Working to make our environment a better place

Bob Freudenthal
APWA President

  Bob Freudenthal

Whether you call it solid waste, garbage, trash or refuse, we all deal with this "material" on a daily basis. What do we do with it all? Where will it all go? How will we clean up the problems of the past and try to prevent problems in the future? These are questions solid waste professionals must deal with each and every day. Solid waste is typically a responsibility of public works, and one that often is taken for granted. We expect our trash to be picked up every week and, as a society, we pay little thought to where and how it is managed after that point.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the hurricane-ravaged Gulf States. I was able to see, firsthand, the breakdown of civilization that results from a destroyed infrastructure. When the basic elements of public works such as waste collection are literally washed away, debris removal becomes a precious resource to the population. In New Orleans, for example, the amount of debris generated by such widespread urban destruction has been crippling. I wanted to highlight the importance of waste management through these comments before talking about some of the issues we plan to tackle through APWA. By putting our profession in this kind of perspective, we see that what we do not only matters to ourselves in how we make a living, but also in the proper functioning of a modern society.

While we look at ways to help those in the Gulf get better prepared for the future, APWA continues its important work on the issues relating to general waste management. The Solid Waste Management Technical Committee is focused on several key initiatives this year, ranging from the disposal of electronic waste to building better relationships with other organizations like the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). With several new members, this committee is working hard on behalf of APWA. I was speaking with the committee chair, Roger Flint, Public Works and Utility Director from Spokane, Washington, and he shared some observations that I thought were worth passing along.

I think most of us know that the most predominant form of disposal is still landfilling, although options like waste-to-energy are gaining acceptance and are becoming more viable as the cost of power continues to rise. One of the very real problems facing us today is the management of old, closed and abandoned landfills. This can be of considerable cost to a community, especially when saddled with paying for the new solid waste system at the same time they are paying to clean up and remediate the old one. What should concern us is that at one time many of these old dumps were considered the "proper" disposal method. As professionals, we need to make sure we do not make the same mistakes as we develop our new solid waste management systems for future generations.

As waste management issues gain public awareness, concerns about various disposal methods can arise. Thankfully, within our modern scheme of waste management, disposal is the last phase in the waste stream hierarchy. We acknowledge that disposal will always be needed, but we all hope to rely on it less than in the past. Most agree that the ideal way to reduce the stress on disposal systems is to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. The emphasis in modern solid waste management is on reduction, reuse, recycle, and recovery before disposal. These are at the main components of an integrated waste management system (see the article in this issue).

Of course, education is a key component of all solid waste management programs. We need to work toward the development of policies, regulations, technologies, systems and practices that promote environmental awareness and good, integrated solid waste management. When we think about public works, let's not forget our folks in solid waste who are working hard to make our environment a better place.