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JuLY 2007

Leaders predict a changing future for solid waste

“In 20 to 30 years the solid-waste industry will be unrecognizable,” said Bruce Parker, president and chief executive officer of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

“I think you’re going to see garbage companies become manufacturing companies at the landfill. The garbage comes in. You will have ethanol plants at the back. You are going to have landfill mining, because waste is an abundant material for cellulosic ethanol,” Parker said.

The head of the Washington DC-based trade group said that in the past he has been accused of being an incrementalist rather than a visionary. “For a long time technical and operational changes largely were incremental. Although important, I failed to see the potential transformative changes in waste management over a broad time horizon,” Parker said.

A Waste Management employee attends to one of their 104 gas-to-energy facilities.

“It’s almost impossible not to think about major changes in the industry, because the planet is crying out for reducing greenhouse gases, sustainable materials management, higher recycling rates, waste minimization and new technologies that can convert solid waste into fuels and other products,” Parker said. He said this is a big driver of change for the industry.

“Think of landfills as a fuel cell. The majority of disposal is organic materials. This waste can be converted into renewable fuel, chemicals and other products,” Parker said.

“Once the technology for this is commercially available on a large scale, reliable, and gets seals of environmental and regulatory approval, waste companies of the future will build conversion plants on or adjacent to the landfill and, in part, become a manufacturer. I can foresee companies with wholly-owned subsidiaries for producing renewable fuels,” Parker said.

The major solid-waste companies are already preparing for this future in a number of ways, according to Parker, including landfill gas recovery to produce electricity, directly as a fuel for heating or for other industrial uses. Solid-waste companies are also using biodiesel as fuel in some of its fleets, while others are using natural gas. Plus, hybrid collection trucks are also in the testing phase to help reduce carbon dioxide and other green house gases.

“We believe that waste-based energy is important,” said Lynn Brown, vice president of corporate communications at Waste Management Inc., based in Houston. Waste Management is the largest solid waste company in the United States, serving nearly 21 million customers.

An overview of a Waste Management Wheelabrator facility.

“We’re adding gas-to-energy facilities at the rate of 10 each year,” Brown said.

“We are also looking at new technologies for dealing with waste, including gasification and cellulosic ethanol to see if they can be economically commercialized.”

Waste Management currently has 16 waste-to-energy plants and more than 100 gas-to-energy facilities, generating enough energy to power more than 1 million homes.

“New technologies and changing environmental demands will impact how the industry operates,” said Jim Zeumer, senior vice president of communications at Allied Waste Industries Inc., based in Phoenix. Allied Waste is the second largest solid-waste services company. It provides disposal and recycling services to customers in over 100 markets in 37 states.

“From business opportunities related to renewable energy to sustainability issues associated with better management and reduction of waste volumes, the industry is already changing,” Zeumer said. “Allied Waste is already actively involved with a variety of initiatives, including renewable energy projects, such as landfill gas-to-energy facilities.”

Mike Cordesman, president of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Republic Services Inc., said each division of Republic is dedicated to preserving the environment while providing the most cost-effective programs for solid-waste collection and disposal. Republic is the third largest solid-waste company in the United States. It currently serves 80 markets in 21 states.

Cordesman said there would be some radical changes in the solid-waste industry in the coming years, especially in the way ­that waste is disposed of. “Today, landfilling is an environmentally sound and economically feasible option for the disposal of waste. In the future, however, landfills will become even more difficult to site and permit,” Cordesman said.

“Energy considerations will also play an important role in shaping the future of our industry. I think that landfill gas-to-energy projects will continue to be seen as a source of renewable energy,” Cordesman said. But he said that some aspects would remain the same.

“On the collection side, the industry will continue to use trucks and labor to gather waste. I think we will see changes in the types of trucks as advances are made in terms of efficiency, safety and emissions. I also see automation as the norm for most waste collection routes.”

He expects waste streams to continue to be more segmented. “In 20 years, I think the solid-waste industry will still be a labor-intensive business. Automation will ease the burden, but we will still need drivers to operate equipment on commercial and residential routes,” he said.

“We are also working to educate customers to make certain that they understand the cost of the services they receive. All of our costs are increasing and, as a result, the price of service will keep increasing,” Cordesman said.

“I think that history will repeat itself. Twenty years from now, I think we will have even more regulation, fewer landfills and waste will go even greater distances for disposal. These changes will result in much higher prices that the public will pay for waste disposal services.”