Larry W. Frevert

Making the right decisions in solid waste makes good cents

Larry W. Frevert, P.E.
APWA President

Over the past few years, more and more people have had to think seriously about the collection and disposal of solid waste, particularly those impacted by the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. On a site visit to the region last February, we were told the "storm-created" debris in the New Orleans area alone will consume 43 years of that region's landfill capacity. The management of millions upon millions of tons of vegetative and man-made construction debris generated from these events made the solid waste professionals some of the most indispensable men and women in their communities. Without these individuals and their dedication, progress on recovery of this region would have been even more difficult.

This month's issue of the APWA Reporter provides a comprehensive look at solid waste management in North America—what works, what technology is being implemented by some communities, and what type of planning is needed to ensure that waste management is considered appropriately by architects and engineers in new construction.

More importantly, as one of this month's articles demonstrates, we see more and more public works agencies implementing programs to help reduce waste generation and promote recycling as a means to reduce their "carbon footprint." Ways to reduce global emissions of CO2 through the collection of landfill gas and the minimization of emissions using hybrid collection vehicles are now front and center in the debates at the local government level. In the absence of a true national climate policy, many of our public officials appear ready to do something now rather than wait until it might be too late to act. In April, APWA will present the Climate Change Symposium highlighting some of the opportunities and success stories in this area.

While landfilling is still the predominant form of solid waste management strategy across the country, I see in my travels a new focus by many communities on waste-to-energy opportunities. The current high cost of fossil fuel energy has significantly raised the competitiveness and attractiveness of these alternatives, and the remarkable record of the waste-to-energy industry in providing one of the cleanest forms of energy production suggests that these tried-and-tested technologies can be feasible in many locales. We see many new conversion technologies such as plasma arc, waste to ethanol, and gasification being touted by their developers as panaceas for the waste disposal "crisis." Whether these unproven waste conversion technologies can overcome the truly monumental engineering and financial realities of the marketplace is not yet certain.

Lastly, as with many critical public works challenges of our era, we need to do a better job in educating the public and our public works colleagues about solid waste management issues. Oftentimes, all our citizens know about solid waste management is that wastes mysteriously disappear once or twice a week after they are hauled to the curb. Out of sight often means out of mind. We therefore need to develop an environmental awareness about the choices we must make on a daily basis to promote increased waste reduction and recycling. With every man, woman and child in North America creating 4.5 pounds of "trash" daily, education will be a key component of a waste minimization program.

These will be interesting times for public works. After a long history of unwavering and costly reliance on fossil fuels, there appears to be a very real reemergence of environmental awareness in the United States. The concepts of sustainability and "going green" are gaining traction at every level, from the federal and state governments to the individual consumer. Climate change is moving closer to the center of national and global debate, and stakeholders worldwide are increasingly driving the consensus that action—sooner rather than later—is required. That action will come in many forms: understanding and controlling our carbon footprint, recycling our limited resources, making better use of our water and our land, and of course, finding new fuels to support economic growth and vitality. The citizens served by our Canadian members have long taken a more aggressive approach to these challenges, with good results. I also witnessed impressive environmental consciousness in the Czech and Slovak Republics during my visit there last October. Waste minimization coupled with proper and energy-conscious disposal is a global issue and we, the members of the public works community, must play a vital role in bringing those solutions to all countries, America included. We above all must help drive this national awareness, creating an environment where sustainability is understood as both an opportunity and an obligation. We cannot afford to ignore either.

In the meantime, thank you for all you do for APWA and for your service daily to the public works profession.