MSW Management Editor's Blog
Tuesday, June 21, 2011 11:55 AM
Meeting the Challenges of Change
A while back, Lanny Hickman, SWANA’s founding executive director, reminded me that engineering schools around the country were having trouble attracting qualified students from the nation’s secondary schools. He went on to say that many of the slots were being filled by foreign students, who were as apt to take themselves and their education back to their homelands, where their skills were eagerly sought after.
That brief encounter rekindled all my deep-seated fears and concerns for the future of our precious institutions and the vital infrastructures that underlie them. Before I mount my soapbox, however, I want to make clear that I think the nation today is better on balance than the one in which I became an adult a half-century ago. While it’s easy to point out some glaring warts in our actions over that period, they are, in my humble opinion, minuscule compared with what we have accomplished with our incredible wealth in material and philosophical resources. In fact, I shudder to think what others in the world might have done had they been in our position in the wake of World War II, having essentially the unopposed power to do anything we chose.
Yet for all of this, we now find ourselves in many respects on the outside looking in to a world seething with change, of which we are neither the agent nor, all too often, even a participant. Just why this is so is a subject for another day. What we can and must do about it can’t wait that long.
It seems to me that before we can begin to deal with the manifold impacts of change, we need to sweep from the table the notion that the solutions we currently employ contain the wisdom of the universe, and instead challenge the very bases on which they stand. I think this is particularly important in our chosen field of endeavor, where (for instance) the prevailing vision of recycling—one that has ruled the roost for two decades—may impede the progress in sustainability to which we give so much lip service.
For starters—and despite the belief of many who develop public policy—MSW management is not about recycling. First and foremost it is about public health and safety, after which, and only insofar as it doesn’t interfere with this primary responsibility, it has the opportunity to deal with the materials under its stewardship in ways that benefit society…one of which is the environment. Another, and one that is receiving increased attention, is sustainability; which seeks to inculcate a more complete vision of stewardship into our societal conscience.
The EPA began to adopt this vision into its outreach two years ago in recognition of waste’s position within the materials management continuum. Now, despite the continuing efforts to blunt its progress by certain elements within the environmental community, new initiatives led by energy-from-waste programs are springing to life, in some cases bypassing pilot programs to full-blown commercial operations.
Will these be successful? No doubt some succeed while others fail, but to the extent that we see ourselves replacing an increasing portion of today’s wastestream with tomorrow’s value stream, we will have removed a critical impediment to progress in the materials management equation.