Changing with the times

Departments - Editor’s Letter

As the waste industry consolidates and prepares to invest in new technology, a focus on environmental justice reform complicates the end-game for sustainable waste solutions.

April 4, 2022

The face of the modern-day waste management industry has been transformed over the course of its century-old history. With the framework of present-day solid waste practices first emerging in the late 1890s, the industry and technology behind it have grown exponentially to meet not only the needs of a growing society but of the environment, as well.

Today, the solid waste industry is marked by high-profile mergers and acquisitions and steadfast momentum, allowing for significant advancements within every vertical. From the adoption of automated waste trucks to the emergence of advanced recycling systems and composting technologies, many of these industry-changing developments can be credited to a consolidated market.

In addition to large-scale companies using capital to introduce new practices and technology, increasing federal and local regulations have helped pave the way for more sustainable waste solutions. However, in some cases, government policies have the potential to hinder industry growth.

A swelling emphasis on enacting environmental justice (EJ) policies has trickled through several state legislatures in recent years, addressing communities that often are most burdened by facilities like landfills, factories, power plants, waste incinerators and wastewater treatment plants.

Ten states already have implemented EJ policies, including New York, Washington, California, Minnesota, Illinois, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. New Jersey has one of the most rigid EJ laws in the country, requiring companies that want to build or improve certain facilities to prepare Environmental and Health Impact Statements and hold public hearings in the affected communities before the operators are allowed to submit permit applications to the state.

Vermont is considering similar legislation, with the state Senate recently showing support for S. 148 March 28. This proposed legislation would require the state government to ensure the policies and practices of its agencies do not unfairly burden communities with residents who are low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Moreover, legislation surrounding extended producer responsibility, or EPR, legislation and organics bans also have made the rounds in state governments, prompting closer examination of how various waste streams are handled in these states.

Although the challenges facing the solid waste industry continually evolve, particularly as state legislatures and the federal government begin to address climate change, the industry seems well-positioned to keep meeting those challenges, coming up with new, creative ways to address the ever-increasing needs of society and our planet.