Early Lessons

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SWANA’s genesis occurred about 50 years ago when a group of sanitation superintendents held a luncheon meeting in southern California. One of them mentioned a serious problem that his operation was experiencing: Sanitation workers were falling off the back of the refuse collection trucks. The superintendents were all surprised to find that each of their organizations was experiencing the same problem and that a number of serious injuries had occurred. They discussed what they could do and worked together to create a plan of action.

First, they contacted the local truck distributors and got them to agree to install treaded steps and better handrails on the back of the trucks. Next, they met with and trained the drivers on safe driving practices, including the importance of reducing speeds, especially when turning corners and during inclement weather. They then trained the crewmembers on how to safely mount and dismount the vehicle and the importance of being aware of traffic conditions. At a second meeting several months later, they were all pleased to report that the number of injuries had significantly declined as a result of these actions.

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These early solid waste management professionals learned several things from that experience. First, they learned that they were all experiencing similar problems and that they could learn from each other. Second, they discovered the value of reaching out and engaging others—in this case the equipment suppliers—in the development of solutions. Third, they saw that they could accomplish far more by working together than they could ever achieve on their own. Finally, they realized that by being proactive and solving problems as a group, they could significantly improve the working environment for their people.

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Photo: iStock/A-Digit

Several of these folks decided to build on these lessons and began a number of meetings and discussions with a wider audience of solid waste professionals in the southern California area. This eventually led to the formation of the Governmental Refuse Collection and Disposal Association (GRCDA), which filed its Articles of Incorporation in 1966. The Association continued under that name until the early 1990s, when it was changed to SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Managing municipal solid waste is more than landfilling: publicity, education, engineering, long-term planning, and landfill gas waste-to-energy are specialties needed in today’s complex environment. We’ve created a handy infographic featuring 6 tips to improve landfill management and achieve excellence in operations. 6 Tips for Excellence in Landfill Operations. Download it now!  

SWANA’s growth and development from those early meetings was most likely beyond the wildest dreams of those early solid waste pioneers. Today SWANA has nearly 8,000 individual members from the public and private sectors alike, organized into 46 chapters, including four chapters in Canada (covering 10 Provinces) and a new chapter in the Caribbean-Puerto Rico region.

Over the years, SWANA members have created a wide range of professional development programs and services to meet their ever-changing needs including:

  • The premier solid waste professional certification program in eight solid waste management disciplines;
  • An extensive training program including eight certification courses and dozens of technical courses that are offered at national and chapter events, as well as, through on-site training, home-study courses and online electronic courses;
  • An advocacy program that works to influence legislation and regulations at the federal, state, and provincial levels;
  • Seven technical divisions that develop programs for our conferences and symposia, provide faculty for training, and run excellence awards programs, issue newsletters and develop publications;
  • An applied research foundation that carries out cutting-edge research and widely disseminates the results in the professional literature;
  • A wide range of annual technical conferences including five specialty symposia, two training centers, several multi-chapter regional symposia and many individual chapter conferences;
  • Equipment and Truck Road-E-Os at the chapter and international levels, where drivers, equipment operators, and mechanics compete in events of skill and precision;
  • E-sessions, which are online Web seminars on current solid waste management topics held several times a month throughout the year;
  • The eLibrary, an online electronic library containing the papers from our conferences and symposia, as well as other important solid waste literature;
  • Opportunities to learn about solid waste policies and practices worldwide through our national membership in the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA);
  • Scholarship and internship programs and student memberships to help develop future generations of solid waste management professionals;
  • Social networking opportunities for our members, including an online membership directory on My SWANA and SWANA groups on Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook;
  • Our monthly electronic newsletter, I AM SWANA, and our official journal, MSW Management Magazine; and
  • WASTECON, our annual conference and equipment exhibition that stands out from the crowd as the only conference and exhibition by solid waste professionals for solid waste professionals.

This year SWANA members are striving for new levels of excellence and engagement by co-locating WASTECON with the American Public Works Association’s Best Show in Public Works in Boston, MA, August 15–17. This first-ever partnership is designed to provide our members with even more opportunities to strengthen their profession and careers. The goal of this SWANA/APWA collaboration is to:

  • Bring together over 8,000 solid waste and public works professionals to share ideas and to learn from each other,
  • Provide unparalleled access to education opportunities by opening the education sessions of both conferences to SWANA and APWA registrants of at no extra cost, and
  • Provide access to more than 700 solid waste and public works exhibitors of equipment, products and services in the combined exhibit hall.

This year’s WASTECON is different from any other event and will provide solid waste professionals with the best training, education, and exhibit opportunities available.

Looking back at the changes in solid waste management that have occurred since SWANA’s inception makes you wonder what the next 50 years will have in store. Just from events on the near horizon, it looks like SWANA will have many national and global opportunities and challenges. The passage of climate and energy legislation could transform national economies and solid waste practices to fit within a low carbon, renewable energy future. Product stewardship and extended producer responsibility could create new roles for manufacturers and designers in the management of discarded products. Concepts such as waste reduction and zero waste could redefine what we mean by solid waste management. Conversion technologies such as gasification, pyrolysis, hydrolysis, and plasma arc could emerge from the drawing boards and provide a whole new suite of waste recovery options.

Regardless of the challenges and opportunities that may come up there is one thing I know for certain: SWANA members will be leading the innovation, influencing the policies and shaping the future. Just as those sanitation superintendents discovered 50 years ago, we know we can learn from each other and can accomplish so much more by working together than we could ever dream of achieving alone. We understand that there is an undeniable strength when we embrace the diverse perspectives and knowledge of thousands of solid waste professionals and focus their talents on improving not only the working environment of our people but also the natural environment of our planet. Msw Bug Web

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