Talkin' Trash: A fatal crash leads to a federal investigation; DSNY considers 'save-as-you-throw'
This week started with some big news that the country's largest sanitation department was moving forward in its consideration of a "save-as-you-through" system, but was bookended by much more somber news.
Here's your week in review.
Stories that drove the week
A train collision in Virginia left one sanitation worker dead and several others hospitalized. It's a grave reminder of how dangerous working in solid waste can be.
- The train was carrying Republican lawmakers on their way to a scheduled legislative retreat in West Virginia. Christopher Foley, 28, was identified as the worker who was killed in the collision.
- Federal and local authorities are investigating the cause of the collision. In response to the incident, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) said, "The identity of the train’s passengers must not overshadow that incidents where solid waste workers are killed on the job occur far too frequently."
According to SWANA's data, this is the sixth collections worker killed on the job so far in 2018 — and it's only Feb. 2. Solid waste collection remains the fifth-most dangerous job in the country, and it's important that those in the industry not become complacent in enforcing safety measures.
The New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) announced Resource Recycling Systems would study a "save-as-you-throw" system for the city.
- The $1 million contract will run for three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension.
- Details are, so far, scarce and have left some in the area skeptical of the efficacy or fairness of such a system.
A DSNY spokeswoman told Waste Dive in an email that it's too early in the process to discuss any details in terms of what a program or implementation schedule might look like. "The Department of Sanitation is committed to including a broad range of stakeholders through the process, and coming up with an equitable plan," she wrote. If DSNY implements a municipal pay-as-you-throw program, though, it could give the idea a big boost nationwide.
At least three towns — two in Illinois and one in Massachusetts — are rethinking the idea of municipal waste collection, bucking a trend toward privatization.
- The three towns have budget concerns, and say going private would help their bottom lines. Residents, in many cases, are opposed to going to a private system. "It would certainly help our budget to go private, but it would put the burden right on the taxpayer," the mayor of Normal, IL said.
- Municipal waste collection has dropped from 35% to 20% over the last 20 years, according to the Waste Business Journal.
The trend toward privatization appears especially strong in smaller communities with lower tax bases. In some cases, going private can lower costs — but customers can become attached to their trash haulers, and that can be true of municipal workers, too.
Waste Management held its 2018 Sustainability Forum in Phoenix with lots of big names and big ideas.
- CEO Jim Fish, drawing parallels to President Kennedy's investment in the space program, called for a "moonshot" plan to boost recycling and reduce his company's emissions by a factor of four.
- Myles Cohen, president of Pratt Recycling, said the future of recycling depended on cities being more honest with consumers about the process. "How long will it be before the American public catches up and loses faith in recycling?" He called for a return to the essentials — "paper, cardboard, bottles and cans" — and recognized that single-stream recycling had likely worsened contamination, but might be hard to reverse.
Others, including Brett Bell, VP of recycling for Waste Management said the industry needed to "attack contamination." Whether material was being sold to China, India, Indiana or Louisiana, he said "it shouldn't matter, because customers expect quality."
David Allaway, a senior policy analyst for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, dropped a classic Henry Ford quote to make his point: "Picking up and reclaiming the scrap left over after production is a public service," said Ford, "but planning so that there will be no scrap is a higher public service."
The latest on China...
The new market realities continue to be felt in states around the country, with Oregon hit especially hard. There is a growing sense of urgency among processors that residents and local officials may need a reality check about what can actually be recycled. The Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association has developed a list of suggested material for any commingled program that it hopes will be disseminated in the coming weeks. Disposal concurrences are also continuing — with more in the works — and some think they could be reaching a breaking point in terms of storage capacity.
"Quite frankly right now we're just trying to avoid drowning," ORRA's Executive Director Kristan Mitchell told Waste Dive.
More rural ripple effects appeared in one Montana county that will stop accepting mixed plastics, and another in Utah that could be headed down that same path if contamination rates persist. In the Northeast, municipalities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are cracking down on contamination, particularly plastics bags, at the behest of their MRFs.
You can find all of this information on our 50 state tracker page. It's been updating for more than three months now, and will continue to do so. Tip and feedback are highly appreciated.
Other interesting stories from the week...
- Waste Dive spoke with some companies and a few analysts to get a broad sense of how tax reforming is shaping up to affect the waste industry. Check it out if you missed it.
- An EPS ban in California failed, for the second year in a row. On the other hand, new regulations in the state appear to have increased food diversion and brought new haulers into the business.
- Michigan's Republic governor said he was disappointed in how the state's recycling rate has faired while he's been in office and then two Democratic lawmakers introduced bills that could boost diversion if they're passed.
- Dubai is building a giant WTE plant that will power 120,000 homes.
- And, lastly, HuffPost published a fascinating look at an "army" of unofficial recyclers in Shanghai.