What does America's Number 1 trash man have to say about the mess we're in?

Though not joining hands with the Transition communities in any way shape or form, the solid waste industry is a surprisingly positive force in the environmental movement. They keep us from drowning in a sea of our own refuse, and, as it turns out, they don't have anything to do with the mafia.

To cap off our recent voices on the environment, Big Think talked to the nation's leading trash man, CEO Bruce Parker of the National Solid Waste Management Association. He explained the industry has actually become quite engaged with green energy promotion, garbage reduction and recycling.

Could you describe the role you play in lightening the ecological impact of garbage in the U.S.?

We’re not an environmental organization in the traditional sense. But we are an association that represents private solid waste service companies in the U.S., and those companies absolutely are environmental organizations in the truest sense of the word. That idea likely will surprise many people. Most Americans – including many, who regulate and report on our industry – have little or no knowledge or appreciation for the scope of our involvement in helping to make our environment cleaner, healthier and more sustainable.

People should understand that solid waste companies are a part of the solution to concerns about the environment – not their cause. In fact, solid waste companies are essential partners in meeting America’s needs for professional, innovative and environmentally-responsive management of waste materials. Protecting the environment and public health is the very reason for our existence.

America’s solid waste industry continues to advance the development and implementation of innovative technologies: Our members built and operate a large part of America’s recycling and commercial composting infrastructure, and we have introduced increasingly consumer-friendly and efficient methods for collecting and sorting recyclables and compostable materials to increase consumer participation. We are a leader in generating renewable energy from solid waste, and these activities are reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The results of these efforts have had a measurable positive impact on the overall quality of our environment. There is no “greenwashing” here. Between 1974 and 1997, increased recycling, composting, waste-to-energy and landfill-gas reduction resulted in GHG emissions from solid waste management facilities to drop by 78 percent − even as American waste generation increased by 70 percent. Without these improvements, these emissions would have been 600 percent higher. 

How does the solid waste industry promote gas-to-energy projects?

Innovation and leadership from the solid waste industry are making it possible for Americans to use waste as a source of renewable and sustainable energy. Because waste-based-energy is becoming an important source of revenue for our industry, solid waste companies will continue expanding energy production.

One of the largest waste companies recently announced a goal of doubling its landfill-gas-to-energy production during the next decade. In some cases, landfill gas is used to fuel turbines and generators at landfills where the electricity can be delivered to the local power grid. It also is piped directly to nearby manufacturing plants, schools, government buildings and other facilities to heat and cool buildings and power machinery. In other cases, the gas is processed and turned into transportation fuel, such as compressed (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to power garbage trucks.


What do you see as the future for the solid waste industry in an economy that reducing consumption?

First, waste has always existed. Archeological studies have found evidence of waste in the first permanent human settlements. Second, the nature of waste has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. A century ago, in urban settings in the U.S. and parts of Europe, as much as 85 percent of residential waste was ash or cinder from fires used to heat homes to cook food. Today, these wastes almost entirely have been eliminated from the residential waste stream. But they have been replaced with other types of waste. So, while there have been huge changes in the nature of waste and the way that we manage waste during the last millennia, there always has been waste to manage. I don’t see that fact changing.

It is true that today there is greater pressure and urgency on individuals to reduce the amount of waste they produce, and there are fairly simple changes they can make to achieve this goal. While individual waste reduction certainly is important, I think it fair to say that “upstream” innovation and technology will continue to play the leading role in waste reduction. Indeed, some of the most impressive results of waste reduction have resulted from efforts by various manufacturers and retailers to alter the way that products are designed and manufactured, crated, stored, transported and sold.

Still, the size of the waste stream largely has been a product of population growth and the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Statistics bear this out. According to the EPA, municipal solid waste (MSW) generation has increased from 1960, during each subsequent decade, even taking into consideration periods of severely down economies. Americans generated about 88 million tons of MSW in 1960, 152 million tons in 1980, 239 million tons in 2000 and in 2007 (EPA’s latest data) 254 million tons. This current decade may be an anomaly depending on the length of the recession and the quickness and depth of its recovery. It is also important to understand that EPA’s data only includes MSW which primarily is waste from households, restaurants and commercial establishments and other sources similar in composition to this kind of waste. It does not include construction and demolition waste, special waste and other non-MSW waste which more than doubles the volume of total solid waste generated each year.

In summary, in both the near and relatively distant future the solid waste industry still will be responsible for continuing to manage a large volume of waste to protect public health and the environment, as well as supporting waste reduction efforts. At the same time the industry will continue to see solid waste as a resource, whether as a source for renewable “green” electrical power or producing cellulosic ethanol and natural gas to fuel trash trucks and other vehicles and equipment. This is what we are doing today..

What is the waste industry's biggest weakness?

Honestly, I don’t see any industry weakness. I only see opportunities and challenges. We are positioned to continuing playing a role in responding to the most dominant environmental concern today, climate change, by continuing to improve on the production efficiencies of waste-based-energy and finding opportunities in new uses for tomorrow. We will continue the challenge and opportunities in helping increase recycling participation rates, recognizing that continued success may require behavioral changes by consumers, retailers and manufacturers that we cannot always impact.  And we will continue the challenge and opportunities of bringing innovation and new and better technology to ensure that today’s modern landfills will become even safer and more environmentally protective.

One of our immediate challenges is getting people to understand that we’re the good guys, that we are part of the solution for our environmental concerns – not the problem. We’re working on that.