Date: 9th April, 2012
GA Guest: Dr. John Skinner,Executive Director and CEO, Solid Waste Association of North America
In conversation with: Vineet Singh, Founder and MD of GreenArth (www.greenarth.com) and founder of CopperBridge Media (www.copperbridgemedia.com)
Guest profile: John H. Skinner, Ph.D. has been the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, since August 1996. Prior to that, Dr. Skinner held the position of Senior Advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme in Paris, France for a period of four years. He was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC from 1972 through 1992, serving in various capacities including Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research and Development and Director of the Office of Solid Waste. He started his professional career as a researcher at the GE Corporate Research and Development Center. He is a Board Certified Environmental Engineering Member of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers. His professional activities also include serving as the National Representative to International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), and was President of ISWA from 1992–1996. He also held the position of President for the Institute of Solid Waste of APWA from 1990–1991. He is the recipient of many awards and honors including the Presidential Distinguished Meritorious and Distinguished Executive Awards from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. At EPA he received the A.J. Barnes Human Resources Leadership Award and the Gold and Silver Medals for Exceptional and Superior Service. He is an Honorary Fellow of the UK Chartered Institution for Wastes Management. He received a NASA Fellowship to study at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) where he received a Ph.D. and Masters Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He holds a B.S. in Engineering Science from Hofstra University where he graduated cum laude and with honors. He has published widely in the solid waste and environmental field and is the co-editor of two books on international solid waste management programs.
Q1: Please give us a background of SWANA and its major objectives / milestones in the new millennium.
Dr. JS: SWANA’s mission is to advance the practice of environmentally and economically sound management of municipal solid waste in North America. Put another way, our mission is to promote sustainable solid waste management practices, because in order for practices to be sustainable they must be both environmentally and economically sound. Our goal is to provide our 7,800 members and 44 Chapters in the US, Canada and the Caribbean with training, education, research, certification, networking and professional development; so that they can implement best waste management practices in their communities and companies.
Both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity facing the solid waste management industry in the new millennium is to make a transition from a traditional waste disposal oriented industry to a comprehensive resource management industry. This will require solid waste managers to think of themselves as suppliers of raw material and energy resources rather than managers or disposers of discarded wastes. Their goal should be to produce high quality and reliable supplies of recycled materials and recovered energy that meets their customers’ requirements at prices that are competitive with other material and energy supplies. SWANA wants to be at the forefront of this transition in promoting the use of technologies that maximize reduction, recycling and recovery of material and energy resources, and provide for disposal of residuals in an environmentally sound manner.
Q2: How is SWANA contributing to the environmental health of North America?
Dr. JS: Environmental protection is at the core of everything we do. All of our training, education and research activities encourage (1) conserving resources by reducing the generation of solid waste, (2) increasing the recovery of materials and energy from waste discards, (3) diverting significant quantities of wastes from disposal to recycling and resource recovery facilities, and (4) supporting environmental standards for disposal facilities that protect human health and the environment.
Solid waste management facilities in North America that are managed by SWANA members are subject to environmental standards that are among the most stringent in the world. As required by the Federal Clean Air Act, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in pollution control at waste-to-energy facilities to reduce emissions of particulates, acid gases, mercury, dioxins and nitrous oxides. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency has declared that waste-to-energy facilities are a clean, reliable source or renewable energy that produces electricity with less adverse environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.
SWANA members also operate modern landfills that minimize the emission of liquids and gases into the environment and curtail the spread of disease associated with exposed waste. National standards in the U.S. and provincial standards in Canada require that landfills:
- Are not located in vulnerable environmental settings,
- Screen and inspect incoming waste loads to identify and remove prohibited materials,
- Protect groundwater resources by installing liners and systems to collect and treat leachate,
- At closure install impervious cover systems to prevent infiltration of precipitation,
- Install landfill gas collection systems and combust collected methane,
- Monitor groundwater to detect contamination and take necessary corrective action,
- Close the landfill in an environmentally sound manner and carry out post-closure monitoring and maintenance, and
- Provide financial assurance for closure and post-closure care.
Innovations in landfill operation include utilization of landfill gas as a renewable energy source and bioreactor operation to extend landfill life and reduce post closure care requirements.
Q3: There is a big gap in the waste management attitude and best practices between the developed and the developing world. Can this gap be bridged by the concerted effort of organizations like SWANA and the respective governments? Will you be willing to offer your time and expertise if you get an invitation?
Dr. JS: SWANA works to improve waste management practices in the developing world through our membership of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). ISWA is an international, independent and non-profit making association, working in the public interest to promote and develop sustainable waste management worldwide. ISWA has members around the world and is the only worldwide association promoting sustainable and professional waste management.
SWANA is the National Member of ISWA for the U.S. and Canada and we sit on the ISWA governing body the General Assembly. I am an elected member of ISWA’s Board of Directors. Through its 36 National Members, ISWA’s network reaches out to some 25,000 to 30,000 global professionals working in the waste management field.
Recognizing the special needs in the developing world, ISWA has established several Regional Development Networks for carrying out activities and programs that focus on developing regions’ special needs and challenges. There are currently three Regional Development Networks that have been established in Asia and the Pacific Region, the Balkans, Middle East and Mediterranean Region and the Latin and South American Region. Each Region is represented on the ISWA Board and works to assure that ISWA programs meet the needs in developing countries.
On a personal basis, I have provided technical assistance to solid waste management programs in the developing world throughout my career, especially when I was Senior Advisor to the United Nations Environment Program. For a four year period I worked on projects in African and Asian countries, and within the time constraints of my current position am always willing to offer my expertise.
Q4: Do you think that the North American waste management model can be implemented in the developing countries? What hurdles do you foresee?
Dr. JS: This is not a technological issue. The solid waste management technologies that are used in North America and elsewhere in developed countries can be adapted and used in developing countries. One of the hurdles to their use is the absence of a regulatory program that phases-out or closes unacceptable practices and requires or enforces the use of environmentally sound practices. Another hurdle is raising the financial capital necessary to construct the needed facilities along with a user fee system to pay back that capital. Finally there is the need to tailor management and operational systems be consistent with social, cultural, political and legal requirements in a particular country.
Q5: Global warming has started to manifest itself in unprecedented weather variations and natural calamities. Do you think that inadequate waste management practices around the world have contributed to the global warming in some measure?
Dr. JS: Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from environmentally sound solid waste management practices contribute very little to global warming. For example In February 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency released their 2012 Draft U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report. This report is released annually and is an overview of all the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and sinks in the United States. It also includes information on trends regarding emissions. The report indicates that landfills currently account for only 1.6% of all the GHG emissions in the US. Waste-to-energy emissions are only 0.2% of the national GHG emission levels, which pales in comparison to other forms of electricity generation. Furthermore landfill GHG emissions have been steadily declining over the past two decades. Since 1990, landfill methane emissions have dropped by 27 %. The decline is the result of the increase in the collection and combustion of landfill gas
Also there are many opportunities for improved solid waste management practices to reduce GHG emissions. One study by researchers at U.S. EPA showed that over a 23 year period GHG emissions in the U.S. dropped by 78 percent while waste generation increased by over 80 percent. This was accomplished through recovery and utilization of landfill methane as an energy source, increasing recycling, composting and reuse of solid waste and production of renewable energy from waste-to-energy facilities that offset fossil fuel use. Efforts to improve solid waste management practices should be an integral part of any GHG reduction program.
Q6: Energy and fuel are the biggest worries for the 21st century. Like sunshine and wind, waste is in abundant supply on our planet. Can there be a global agency (like WTO, UNICEF…) which is aimed at propagating and implementing ‘best practices’ in the area of waste management & waste-to-energy generation?
Dr. JS While there are many international agencies that can support the implementation of best practices in the waste management and waste-to-energy area, one organization that can play a key role is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The International Solid Waste Association of which SWANA is an active member participated in the Conference of the Parties Climate Summit which took place in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011.
An ISWA delegation participated in that Summit and worked to make sustainable waste management and its positive impact on our climate an issue at the Summit and in the UNFCCC process. For the first time, waste was identified as one of the sectors, along with energy, industrial processes and product use, agriculture, and land use. This is important in terms of drawing attention to the waste sector and in encouraging developed countries to account for waste as they report mitigation activity and, importantly, financial assistance to developing countries.
The Durban outcomes were very positive for the waste management sector in terms of gaining greater recognition as a mitigation strategy, attracting new streams of public and private financial assistance, and supporting domestic regulatory reform efforts.
Thank you & Best Wishes!