SWANA’s first-ever SWANApalooza wrapped up a week of virtual exhibit hall, networking opportunities, informative keynotes and sessions on Thursday, resulting in the successful transition of in-person event into an online forum. The first keynote of the day, “Overcoming Recycling Challenges and Taking Advantage of New Opportunities”, was introduced by SWANA’s CEO and Executive Director, David Biderman, who stressed that before COVID-19, the biggest issue was recycling issues, including the aftereffects of China’s National Sword ruling and the lack of available markets, and although COVID-19, has taken most of the spotlight for the last several months, it will take center stage once again. However, now it is no longer about the National Sword ruling, it is about creating a systems change, including technology, infrastructure, education while navigating through the “new normal”—social distancing, safety measures, etc.

The session featured speakers Elizabeth Biser from the Recycling Partnership, John Keller from Fairfax County (VA) Solid Waste Management, Susan Robinson from Waste Management, and Kathleen Salyer from the EPA Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. Salyer discussed coming together to face recycling challenges and how 215 organizations had signed a pledge to partner with the EPA in doing so. She also covered EPA’s Action Areas, including addressing consumer confusion, outdated processing infrastructure, enhancing the supply and demand of recyclables, providing national leadership, and supporting state and local approaches. She urged attendees to review EPA’s Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System (https://www.epa.gov/americarecycles/national-framework-advancing-us-recycling-system) as well as to sign the America Recycles Pledge, join a work group and attend the America Recycles Summit and Innovation Fair this coming November.

Biser focused on what the Recycling Partnership’s goal were and the steps it has taken to improve the recycling system. She also talked about statistics from the “The State of Curbside Recycling in 2020” (https://recyclingpartnership.org/stateofcurbside/) and said to use it as a guide in facing the challenges because it also calls for integrated strategies, such as support of community recycling programs, state and federal recycling policies, continued investments, education and engagement and others. Keller went over the glass recycling program that they implemented and the challenges and solutions they had to address during the process, and that, ultimately, since overcoming these issues the program has grown into a regional effort with participation in neighboring jurisdictions. Robinson talked about Waste Management’s experience nationwide in addressing the recycling challenges and commented that China’s National Sword has made the industry more resilient and adaptive, becoming stronger today than ever before. The three keys to moving forward are 1) technology in order to continuously operate in challenging times, 2) markets, making adjustments, especially because companies seeing more paper and cardboard, and 3) education, especially providing clear information and immediate feedback to customers.

Other sessions in the afternoon focused on partnership opportunities, capturing metrics, career growth and development, effective public education campaigns, sustainable waste management and more. The last keynote of the week focused on “COVID-19: Steps to Recovery”, moderated by Brenda Haney, City of Lubbock, Industry experts, Michelle Leonard from SCS Engineers, Tom Koutroulis from Orange County Waste & Recycling and Worthing Jackman from Waste Connections, spoke about their experiences and how they see the industry changing and recovering from this moving forward. Before beginning the session, Biderman commented that at the start of the lockdowns it was a blessing that the waste and recycling was designated as an essential industry early because it allowed people to look at the industry in a different light, changing people’s perception as to how important these jobs are and how SWANA will continue to communicate with members, congress and federal entities, as well as focus on safety, especially strategies to prevent frontline workers from becoming sick on the job.

The consensus between all of the speakers was to take care of employees because they are the greatest asset and put their lives in the line every day. Worthing encouraged people to stay at home when you’re sick and quarantine if you’ve been exposed. He said if you take care of your people, it will pay for itself in the long-term. Koutroulis pointed out that COVID-19 is unlike anything the industry (or anyone) has ever experienced before; do whatever you can do to ensure the safety of your employees through best practices, technology and protection programs. Leonard said to collaborate with your agency, evaluate your priorities and allocate resources appropriately, partnering with clients and re-evaluating costs as needed. She also stressed that management needs to be flexible about people working from home and acknowledge their hard work and sacrifice, while continuing to keep environmental controls on task and conduct activities for regulatory compliance. In addition, she pointed out that we should not forget the social or mental side of this situation. Companies need to reach out to social work organizations because COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health and we need to ensure employees are okay in that aspect. Finally, during the session, Biderman commented that while the role of leadership has changed, the issues that were there before COVID-19 are coming back (PFAS, recycling), so put your best foot forward whether it is in processing, collection or disposal.

Overall, SWANApalooza was essential in educating and informing this week’s attendees and bringing people together, despite being far apart. Said Biderman, “I am very proud of how we transformed SWANApalooza to a vibrant virtual event, under challenging circumstances. The educational content we provided was really incredible, and we’ve received lots of very positive feedback from participants. We are making some of the individual sessions available on our website, as I think a lot of people in the industry – in both the private and public sectors – will want to view them.  We’ve learned a lot from virtual SWANApalooza and look forward to applying those lessons at future SWANA events.”

“This will be the final SWANApalooza, as we’ve rebranded our Spring Technical Conference as S.O.A.R., which stands for Sustainability, Operations, Action, and Resources. We feel those words better communicate the information and networking associated with the industry’s premier technical conference and look forward to S.O.A.R.’s launch in April 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.”