The Winds of Change
Over the years I’ve listened to dozens of presentations in which I’ve found myself fighting to get a handle on the near-ubiquitous term “sustainability,” fearing I was the only one in the room in a quandary as to its meaning in or beyond the speaker’s context. It’s not that I lacked vision as to what sustainability was, rather the sense of disconnect between what I was hearing with how the disparate elements involved might fit together in the face of uncertain futures. Particularly, I feared the fierce reaction to change by the institutional forces that had grown fat on the status quo. Thus it was with genuine delight that I saw these mysteries and misgivings evaporate in the face of a collection of heady presentations at APWA’s Sustainability in Public Works Conference in Portland, OR, this past June.
The presentations were by the people—public works engineers for the most part—for whom sustainability has not been so much a goal or mystery mandate as a fundamental aspect of the practices and activities for which they have been responsible throughout their careers. Put another way, their good planning and the ability to provide decision makers with understandable choices—two of the pillars on which sustainability rests—have been part of the public works equation long before the term became the watchword for nearly everything. But there are other pillars that need to be put in place before the foundation is complete.
The first of these is the recognition that what we see happening today is not some great vision on the part of policymakers, it’s the voice of the public demanding accountability in the expenditure of all resources entrusted to the care of the agencies and people who act in their behalf.
While the public sector’s principal role in managing wastes is the preservation of public health and safety, over the past two decades the protection of the environment has become the principal focus of public policymakers, often propelled by proscriptive diversion mandates that in some cases obscure or erase the benefits they were deemed to supply. But that’s where the challenge of sustainability is bringing about change. By its very nature, sustainability requires stewardship incorporating societal benefits and recognition that activities in its name must be based on sound economic principles and practices.
The EPA began to adopt this vision into its outreach two years ago in recognition of waste management’s location within the materials management continuum. Now, new initiatives such as those in the realm of energy-from-waste embraced by the US Department of Agriculture are springing to life, in some cases bypassing pilot programs in favor of full-blown commercial operations. But lest the pendulum swing too far from its present position, economics does not outweigh the social and environmental factors involved.
So the question before us now is, “How do we meet the challenge of sustainability in ways that truly reflect the public interests?”
Of course, the answer is, “There is no answer, only some principles to guide our discussions,” and even there we run out of real estate in a hurry. Nevertheless, allow me to offer three thoughts to set things in motion:
- We must search out and eliminate needless barriers within our own organizations.
- We must seek alliances with other departments, agencies; and people…particularly those we view as competitors
- We must look for ways to transition an increasing portion of what view as today’s wastestream with what will become tomorrow’s value stream.
So what are your thoughts on sustainability, and how can we at MSW Management, either in the printed magazine or on its web-based counterpart, support your efforts? MSW
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.