WHEN I BECAME Executive Director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in April 2015, I thought I understood what the job required, had a handle on what I would be doing on a day-to-day basis, and was excited about the challenges and opportunities associated with leading the largest waste association in the US and Canada.
I had no idea.
If you had told me that in four years, SWANA’s membership would have expanded by more than 2,000 people and that we would have passed through the 10,000-member level by early 2018, I would have questioned your sanity. If you had suggested that I would be making trips to Belgium, Serbia, and Malaysia on behalf of SWANA, and had spoken at solid waste conferences in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Israel, and Singapore, I would have been a bit surprised. If you reminded me that SWANA had previously agreed to host the International Solid Waste Association’s (ISWA) annual World Congress in 2017, and predicted America would then elect a President who is not viewed favorably by many ISWA members, I might have laughed (or cried).
Despite these twists and turns (among many others), leading SWANA has been and continues to be the highlight of my professional career. SWANA’s diverse membership of public and private sector waste professionals from the US, Canada, and beyond challenge me and my staff on a daily basis to provide value and superior customer service. Having landfill engineers and zero waste advocates in the same association can be interesting, but SWANA’s culture of mutual respect and collegiality, at the board, chapter, technical division, and staff levels, helps make the discussions spirited without becoming negative.
One of the most challenging aspects of the job over the past few years has been the disruption to recycling caused by China. When China announced the waste import restrictions in July 2017, SWANA needed to quickly become an expert in the Byzantine nomenclature of the World Trade Organization and ISRI’s Scrap Specifications Circular. We have become one of the key stakeholders in this evolving situation, facilitating discussion and information flow at all levels of government. When India announced in early March 2019 that it was banning plastic waste imports, it was SWANA who delivered this information—in real-time—to key officials at the US Office of the Trade Representative (USTR), the Commerce Department, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The close relationships we have built with these three federal agencies over the past few years have paid off for SWANA members in terms of better speakers at SWANA events, access to consulting opportunities, and direct input to key decision-makers on solid waste-related issues.
It has not been all rainbows and unicorns. Despite our expanding safety efforts, and the work of others, the number of fatal incidents involving our industry’s trucks, equipment, and employees continues to rise. I am very frustrated by the wide variety of preventable accidents that occur on a regular basis involving our industry, and will not rest until we meaningfully reduce the number of fatal incidents and get solid waste collection employees off the list of 10 most dangerous jobs.
I love the wide variety of issues and topics that come across my desk on a regular basis. Running SWANA is many things. Boring is not one of them. If you are at Waste Expo, stop by Booth 3961 and say hello.