SWANA’s Virtual WASTECON® kicked off this week with great sessions from several speakers focusing on how the past year has changed the industry and what they have had to do to adapt. After vendor presentations from Caterpillar and Mack, SWANA CEO David Biderman welcomed attendees, stressing that much has changed, especially in how we gather to learn and network. However, it has not interfered with SWANA’s commitment to bring education in the industry, rising to the occasion during challenging times. Biderman said that when SWANA created the theme of event, they had no idea what was coming in terms of the pandemic and economic disruptions and while it has introduced uncertainty, Virtual WASTECON’s goal is to help the industry lean into the disruptions and use these challenges to be effective solid waste and recycling leaders. He stressed that the event would not be possible without hard work of SWANA staff, speakers and moderators as well as the supporting sponsors. He then thanked attendees and encouraged them to lean into Virtual WASTECON, participate, ask questions, say hello to everyone and make sure to attend networking sessions.

First up was John Morris, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management, in a conversation-style presentation with Biderman asking him about his experiences through the pandemic, looking back at 2020, and how they adapted to the continuous changes. Morris said that in the beginning they had a lot of information coming at them from various sources, so they had to sort though all the data. Afterwards, the first decision the management team made was to have all non-frontline workers work from home. That was the moment that he knew the situation was taking a turn in a different direction. Leadership made it even more of a priority to put people first, evaluating how the changes were going to affect them and how to keep them safe since they are the ones that make this industry run. Morris pointed out that once they figured that out, they needed a strategy to help customers while operating safely with a different set of protocols. COVID essentially recreated business processes overnight. However, he stressed that everyone at Waste Management did a phenomenal job keeping things running smoothly.

Some of the trends he observed over the past year were volume shifts into the residential waste and recycling sector, accelerating technology implementations in order to keep operating efficiencies, as well as interaction with customers and employees. With a large part of WM’s workforce at home, they needed to be able to ensure that their employees were successful at their work and functioning. They also took a look at how customers’ expectations changed and buying habits, adapting and changing their business model as needed. While Morris is optimistic about the commercial side growing again in the late first half/early second half of year, he believes the workforce of the future is going to look different because there will be those employees that stay remote because of the flexibility. He stressed that SWANA has been working to help Waste Management and others across the industry to be recognized as essential workers. However, we need to continue to be advocates for employees to get them to the front of the line for vaccinations. Morris said that WM will be making sure they can do everything they can to get the vaccine to their employees. Biderman agreed: “States are making decisions on how to administer the vaccine. Don’t just wait, press that our industry needs to be prioritized.”

Finally, Morris talked about the leadership qualities and skillset to be successful. He commented that although there is a lot of information available, leadership’s job is to keep our people safe and look at what we could control—how do you remain calm in the unknowns? People will generally look to the leadership for guidance, so keep your head above the fray, try not to get wrapped up in the ‘noise’ and chart a path that would take your organization forward. Alleviate the uncertainly and offer some clarity. Trust your people and let them do the work. Do the best you could with what you have to work with and take it day by day. He said that Waste Management’s main goal is people first. Not only is the right thing to do, but it also helps to take care of customers. If we do those things right, it takes cares of investors as well. He stressed that we should take every valuable lesson we can out of this pandemic, trust our people and give them the tools to be successful.

Next Heidi Sanborn, Executive Director for the National Stewardship Action Council, was WASTECON’s Lawrence Lecturer. She spoke about the importance of the circular economy. A circular economy is not linear but circular, cradle to cradle, and focuses on producers to create sustainable design and collect products at the end of life. She talked about why she embraced change, explaining even as child she was always worried about environment. After a 30 year career in materials management, she started the California Product Stewardship Council in 2007 and left in 2019 to focus on National Stewardship Action Council to catalyze the shift to a Circular Economy. Sanborn said believes that the waste and recycling industry can make a big difference; we have the ability to keep things in motion, preserving materials so we are not adding to waste. As we know, now microplastics are coming up through food chain, but still we don’t understand long term impacts.

The National Stewardship Action Council helped to pass the first EPR ordinance for meds in the U.S. in Alameda County, CA in 2012 This set the legal rules of the road—EPR in U.S. is allowed so long as the product has a public health and safety nexus. In addition, Bill SB 212 was passed in 2018 that focused on a Meds and Sharps Ordinance. She stressed that even though we have had these successes in change, we still have a lot of work to do, so we need creative solutions. What are we willing to do about it? Some of the solutions could be to partner with companies that want to help and lead them, educate people to vote with their dollars, banning anything toxic by 2030, etc. EPR is just one tool. Be a catalyst to make this shift into action. What is your skill and how do you use it? Be sure to model behaviors, get educated and help educate others, collect data, convene stakeholders and find allies and political champions, write letters and articles, pursue local/state/federal action, partner with NSAC or others. Diversity and inclusion are a must and we need to support companies that lead, including Textile Exchange and Call2Recycle. If legislators don’t know us, they don’t call us. Get involved – make sure they understand what you do. Achieving a circular economy ensures that we will have a happy ending.

The final session of the day, “Outside the Box: Reinventing Your Organization in Response to COVID-19”, featured Carlton Williams from the City of Philadelphia, PA, Jim Walsh from SCS Engineers, and John Brusa, Jr. at Barton & Loguidice, and was moderated by Robert Smouse from the City of Fort Worth, TX

Williams spoke first about the City of Philadelphia’s experiences, saying that the situation was extremely challenging. The city saw a 30 percent increase in curbside for their MSW program instantaneously once it was announced that things were shutting down. They looked at ways to streamline the process. Leaving trash on streets would bring pests, so they wanted to mitigate that as soon as possible. An initial strategy of alternating one week trash and one week recycling worked initially but they were not able to sustain the plan because the material stream was extremely heavy, so they  evaluated other solutions like adding on additional staff. However, COVID impacted several of their employees and those coming in contact with them who had to quarantine for 2 weeks. Willliams said they were losing significant numbers of employees, there were delays in trash collection, leading to a ripple effect for other routes throughout the week. In the summer, temperatures reached over 100 and adding PPE disposal made it equally challenging with collecting trash. He stressed that in order to overcome these challenges, the city had to change some of their operations. They expanded service hours where people could drop off trash and drop off recyclable materials, constantly communicated with customers about any changes in pickup, and went to great lengths to protect employees. He said it is a still a revolving process, but they learned quite a few things from it. There has been a change in the dynamic of operations; they needed to figure out each day what information would come in and how that would impact customers. They had to keep morale up, especially since some employees worked 30 straight days. He pointed out that it is an opportune time to look at how solid waste materials are managed, because in a crisis, it shows you how critical it can be. We need to be prepared and grow from it.

Walsh talked about how COVID impacted SCS Engineers and the company’s operations. Concerned about health and safety of employees, leadership sent 550 of 600 out of the office to work from home. Field workers continued to work across the country since they were regarded as essential workers. Despite all of the changes, Walsh said the company was able to meet contractual obligations. He is amazed by adaptability and flexibility of their employees who transitioned very well at working from home. He pointed out that technology has been quite an aid to the business. If this had happened 10 years ago, this adaptability would not have happened. One of the biggest challenges was IT since everyone was sent home to work, depend on home connections and internet, upgrades where needed. However, everyone stepped up in a matter of weeks.

Brusa, Jr. agreed with Walsh. At Barton&Loguidice, COVID affected each part of business differently depending on the project. With a plan to close all of the offices during the timeframe, they assembled COVID response team that included the HR director and IT manager. Changes were made every day especially with different states and locations involved. They made sure that field personnel were protected, there was communications plan, and the IT infrastructure was in place, while staying engaged with employees. The company has developed a workforce re-entry plan to come back in a phased approach; however, they are not mandating it, so employees can still keep the flexibility. Some offices are at 100 percent back in person, some are at 50 percent combination of in-person and virtual and others are still 100 percent virtual. He stressed that Barton&Loguidice will continue to invest in employees since they are the ones to pull you through.

We are looking forward to today’s program, which includes “The Role of Waste Management in the Sustainable Recovery of Our Cities, “Future Focused Leadership” and “How to Successful Achieve EPA’s New 50% Recycling Goal”. Make sure you check it out!




For more information, visit wastecon.org.