s solid waste programs and policies through 2020. The best way to predict the future is to create it.
Robert W. Craggs is vice president and national director of the Solid Waste Section for SAIC.