As the waste and recycling industry experiences rapid changes, companies and organizations are having to become more adaptive. This year, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) went through one of its largest shifts yet in an effort to be more flexible for whatever comes next.
The nearly 60-year-old organization has long played a leading role in industry discussions, but SWANA has seen an increasingly higher profile and recently underwent sweeping organizational changes that may help elevate its prominence further. Beyond structural updates, SWANA has reworked conference programming and is receiving more national recognition for policy work. A key role in federal discussions around recycling and safety, as well as expanding international efforts, has been a big part of the organization's 2019 story.
"We’ve done in the last five years a much more effective job of dealing with issues in the industry and we think we are definitely the go-to organization for addressing and providing input for these issues," President Michael Greenberg told Waste Dive. "You basically are seeing a new SWANA, and it’s a SWANA that is a resource for our membership and even others outside the industry."
One of the most important, though less visible, changes has been a multi-year effort to overhaul SWANA's board structure. Spearheaded by Greenberg, with support from numerous members, SWANA has cut the board down from 70 to 21 members. The change took effect on July 1 after nearly four years and 16 rounds of plan revisions.
The new board includes five officers and 13 regional representatives, plus one representative each from the private sector, technical division and the young professionals group. The regional positions are seen as particularly important, as they've necessitated more communication and collaboration between various state chapters. Canada now also has two representatives, as opposed to one.
SWANA's goal was to expedite the decision-making process, and make it easier for staff to engage with board members, so the organization can react more quickly to new developments. But SWANA has also formed a new advisory committee with an estimated 50 people to help shape its strategic plan and continue receiving insight from former board members.
The new advisory group met for the first time at WASTECON in Phoenix, an event that was similarly streamlined to focus on leadership training and more impactful sessions. Further conference changes are anticipated in 2020.
Looking ahead, the organization also aims to build on work that was already receiving national recognition in recent years and stake out new areas of expertise.
The most high-profile area, in terms of public engagement, has been SWANA's recycling work. The group played a role in organizing this year's America Recycles Day events with the U.S. EPA and is a common voice of clarity for national media coverage.
"We have become a critical player in the evolving response to National Sword and other restrictions on imported recyclables. We speak frequently with EPA and the State Department at the federal level, and are in contact with key state, provincial, and local governmental officials and agencies throughout the United States and Canada on a regular basis," said SWANA CEO David Biderman. "To be clear, it is a challenging time for both local governments and companies, but the notion that recycling had a 30% contamination rate or was in a nationwide crisis was never accurate."
Another area where SWANA's presence has long been felt is safety. Recent highlights include engaging with smaller haulers (both public and private sector), working with the National Waste & Recycling Association to facilitate a new U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety alliance (the first for waste haulers) and conduct ongoing research into lithium-ion battery fires.
“When I say that nothing we do at SWANA is more important than safety, I mean it," said Biderman. "Every time I get a Google Alert about a fatal incident involving a waste vehicle or worker I get a little upset because we failed to prevent a tragic event."
Next year, SWANA will be expanding its international work. The group recently hosted delegations from Colombia and Chile (following two trips to Colombia itself) to showcase modern waste and recycling infrastructure. In June 2020, the U.S. State Department-funded work will conclude with a SWANA training summit in Bogota.
Beyond all of this, the organization will likely take a greater role in the emerging dialogue around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), along with other developing industry trends.
At a moment in the industry when government agencies are trying to adapt, and business models are shifting, the idea of a group that can help bridge the conversation between public and private sector players is increasingly popular. SWANA has signed on an estimated 2,700 new members so far this year, bringing it to a record-high total of more than 10,700.