The History of Solid Waste Management in the United States
By H. Lanier Hickman, Jr.
Forester Press, Santa Barbara, 2003
for Biocycle Magazine
By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington,
H. Lanier Hickman,
Jr. is one of the nation’s leading experts on solid waste
handling. His textbooks are justifiably on the bookshelves of many
solid waste management practitioners. And as a former Executive
Director of SWANA (Solid Waste Association of North America) Hickman
has been a key figure in formulating public policy in this area.
newest offering, American Alchemy: The History of Solid Waste
Management in the United States, reveals his strengths and
his weaknesses. His strength is in his discussion of solid waste
technologies and in his explanation of historical developments in
the field. His weakness is that his long-time advocacy of waste-to-energy
plants and a top-down public policy strategy blinds him both to
the effectiveness of alternatives and to the bottom-up public policy
efforts that have led these to become a key element in solid waste
focuses exclusively on the federal role in solid waste management
and ignores the grass roots recycling movement except to criticize
it for its short-sighted and ill-informed opposition to garbage
In a recent
article in MSW magazine, Hickman poses the question, “Didja
ever wonder why recycling took off in the 1980s?” His answer?
“I don’t have an answer for this question; I myself
am still wondering.” (1)
Yet in an earlier
article in American City and County magazine Hickman declares, “In
1989, EPA launched the integrated solid waste management initiative
that ignited the recycling movement that continues today…:
The real answer
is that the recycling initiative occurred from the bottom up. While
the EPA was still maintaining as late as the mid 1980s that no community
could recycle more than 25 percent of its waste stream, a number
of communities had achieved 40 percent and higher recycling and
that incinerators and recycling are compatible strategies. In some
cases that may be true. But in many cases the inherent engineering
economies of scale of incinerators has led them to be oversized.
Many of the communities embraced recycling only after battling for
many years against proposed incinerators designed to consume 75-100
percent of the local solid waste stream.
In his book, Hickman laments that “the integrated solid waste
management strategy… has resulted in the loss of many resources
in the municipal waste stream that could have been used as energy.”
Presumably he means paper and plastics, materials that can be more
economically recycled or reused than burned. Opponents of incineration,
he claims, use misinformation and lie. In fact, critics of incineration
have proven to be prescient in their economic and environmental
In the 1980s
local coalitions of ad hoc citizen and business groups defeated
some 300 planned incinerators. In l985, for the first time, more
incinerator capacity was cancelled than proposed. Communities quickly
followed up with mandatory recycling, pay-as-you-throw, minimum
content and other innovative programs that have led to higher levels
of recycling and source reduction.
that the rising costs of solid waste management in cities that have
incinerators is a result of the cost of recycling programs. That
is not true. Incinerators were too expensive to begin with. The
only way they could justify the enormous capital expense was to
sign very long term contracts and for communities to force waste
collectors to dump their waste at the incinerators. When the Supreme
Court declared such “flow control” ordinances unconstitutional,
the incinerators had to lower their tip fee and local businesses
and residents had to make up the difference. Residents of Montgomery
County, MD must pay an annual household surcharge to cover the losses
from the incinerator.
movement is unique in its spontaneous linking of groups usually
divided by ethnicity, race, class and gender. The heirs of the mission
driven drop off centers and curbside collection experiments of the
l960’s continue to provide the most cost effective and environmentally
sound discard management services in the US, including, Eureka Recycling,
St Paul, Solana Recyclers, Encinitas, CA, Garbage Reincarnation,
Santa Rosa, Eco-Cycle, Boulder, Recycle North, Burlington, Urban
Ore and Berkeley Ecology Center, Ann Arbor Recycles, Center for
Ecological Technology, Pittsfield, MA. The infrastructure of state
recycling organizations which emerged as the trade associations
for recycling changed laws which favored recycling over disposal
and hence changed the markets in favor of recycling. Today the recycling
movement has adopted new structures and new strategies to go beyond
the waste stream and address the root causes of waste in the economy:
Zero Waste, Extended Producer Responsibility and the Precautionary
Principle dominate the efforts in the US, and are buttressed by
the new wave of European Directives coming from the European Union
that impact US manufacturers. (3) The rapid impact of these new
tactics can be seen in electronic recycling. Within two years of
national and international organizing, manufacturers who swore they
would never be forced to take responsibility for their product are
now rushing to implement take-back programs to meet the public demand
for action. Environmental concerns merge with economic concerns.
If 10,000 tons of computers are processed for reuse, almost 300
jobs are created. If that same amount is disposed, then 1 job is
The magic of
recycling is its popularity, common sense and cost effectiveness.
More people recycle every day in the US than vote for president
once every four years.
meager reference to the National Recycling Coalition is misleading,
as is his lack of economic analysis of the waste incineration industry.
Although initiated in 1980 by 400 recycling organizations meeting
in Fresno, CA, the organization quickly fell under the control of
the beverage and incineration industry. Bottle bills and waste-to-
energy issues were banned from discussion. By l985 recycling pioneers
like Dan Knapp, Urban Ore, would resign in protest. The NRC today
remains the loyal Tonto to corporate generators of waste in the
economy. Numerous grass roots organizations have risen at the local,
region, national and international levels to provide an alternative
vision for materials management that reduces pollution and creates
viable economic activity.
flaw in focus and lack of reality, American Alchemy makes
excellent contributions to our knowledge base. The Key Moments section
stands out as an editorial accomplishment. The section on the l968
Memphis garbage collection workers that led to the assassination
of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the most extensive reporting I have
trace the development of collection vehicles, ‘waste to energy’
technology, municipal composting and landfill technology are comprehensive
and will save future researchers time and effort as a result of
their comprehensiveness. (The editorial decision to have the author’s
side comments interspersed with the text detracts from these sections.
The ideas should have been integrated into the text.) Hickman goes
overboard in naming hundreds of federal government researchers and
program managers, even to the extent of listing their secretaries.
This eulogy for a generation of solid waste decision-makers is misplaced
given that their efforts failed. The book does not address the shortcomings
of current landfill policies. These allow for owners to escape liability
after 30 years, just when control systems are breaking down; thus,
putting the costs and liabilities on local tax payers. EPA’s
permissiveness with regard to radioactive waste in municipal landfills
and investment in ‘bio-reactors’, an unproven technology,
are not mentioned.
The source reduction
sections, including corporate and federal efforts is a very useful
addition as most contemporary students of the field forget that
EPA was once a leader in common sense solid waste management in
the early l970’s. The economic and environmental data is overwhelmingly
in favor of diversion up front, not disposal and pollution management.
The analysis of why EPA did not champion these programs and why
EPA switched to hail waste incineration as the future solution is
The US has not
found the alchemists answer to the solid waste dilemma, as the author
would have us believe even as our post-l945 economy cries out for
relief from the double burdens of pollution and high costs. A critical
factor, the rise of an oligopoly of corporations that control local
and regional hauling and landfill markets is not addressed.
Alchemy is looking in the wrong place to find the answers.
The answers are at the local level, with new rules that force change.
Federal policy continues to subsidize disposal in cheap landfills,
which continue to undermine progress at the local and regional levels.
aspects of American Alchemy cannot overcome the wrongful
focus on federal activity, the uncritical analysis of incineration
and the head in the sand approach to the US and international recycling
Seldman founded the Waste to Wealth program at the Institute for
Local Self-Reliance. He co-founded the National Recycling Coalition
and the Grass Roots Recycling Network. He has written extensively
on solid waste and recycling issues for over 30 years.
2. "Garbage: Bin There, Done That." www.americancityandcounty.com/mag/government_garbage
3. Seldman, Neil. "The New US Recycling Movement." Biocycle
this book now from Forester Press