From collection vehicle to the labor force and regulatory changes, several experts in the industry give their insights on the future of waste.
There has been much speculation about what 2022 will look like in terms of recovery, technology, regulations, mergers/acquisitions, etc. But what about 5, 10 or even 30 years into the future of the waste and recycling industry? Waste Advantage Magazine spoke to several experts about their view on what the future of industry may look like.
The Future of Garbage Trucks
We all know that garbage trucks have evolved quite a bit since the early days of collection, and it only continues to become more so. While diesel and CNG trucks are still currently the norm, in some areas across the U.S., electric garbage trucks are being implemented and are continuing to gain more exposure. There has also been talk of autonomous trucks in the future as well—it may not necessarily reach our industry for a number of years, but there have been tests of driverless trucks for long-haul, over-the-road trucking with some success. Will Flower, Senior Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Brothers Waste Systems, speculates, “From 100 feet away, a future garbage truck will look very similar to what we see today. However, looking closer, there will be some big changes. Trucks in the future will probably be quieter and cleaner. They will definitely be safer due to advances in collision-avoidance technology that reduces the risk of human error. And, if advancements in self-driving trucks continue, we could actually see driverless transfer trailers moving waste from transfer stations to disposal sites. Future driverless trucks will need to have integrated systems, including GPS, roadway condition and traffic apps, radar, cameras, and light detection and range sensors that can “see” the surroundings. Keep in mind that laws can speed up or slow down technologies. The federal government will play a big role in
determining the future of self-driving vehicles. Right now, the patchwork of state-by-state and even county-by-county regulation is slowing the advancement of self-driving vehicles.”
John Paglia III, Owner and President of Florida Express Environmental, agrees, “Over the last five years, alternatives we all know expedited change. With the introduction of clean burning diesels (compared to old diesel motors), Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and now the newly gaining traction Electric Vehicles (EV), the safe bet will be to continue to see these evolve. Combine this evolution with labor shortages and I would be willing to bet a truck of 2050 will be more automated than we can imagine—it may self-drive, self-collect and have minor input from a driver/operator.”
While all can agree that the future garbage truck will be even more efficient than today’s vehicles due to the advancement and development of technology that we have not seen quite yet, it still comes down to making the trucks equipped with all of the accident-avoidance and safety features that will be available at that time. There may even be less rear loaders on the road with almost entirely automated equipment, as Sean Jennings, President of Waste Pro, points out, or non-diesel fueled trucks (e.g. CNG/LNG) will be dominant with electric trucks on trend to take an increasingly significant portion of new truck sales. “There will be more ‘driver assist’ and safety technologies implemented on the truck to operate the truck more safely and efficiently. Trucks will be outfitted with continuous data acquisition technology (which many are in some form today); however, AI algorithms will use the data to adjust truck performance attributes, as well as using a hive-based approach to maximize efficiency in routing strategies. If source-separated organics diversion policies are implemented more strongly, this may dictate more prevalence of ‘wet waste’ trucks in communities where this type of collection is mandated,” comments Bryan Staley, President and CEO of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation.
And how will these garbage trucks be fueled? David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of SWANA, suspects that a substantial portion of trucks will be fueled by something other than diesel. “Thirty years ago, very few people would have predicted that alternative fueling technologies would have advanced sufficiently such that electric fueled trucks (EVs) were being piloted in communities as diverse as New York City and Ocala, Florida. I suspect there are scientists and engineers working on ways to power trucks in 2050 and beyond that we can’t even imagine right now.”
Both Paglia and Marc Rogoff, Senior Consultant at Geosyntec in the Solid Waste Advisory Practice, believe that the vehicles will run on electricity or some other sustainable renewable energy like solar power or fuel cells. “I would like to see our trucks run on sustainable renewable energy like solar powered electric, or feed and fuel them on the spot with an incinerator type collection truck. The latter would need some serious engineering to become reality, but if we can travel recreationally to outer space, why not have a dream with a vision?” says Paglia.
Flower points out, “There is a lot of talk about electric waste collection vehicles. However, collection trucks need a lot of energy and battery-operated vehicles are not realistic due to the excessive weight of the batteries needed to store enough power to get through a route. In the future, I think a hybrid design will work best in which a diesel-powered turbine runs at a constant speed and turns a generator that produces electricity used to propel the vehicle.
Turbines are very clean burning and efficient. Plus, electrical motors have fewer moving parts and are easier to maintain.”
Paul Ross, Vice President of American Waste Control also agrees, “Trucks will likely be electric with improved diesel technology to bring emissions closer to zero. We can improve the energy efficiency of collection vehicles by using more hybrid technology and renewable fuels.”
Whatever the case may be in the future, all agree that there will be major changes, whether it is safely implementing driverless garbage trucks, the automation and electrification of trash collection, learning to find safer and more efficient ways to haul trash or creating renewable energy out waste, aerial (e.g., drone) and satellite-based emissions monitoring, AI-based technology or improved electronics, as Paglia emphasizes. “Improved electronics covers all of the items we all look to achieve. Electronics will help every sector of the waste collection, recycling and disposal process. We know electronics are constantly being introduced into fleets (cameras, GPD, sensors), facilities (sorting stations, cameras), engines, routing
software, CRMs, scales, balers, landfill and MRF equipment, etc.”
How Big Data Will Change the Industry
On the other side of the collection equation, there is the rise of big data. This means that ‘large data sets may be analyzed to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions’ (Oxford Languages)—in the industry’s case that would be collection, including what people’s recycling habits and behaviors are, route patterns, etc. Rogoff says that big data will enable us to discern the ways we can innovate and optimize collection, recycling and disposal systems.
“We have made good progress in collecting data. Today, we routinely capture a lot of information about customers’ garbage, collection routes, trucks and employees. The analysis of all these data points gives managers faster and better information to make decisions,” agrees Flower. “Over time, we will gather more and more data points. Changes will occur as we become better at evaluating all that data to help us effectively manage companies with better and quicker decisions.”
Biderman stresses that big data will only change the industry if it is uniformly collected and analyzed. “It has the potential to be revolutionary, for collection, processing and disposal. Some companies are moving down this path, as are some municipalities. Overseas, the “Smart Cities” concept has taken off, and I believe the United States and Canada are slightly behind in implementing it. Imagine how much data we could collect from the 140,000 waste and recycling trucks, the millions of containers, and thousands of disposal facilities, that are currently used in the U.S.?”
Says Ross, “Big data will help us in finding new sustainable markets for recycling materials that otherwise might not get recycled. Big data can help us better understand the recycler—their habits and behaviors—and give us information on how we can better educate and help them improve their sustainability efforts. It will also help us manage our fleet, service our customers and provide data for improvements in real time. That’s what customers expect—real time solutions to their needs.”
“When you can manage and run your business with metrics you will be more successful than having a strong bottom line. If all employees are led and held accountable with reaching certain metric goals applicable to them, we as an industry will always be successful in ensuring our job is done and customers are happy day after day,” agrees Paglia.
Staley explains that as AI algorithms continue to be improved, big data can be used to create more efficient waste collection strategies. “Big data can also be used to better connect decision making by product manufacturers to end-of-life sustainability metrics over much shorter timeframes. However, significant challenges exist to maximize the utility of big data, such as discrepancies in whocontrols waste flows for residential, commercial and industrial entities. As big data continues to evolve, it can be seen as a great advantage to the industry in terms of improving and moving the industry forward, while knowing what patterns of behavior to expect, not only from the waste industry, but from consumers as well.”
The COVID-19 Impact
The events of the past year and a half due to the COVID pandemic have impacted all aspects of our daily lives—there is no doubt about that. As other industries and businesses were shutting down at the peak of what was happening, the waste industry was deemed an essential service for communities across the U.S. Because there was a rise in residential waste and a dip in commercial waste, this required adjustments on the part of all waste collection companies and municipalities, as well as a change in the way the business was run—from dealing with the challenge of a reduced labor force, socially distanced safety and training meetings to stepping up the sanitizing in and around the trucks every day. While the industry is working through recovery, Paglia stresses that the industry is resilient and has learned from this experience, “COVID-19 was just another obstacle we were all forced to evaluate and overcome. Those that are still making the ‘COVID excuse’ I argue will not be around much longer. We all have had enough time to put policies and procedures in place to overcome these obstacles. Whether it’s ordering assets sooner, increasing inventory levels due to supply chain shortages, or protecting and rewarding your team, it’s something that will not be stopped when and if COVID goes away. Plan as if it is here to stay and you will be ok. No matter what our world continues to show us it will constantly throw us challenges, so be prepared and learn from this to be flexible and decisive in your policies. Do not be afraid to change when it comes knocking on your door.”
Staley believes that a number of safety practices implemented during COVID will be adopted as standard practice. Jennings points out that, “Two likely ways that COVID’s effects will remain will be the increased residential volume due to more allowances for remote work and also the increasing pace of wage growth.” Paglia also agrees 100 percent.
Ross says, “COVID was a challenge and our heart breaks for the loss of life. But as an organization and industry, I believe we are all better from it because it displayed how strong our workforce is to have overcome something like COVID. It taught us how to be more efficient and to trim off non-essentials.”
The Labor Force
While labor shortages will come and go, according to Staley, generally speaking as they are based on larger economic trends, there are certain areas of the industry that will always face challenges, such as training and retaining specialized personnel (e.g. welders, engineers, etc.). However, it is essential to make the solid waste industry more attractive to potential employees in order to combat current labor shortages regarding drivers, helpers and mechanics.
“Our labor force will look even more skilled and highly compensated in 2050. We often take the waste and recycling worker for granted, but the people that work in this industry are highly trained individuals, and this will continue to be the case in 2050 as it is today. I’m speaking from anything from a driver or helper on the back of a truck, to a spotter at a landfill, to a worker on the MRF picking line—these are skilled workers doing the thankless work most Americans do not want to do or will not do,” says Ross.
“The labor force will be totally different than today,” comments Paglia. “As change happens new obstacles and challenges will arise. Thirty years ago, mechanics never dealt with DPF, DOCs, CNG, and EVs. With these new means come their challenges, none of which cannot be overcome. It just takes continued education and the will and ability to adapt to change. If we want more automation, prepare to be repairing and maintaining your automation. I don’t foresee self-healing equipment by then.”
Rogoff believes that the industry will increasingly turn to automated robots to provide more cost-effective collection and recycling services and Jennings agrees, “The labor force will continually be less inclined to participate in our difficult line of work as it is today. The job requirements will continue to adapt to the workforce’s needs and will include less hours, more flexible schedules, less physically intensive job requirements, and generally higher wages supported by higher rates. The gig-economy will continue to grow and our workforce will be less reliant on a single employer, which will require employers to be more competitive for labor.” Paglia agrees with this as well.
The Future of Mergers and Acquisitions
Will there be more larger corporations than small haulers/recyclers or even municipalities taking care of their own waste? Biderman does not think that there will ever be more large companies than small haulers in the solid waste industry. “The
barriers to entry on the collection side are minimal, while growing an integrated company with collecting, processing and disposal assets requires much more capital and a much broader skill set. The larger national companies and some of the regional companies (e.g., LRS) will continue to grow, in part, via acquisition. At a certain point, the federal Justice Department may take a more aggressive position in response to certain transactions. We saw that with Waste Management’s acquisition of Advanced Disposal. While no single company has a monopoly, I am hearing growing concerns about an oligopoly in which a few companies control pricing, putting smaller haulers and local governments in a bad position.”
Jennings has a different perspective, “In the future there will be less owner operators that entirely own their business. There will be continually increasing access to capital that will allow private equity owned companies to grow by a series of acquisitions and sales. This will also influence the appetite for acquisitions by the public companies. Self-hauling municipalities may take a stronger stance and be less inclined to privatize.”
“I would argue those willing to adapt to the change to be more sustainable will survive. The barriers to entry will only continue to increase, but nothing a large private cannot overcome. We may see a reduction of single truck fleet haulers; we may also see many large companies continue to grow. We may even see large privates merge together, staying private and driving the change. It will all go back to continuing to evolve with the industry. Those that do not change will be left behind,” says Paglia.
Ross agrees, “I think the large companies will still be around, along with a handful of strong independents like American Waste Control. AWC has strong principles to build upon that will keep us around beyond 2050.”
A number of federal environmental programs will come up for review over the next 30 years. The Clean Air Act, CERCLA, RCRA, the Clean Water Act, EPR, PFAS, air and water conservation, carbon emissions and others will be updated, new standards will be developed, and some will affect the ways in which waste and recycled material is paid. “Like prior changes in regulations, the industry will struggle to implement the regulations and costs will rise, but eventually technology will evolve and ingenuity will be applied to protect and enhance the quality of our environment,” says Flower.
“As experts in the industry, I feel it’s important that we join to push change that is sustainable over profits. Profits can come down the road; we shouldn’t push trends to be selfishly profitable. We need to push real change to better our planet, then find ways to be profitable. Those writing and changing regulations are in no way experts of our industry, they rely on information to make educated decisions, assuming politics is not in play,” comments Paglia. “If we can suggest and push positive change that’s sustainable and feed regulatory agencies the “real” information they need, we will see regulatory change that makes real sense.”
While Biderman says it is difficult to predict what regulatory changes will be implemented next year, let alone over the next 30 years, he points out that he often says that if someone says they “know” what’s going to happen three years from now, they either have an agenda or are selling you something. “To try to anticipate how regulations will affect the industry is exceptionally difficult. However, SWANA will continue to be the industry leader guiding both the public and private sector solid waste industry in advocating for certain policy outcomes, and understanding and responding to them. In a single week in October, SWANA: (1) participated in a State Department-led call concerning potential revisions to an international treaty (Basel Convention) governing waste; (2) provided feedback to congressional staff about proposed legislation governing the import and export of waste; (3) spoke with EPA concerning multiple regulatory issues; and (4) spoke with OSHA about future collaborative activities to reduce workplace fatalities and injuries in the solid waste industry. We have developed a well-earned reputation among federal agencies and Capitol Hill as the subject matter experts on waste and recycling issues. We will continue to do so, regardless of future regulatory changes.” | WA
Thank You to Our Participants
David Biderman has been a leader in the waste industry for more than 20 years. He has been with SWANA for more than six years, and has helped it significantly grow its membership, visibility and leadership position concerning solid waste and recycling issues in the U.S., Canada and overseas. He serves on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Environmental Technologies Trade Advisory Committee (ETTAC) and on a solid waste task force in New York City. David joined SWANA in April 2015 after 18 years with the National Waste & Recycling Association, where he was their General Counsel, Vice President for Government Affairs, and Safety Director. He has testified before numerous federal, state, and local agencies and councils, and has spoken about waste and recycling issues, policies, and trends at numerous international environmental conferences, including events in Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
Dr. Bryan Staley currently serves as President and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), one of the largest sources of research funding and graduate scholarships related to solid waste management. He joined EREF in 2008, where he started as Vice President of Environmental Programs, and has over 20 years’ experience in the environmental engineering field. He is recognized nationally as a technical expert in sustainable solid waste management issues, and obtained a PhD in Civil Engineering from North Carolina State University, where his research focused on understanding microbiological mechanisms for waste decomposition and methane generation from solid waste. He also holds a Master’s degree in Biosystems Engineering from the University of Tennessee, and a B.S. in Biological and Agricultural Engineering from North Carolina State University. Dr. Staley is a licensed professional engineer who has held key positions in consulting firms as a Project Manager and Vice President of Engineering, where he managed projects ranging from solid waste management, wastewater treatment system design, to retail/commercial land development and environmental management of large-scale livestock operations.
Will Flower has 39 years of experience working in the field of solid waste management and environmental protection. His career started in 1983 when he began working for the Director’s Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. In 1990, Will started working for Waste Management, Inc. in the Midwest Region. In 1996, he was transferred to New York City to work on a variety of projects including acquisitions, business development, community relations, municipal marketing and regulatory relations. In 1999, Will joined Republic Services, Inc. where he served as the Vice President of Communications. Following Republic’s acquisition of Allied Waste in 2008, he was named Executive Vice President of Communications and in 2011 he was named the Senior Vice President of Communications. In 2013, he moved to Long Island to work with Winters Bros. Waste Systems. He is an active member of SWANA and served on the organization’s International Board of Directors from 2006 to 2016.
Following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfathers, John Paglia III is the 3rd generation of leadership for Florida Express Environmental. From an early age, John has been around every sector of the business. John’s earliest memories are from riding in a front loader in a car seat in the early 1990s under United Sanitation. While continuing his education through college, John remained an active part assisting wherever he was needed in United Sanitation, Sunstar Transport, Florida Express Shavings and Florida Express Environmental. After graduating from Charleston Southern University with a degree in Business Management in 2011, John joined Florida Express Environmental full time. Starting as a driver, John was raised with the attitude that before you can manage you need to be able to complete any task you assign an employee.
After working hands-on in every sector of the business, by 2013 he became Florida Express Environmental’s General Manager. John is an active member of NWRA’s FILA group (Future Industry Leaders Alliance). From 2015 to the present, he has authored a monthly column termed “From the Experts” in Waste Advantage Magazine, one of the largest publications in the waste and recycling industry. Articles are based upon safety, best management practices, leadership and motivation. He has a strong belief in servant leadership, having served on many leadership councils, including the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), NCAA, and Charleston Southern University from 2007 to 2011. John and his wife have three boys, John IV, Rocco and Roman, who are in line for the 4th generation of leadership at Florida Express Environmental. In September of 2021, John was nominated to Florida Trends 500 most influential and engaging business leaders. This list is comprised of all public and private businesses and their leaders in Florida.
Marc J. Rogoff, PhD, has more than 38 years of experience in solid waste management as a public agency manager and consultant. He has managed more than 350 consulting assignments across the U.S on all facets of solid waste management including, waste collection studies, facility feasibility assessments, facility site selection, property acquisition, environmental permitting, operation plan development, solid waste facility benchmarking; ordinance development, solid waste plans, financial assessments, rate studies/audits, development of construction procurement documents, bid and RFP evaluation, contract negotiation and bond financings. Dr. Rogoff has directed engineer’s feasibility reports for nearly two dozen public works projects totaling more than $1.2 billion in project financings. He has interacted with bond rating agencies, financial advisors, insurance underwriters and investment bankers involved in these financings. His efforts have included the development of more than 100 detailed spreadsheet rate models establishing the financial feasibility of each project, long-term economic forecasts, and projected rate impact upon project users and customers. Dr. Rogoff has extensive experiences in completing financial studies and analyses of public works systems, including solid waste systems, water and wastewater utilities, park and recreation facilities, military base operations, and municipal streetlight programs. He has worked with a variety of clients to develop changes in solid waste collection operations to improve revenue funding and budgetary goals. He is active professionally with SWANA and APW. Dr Rogoff is a noted author of 200 plus technical articles in the solid waste and environmental trade press and eight solid waste textbooks.
Paul M. Ross has been a part of the waste business since 1999. He graduated from the School of Business at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK. He is also a Board of Governors Representative for the National Waste & Recycling Association. As the Vice President of American Waste Control (AWC), he leads the day-to-day operations of AWC’s fleet of 185 trucks. He also works on AWC’s recycling initiative with Mr. Murph in North Tulsa, as well as the company’s renewable energy landfill, American Environmental Landfill in Sand Springs. Paul has been very involved in AWC’s initiatives to promote sustainability throughout the Tulsa area. Paul is also involved in the community. He is the President of the board for the Tulsa Christmas Parade, as well as a founding board member of the American Therapeutic Riding Center in Sand Springs. In his free time, Paul enjoys spending time with his five children and supporting what sport or activity they are involved in. Currently, Paul attends Woodlake Church in Glenpool, where he is an active member.
Sean Jennings, son of Waste Pro Founder John Jennings, has been exposed to every facet of the waste and recycling business throughout his life and more formally since joining the industry officially in 2012. Jennings, a third-generation garbage man, joined his father in all aspects of the garbage business throughout his youth. Following graduation from the University of Alabama, where he majored in finance and minored in economics, he spent a year working in collection and landfill disposal in Costa Rica. During this time, late industry veteran and Waste Advantage Magazine Editorial Advisory Board member Ralph Velocci mentored Jennings. When Jennings returned to the U.S., he worked in operations and landfill construction in Georgia and Mississippi before joining Waste Pro in 2014 as Division Manager of the Tampa-Clearwater area. He then assumed the management role at the company’s Sarasota/Bradenton Division in 2016. As Division Manager, Jennings led the charge to build a compressed natural gas (CNG) station and recycling facility. In addition to his role as President and CEO, Sean serves on numerous community boards. In 2018, he was honored with Waste360’s 40 Under 40 Award. Sean was also a member of Waste Pro’s inaugural Leaders Initiative class.