In quite a different and innovative approach to holding their annual event, SWANA’s Virtual SWANApalooza started on Monday with a preview of the virtual exhibit hall, where attendees could visit each company, see what they specialized in, watch videos posted, look at resources, and even video conference or chat with them as available. Attendees also had the opportunity to “meet and greet” Arminda Valles-Hall, Director of Education & Member Learning at SWANA’s virtual booth.

Tuesday opened with the virtual exhibit hall and the chance to meet more of SWANA’s staff, including Darryl Walter, Director of Membership and Sara Bixby, Deputy Executive Director. In addition, the Auditorium offered videos on the importance of becoming a SWANA member and its many benefits and being a part of one of SWANA’s Technical Divisions. Collaboration, professional access, helping others, getting involved and developing relationship were the main themes, which also carried over into a WASTECON 2020 preview video that showed what this year’s event will cover and its goals.

In the afternoon, SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO, David Biderman, introduced the conference portion of the event and thanked all those who were involved in making Virtual SWANApalooza possible – speakers, exhibitors, partners, sponsors, attendees and especially SWANA staff for their hard work in putting together, not only the event that was originally planned for March in Atlanta, but also essentially making the transition into ultimately putting together whole other (virtual) event instead. Because there are so many great presentations available throughout the week, he pointed out listening to the Pre-Recorded Sessions before the Live Events in order to get even more out of the session as well as making sure that all attendees know that any of  the sessions that they want to hear would be available to listen to after the event.

Before diving into the first keynote, attendees were treated to a surprise guest, Andrew Wheeler, U.S. EPA Administrator who thanked SWANA and their hard work as well as the industry’s critical role during COVID-19 and the fact that workers rose to the challenge while risking their lives on the frontline. He also mentioned that later this year EPA will announce the national recycling goals, which will continue to strengthen and improve recycling.

The first keynote session, “COVID-19: The Impact on Solid Waste Operations and Lessons Learned”, featured speaker, Commissioner Kathryn Garcia from New York City’s Sanitation Department. Designed as a Q&A session, David Biderman asked Garcia a series of questions on how the Department dealt with COVID-19, preparations, the shutdown, public communication, meeting operational challenges, changes in staffing, procedures, and the overall impact of everything that went on since the end of February. She highlighted the commitment of the employees and how they met with ongoing challenges during that time, and how, even when they had close to 25% of the force out and there were delays, the routes were still completed. In spite of the impact of COVID-19, she pointed out how the workers were absolutely essential to the process, the need to be supportive, protecting them while they are out on the frontline, and that it is important to make adjustments quickly. She talked about lessons learned, and then fielded questions from the audience about her experience. The session was not only very informative but offered a great inside view to what happened during that crucial time.

When the keynote ended and after a short virtual coffee break, attendees were invited back to view the different presentations on various topics covering the state of the solid waste industry, waste reduction education, recovery of metals and aggregates from WTE ash, injury prevention and crash risk reduction, innovative landfill technologies, improving tonnage and revenue, and more. The late afternoon keynote session on Ocean Plastics and Marine Litter offered attendees a look at Dr. Jenna Jambeck’s (Professor of Environmental Engineering; Co-Director UGA New Materials Institute, University of Georgia) latest work and discoveries in waste management around the world with regards to marine plastic pollution, biodegradable materials and others. She also talked about the Mobile App she created, Marine Debris Tracker, a valuable tool to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash along our coastlines and waterways. It is a great way to get involved in local and global data collection.

A virtual networking party wrapped up a great afternoon of educational sessions and keynotes. Overall, the first day was a great success!