Zero Waste Doesn’t Mean Zero Haulers

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As more of our nation’s cities move toward zero waste policies, the traditional hauling and disposal industry is faced with the tough decision: ADAPT OR DIE.

“There’s a lot of room for the industry to continue to evolve,” said Jay Coalson, executive director of the Zero Waste Alliance. “I don’t think you have to look any further than Waste Management [Inc.] They are clearly transforming their business to be much more of a service provider around the waste stream than they are a waste hauler.”

While Waste Management is clearly not the only company adopting integrated waste management practices, there are still some waste companies that continue to rely on profits from landfill disposal rates and high waste volumes.

“If your business model is predicated on continued land-filling, you’re not going to be in business very long, you’re going to have to diversify,” said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, Ill. “I think it’s the companies that are looking ahead, investing in the right technologies, that will continue to be successful or will be successful in the future.”

Many in the industry agree that, in a world headed toward greener waste management practices, it’s important for companies to stay ahead of the curve.

“It’s no different than any business where you’re in an evolving market in that you have to be willing to put your stake in the ground about where your industry is going to be a decade from now and then start making the appropriate investments,” Coalson said. “And I think this is really much more about providing services and technologies that allow companies to more effectively manage their waste stream than it is about picking stuff up and carrying it away.”

For companies still relying on high landfill volume, change will likely be forced on them.

“As far as the whole reliance on landfill tipping fees for funding state and local programs, I think all of us that are beholden to that source of funding recognize that it’s doomed over time, and it really has nothing to do with the zero waste movement,” Willis said.

Whether a city has a zero waste goal or is simply trying to increase recycling rates, the days of growing pounds per capita per day disposed at landfills are likely over, he said.

“More and more things are being banned from the landfills; the great recession had a big impact on disposal rates and they really haven’t bounced back.”

And if a company is behind the curve in adopting more sustainable waste services, it will make any transformation that much harder, Coalson said.

“If you wait until the waste policy is in place and then you have to react quickly, that is going to be a much riskier and more expensive path to meeting what is clearly becoming a more consistent expectation within the communities that you serve,” he said.

Some cities with zero waste goals try to reach them by either increasing landfill tipping fees or passing legislation that makes recycling mandatory.

“Companies that are stuck in more traditional models of burying material are going to have to change how they operate their businesses and look more like Recology,” said Adam Alberti, spokesman for the San Francisco-based company. “That is where the trend is going. It’s about reuse, recycling, finding higher and better uses of a material that is discarded, and moving as much as possible away from just burying it in a hole.”

Gary Liss, a zero waste consultant out of California, says mandatory recycling laws can be beneficial to both municipalities and businesses.

“By adopting those ordinances, the communities have created the demand for the service, and the private sector has taken that requirement to the bank,” he said. “They create the market demand for the [recycling] services and the facilities, strongly supporting the development of the infrastructure.”

By working together with Recology, San Francisco greatly increased its recycling rate to the point where zero waste may actually be an option.

“San Francisco really is a leader in this field. Both its collection company Recology and the city itself have already gotten a great deal of the way toward zero waste by achieving an 80% recycling rate,” Alberti said.

Though it’s not always easy for waste companies to move from a reliance on land-filling to integrated waste systems, there is no question that the industry is heading into a more sustainable direction, and has been even before the zero waste movement took off in recent years, Willis said.

“At some point we will exceed our ability to provide resources for everyone to have a decent lifestyle, and that either leads to war or more efficient use. … Waste not want not is what America is all about,” Liss said.

Waste Recycling News, May 2013

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