SWANA Response To NSWMA Privatization Release

Publish Date: 3/24/2011


No one is surprised when, in tough economic times, a trade organization takes the lead in promoting the financial interests of its members. Fair enough. But, not when it seeks these ends by distorting the facts and attempting to confuse the public. In response to many inquiries, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) is providing the following comments on the March 2011 release on privatization of solid waste management services issued by the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA)1.

The most glaring deficiency in the NSWMA release is the complete lack of recognition or respect for local government’s essential responsibility for solid waste management in their jurisdictions.

“Solid waste management decisions must reflect community values and are therefore an essential prerogative of local government,” said John H. Skinner, Ph.D. SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO. “Solid waste management is, first and foremost, strongly grounded in the need to protect public health, safeguard the environment and conserve and recover material and energy resources. It is not a commodity like soap detergent or cable television that can be left to the whims of short-term profit and loss decisions.”

Skinner added, “SWANA certainly supports privatization efforts that are supportive of local government’s public service authorities---but in the absence of that support, privatization will not be successful.”

Such policy was firmly endorsed in a 2007 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that couldn’t have been clearer or stronger in its support of local government’s role in solid waste management.2 Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that: “Unlike private enterprise, government is vested with the responsibility of protecting the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.” Local governments can never contract out their accountability and responsibility to the public.

The Court’s decision also acknowledged that waste disposal has been a traditional government activity for years, and significantly strengthened the authority of local governments to put in place recycling and energy recovery programs that reduce dependence on landfill disposal. Local governments are now able to legally direct solid wastes collected within their jurisdictions to publicly owned materials recovery facilities (MRFs), waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, composting operations, household hazardous waste centers and transfer stations.

This view was emphasized by Sara Bixby, SWANA International President, and Director of the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency:

“As we’ve told the Iowa legislature repeatedly, one of our common struggles in less densely populated areas is simply to get garbage collected. This is because private waste haulers have cut services in many areas because of limited housing density and long travel distances. If solid waste management is essential to public health and environmental protection, it shouldn’t be dependent on corporate profit or loss.”

Another perspective was provided by Dick Sprague, a SWANA International Board Member, who has been active in standardization of public and private waste management practices for more than 25 years:

“This release was authored by an organization that has a clear bias toward the private sector, which funds most of its activities. It could be directly countered with numerous ‘managed competition’ articles that demonstrate the exact opposite: when public and private parties bid under defined terms and conditions, the public party almost always wins, even in highly unionized utilities. SWANA members have published many articles that show how the public sector succeeds in solid waste, wastewater and water fields.”

Jeremy O’Brien, Director of SWANA’s Applied Research Program was very surprised by the limited and narrow set of reference material that attempted to support the NSWMA position:

“Half of the references were a decade old; one was published in 1977 and others were newspaper articles and NSWMA staff papers. They certainly do not reflect the current technical literature on the subject, and do not support the overly broad generalizations in the report,” O’Brien commented.

A more thorough analysis of data would be required before any conclusions can be drawn about the efficiencies and effectiveness of public versus private solid waste management services. The most important factor is that all entities work toward improving their services.

Skinner concludes, "SWANA, through its research and education efforts, will continue to provide its members with up-to-date and environmentally and economically sound approaches for contracting for services." 1Privatization: Saving Money, Maximizing Efficiency, & Achieving Other Benefits in Solid Waste Collection Disposal Recycling. The National Solid Waste Management Association, March 2011.

2United Haulers Association v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority, 127 S. Ct. 1786, 2007.