David Biderman took over as the executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in 2015 after more than 18 years at the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and its predecessor organizations. Since then, he has spearheaded the association’s efforts to champion education, advocacy and research in the solid waste and recycling sector.
Waste Today talked with Biderman about the most pressing issues facing the industry today and what the association is focused on heading into 2019.
Waste Today (WT): Waste collection was once again tabbed as the fifth most dangerous job by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Can you talk about some things SWANA is doing to help improve upon this?
David Biderman (DB): SWANA is expanding its safety program to provide more resources and tools to the entire industry. Over the past two years, we have rolled out our Safety Ambassadors program, which establishes a key safety contact in each SWANA chapter in the U.S. and Canada. This increases the level of attention that safety receives at the chapter level and provides someone who can receive and distribute safety and compliance information from SWANA headquarters about data, regulatory trends and fatal incidents. In 2019, we will implement hauler safety outreach events in many chapters. At these events, SWANA will distribute safety information to collection workers at landfills, transfer stations and other disposal facilities. Many haulers are not SWANA members and don’t have robust safety programs. We hope that the distribution of this information will help change unsafe behaviors and expand the adoption of best practices, ultimately helping get waste collection off the list of the most dangerous jobs.
WT: What has been your takeaway on how the industry has adjusted looking back on the year since the China ban took effect?
DB: The past year has been a major challenge for both companies and local governments as they have adjusted to China’s waste import restrictions. I think most have adjusted successfully, as recyclables continue to move to domestic and foreign markets. These adjustments include slowing down the lines, adding workers, installing new optical sorters and other sorting equipment, raising rates and, in some locations, narrowing the scope of curbside recycling programs. Most importantly, we are educating the general public about the contamination issue, and several communities are seeing dramatic declines in their contamination rates. We need to scale these successful education programs nationwide.
WT: How do you think foreign markets have responded to these changes, and what does this mean for recyclers and municipalities in 2019?
DB: Many countries in Southeast Asia saw significant increases in the amount of recyclables they received during 2018, but starting in the summer, many of them began to impose restrictions on imports as they became overwhelmed with the volume of material. This created a bit of choppiness in commodity pricing in 2018, although the markets have settled down in recent months.
WT: Do you foresee more investment in domestic paper and plastic processing?
DB: There has been a significant increase in domestic paper and processing facilities over the past year. I am aware of at least 15 plants that will be opening or expanding in the next few years. Importantly, a Chinese company, Nine Dragons, has purchased several facilities and intends to process paper in the U.S. and ship the pulp to China.
WT: In your opinion, what more needs to be done to better educate consumers, or to enforce compliance, to improve overall diversion rates?
DB: Unfortunately, many local governments and companies lack the funding to educate consumers. SWANA is working with a coalition of other associations to urge Congress to provide funding for recycling education and domestic capacity. We anticipate it will be considered as part of the broader debate over “infrastructure” that will take place in the House and Senate later this year.
Additionally, the EPA has taken an increased interest in the China/recycling issue, as demonstrated by the America Recycles Day (ARD) Summit it hosted in Washington, D.C. in November 2018. SWANA will be hosting a follow-up EPA meeting on recycling at SWANApalooza in Boston on February 25 and expects to continue to help the EPA stay informed about the evolving challenges and opportunities facing communities throughout the country.
Otherwise, having more uniform signage on recycling and waste containers would help diversion rates, as would requiring companies like Amazon to use 100-percent recycled content.
WT: Curbside organics collection has been growing in popularity across the country over the last several years. Do you think the number of municipalities participating in these programs will expand in the coming years, or will the tide reverse itself?
DB: Curbside organics programs continue to expand, despite some localized concerns regarding contamination. Because food waste is such a large component of the municipal solid waste stream, and a potential energy and compost source, I expect the number of local governments with such programs to increase in the coming years.
WT: Employment and wages have been improving at a steady clip for some time now. Are you optimistic this will continue in 2019?
DB: Because it is difficult for many in the industry to attract front-line workers, compensation has been increasing. This has been particularly true over the past few years, as unemployment dropped below 4 percent. With unemployment expected to remain at historically low levels through at least the end of 2019, I think employers will need to continue to adjust wages and benefits to attract qualified workers.
WT: On the flip side, employers are struggling to fill some positions. What more needs to be done to bring people into the industry?
DB: CEOs at many companies have repeatedly advised me that finding qualified drivers and mechanics is one of the biggest issues they face. Some employers are responding by using social media to recruit new employees and are reaching out to untapped talent pools, such as encouraging people exiting military service to consider a career in the waste industry.
WT: What is your stance on the number of cities stepping up to ban things like plastic bags, straws and clamshells, etc.? There seems to be a groundswell of support that is beginning to reverberate in some parts of the country for this kind of legislation.
DB: SWANA is reviewing these new laws and evaluating whether any changes to our Technical Policies are warranted.
WT: What are some of the main points of emphasis for SWANA as we head into the new year?
DB: Internally, SWANA will be implementing a new governance structure in 2019, which will be a major change for the association. We are planning for several terrific events, including SWANApalooza in Boston in late February, our waste-to-energy conference (NAWTEC) near Washington, D.C. on April 1-2, and Wastecon in October in Phoenix. At Wastecon in particular, we are changing our focus to ensure that participants receive a broader educational experience and receive leadership training as well as solid waste-related content.
Besides our events, improving the industry’s safety record and continuing to be an industry leader helping local governments and companies adjust to China’s continuing waste import restrictions will likely be the two top issues we deal with this year. On the safety front, addressing the increase in fires at disposal facilities, likely linked to lithium-ion batteries, is of increasing importance.
WT: Are there any other trends or economic shifts that you’d point to that waste and recycling industry participants should keep an eye on in 2019 and beyond?
DB: We are in the 10th year of the economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-‘09. I’m not an economist, but I suspect our economic winning streak will come to an end soon, and the public and private sectors should be preparing for the eventual economic downturn.