AUGUST 2009

Waste industry manages trash as a resource

Forget your old-fashioned ideas about the solid waste industry. It’s not just about hauling garbage anymore.

This is according to Bruce J. Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), in a speech given to the Society of Government Economists in Washington. NSWMA represents the private sector solid waste industry in the United States.

“Americans throw out more than 250 million tons of garbage each year. Our industry continues to protect public health and the environment by managing this waste,” Parker said. “But in recent years, we’ve pioneered technologies that have changed the ways we deal with our trash. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars, not only to modernize landfills and boost recycling rates, but also to cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, and find renewable sources of energy that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Parker pointed to waste-based energy projects, which turn household garbage into clean, renewable energy. In addition to 87 waste-to-energy facilities operated by the industry – generating enough electricity to power 1.7 million homes – it also operates 470 landfill-gas-to-energy projects that provide electricity and heat for corporate and government users in 44 states. The EPA has identified an additional 520 landfills across the nation as potential candidates for similar energy projects.

“Landfill-gas-to-energy projects also address global warming by capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” Parker noted. The EPA estimates that using methane as renewable, “green” energy brings environmental and energy benefits equivalent to eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions of 195 million barrels of oil a year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that landfill-gas recovery directly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Other industry initiatives include working with truck manufacturers to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles, investing in the development of alternative fuels such as biodiesel, compressed natural gas and ethanol, using renewable sources of energy such as solar to power compacting equipment, and placing solar panels and wind turbines on landfills to produce even more energy.

“Increasingly, the industry is relying on cleaner-burning fuels to power our fleet of 130,000 trucks,” Parker said. “We’re also looking toward hybrid technology to further reduce greenhouse emissions and improve air quality.”

Recycling and composting offer another important environmental success story, Parker said. The industry processed recycling for or composted slightly more than one third of all municipal solid wastes in 2007, conserving precious resources, protecting air and water from potential pollution and leading to a 2.5 percent reduction in America’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

“The solid waste industry is proud of its environmental achievements, but there is much more to do. Our collective efforts have made a difference, and we continue to raise the bar,” Parker said.