NIMBY Notes

NIMBY Notes: Looking for Trouble

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Seeking out ways to aid the communities you serve can pay dividends down the road.

One of the tough things about maintaining a good relationship between landfill operators and the surrounding community is that operators are usually reacting to bad news instead of creating good news. That’s not necessarily their fault. Waste collection and disposal is the sort of business where things are quiet when you’re doing a good job and noisy only when you’ve made a mistake. But more and more, forward-thinking players in the waste industry are looking to earn themselves some good will that they can cash in on down the line; say, when their permit comes up for renewal or they’d like to expand their facility. We have found that positive press is much like luck: it’s best if you make it yourself.

We’ve seen a great example of this in Illinois, where Advanced Disposal has earned an Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) “Community Changemakers” award for helping the city of Decatur, Ill., clean up an illegal dump site at no charge. City officials approached Advanced Disposal after they discovered a back-alley dump filled with more than 250 tons of illegally abandoned trash. Cleaning it out would have cost Decatur $15,000 in waste removal funds that the city just didn’t have. Sensing a great opportunity to put his company’s assets to use for the greater good, Advanced Disposal’s Area Manager, Christopher Rooney, diverted the personnel and resources needed to clear out the site in about four days, garnering the award.

Industry accolades are nice, and we should all be in business to leave this world a little better than we found it, but another upside for Advanced Disposal is the warm feelings their action generated among municipal officials and residents near the dump site. The next time Advanced is in front of a planning commission or zoning board, they should be able to call upon some of the neighbors who benefitted from that cleanup. Similarly, it’s always nice when the city councilors that vote on a waste disposal contract have fond memories of the firm that helped them square their budget in a time of need.

Advanced Disposal saw an opportunity and seized it, but there is no reason why more firms in the waste industry cannot do likewise. In fact, The Morning Call, a newspaper that covers communities in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, recently reported that there are nearly 6,500 illegal dump sites in the state of Pennsylvania alone. These sites add up to more than 18,500 tons of trash, including appliances, construction and demolition debris, and, in some cases, toxic materials from methamphetamine labs, all of which go beyond your standard municipal solid waste. The sites are especially troublesome in rural areas, where they are more common and have the potential to go unaddressed for long periods of time, leading to problems like groundwater contamination.

Each one of those 6,500 dump sites represents an opportunity to gain credibility in a community. Smart operators will canvass the area before they begin work, explaining to residents who they are, why they’re there and asking for permission to clean up the area. This is just a formality; the answer will always be yes. But they want folks to know and appreciate what they’re doing for them. It’s also incredibly important that door-knockers take down the information of the people they’re talking to, so they can reach out to them for support when it comes time for a public hearing or a crucial zoning vote.

Advanced Disposal’s reaction to the problem of illegal dumping is a great example of a firm looking for trouble, finding it and fixing it. Other firms seeking to engage their communities will have to find their own solutions, tailored to their own circumstances. But recent events prove that if you look hard enough, you can find plenty of problems to address.

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What's NIMBY Notes?

Helping the waste industry improve its relationship with local governments and the communities it serves.

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Darden Copeland

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state and local affairs, land use and development, and grassroots lobbying. Have a...
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