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MEET… David Biderman, Executive Director & CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)

SWANA works to represent the people of the waste management industry


We sat down with David Biderman, Executive Director & CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) to learn more about how he got started in the solid waste industry, what SWANA’s role is in that industry, and what he sees as being on the horizon for SWANA.


What led you to become a part of SWANA?

I worked at another solid waste association in Washington, DC, which was at the time called the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA). I started there as a lawyer, then I become the head of government affairs, and then the safety director. After my position as safety director, I began to run one of NSWMA’s largest chapters, which was in New York City. I had broader responsibilities there and saw a lot of the issues that come up when working in association management.


When the executive director of SWANA announced he was retiring in December of 2014, I decided to apply. It turned out that they were in the process of doing some strategic planning that required someone with a new vision to step in, and due to my prior experience in the field, I was hired for the job.


What do you see as SWANA’s role in the waste management industry?

SWANA is the big tent for a wide variety of companies, local governments and people that are involved in the industry. Since SWANA is a professional association and not a trade association, our primary activities aren’t lobbying, unlike the place where I used to work. That is the principal difference between SWANA and NSWMA, which is now called the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA). NWRA is primarily a lobbying or advocacy organization, while we’re primarily focused on education, networking, research, and safety. Those are the four tent poles of SWANA’s big tent. Basically, I like to refer to us as a big tent because SWANA represents people rather than organizations.


Basically, I like to refer to us as a big tent because SWANA represents people rather than organizations.


Do you feel that SWANA is interested in pushing for zero waste over landfill, or is SWANA interested in representing both perspectives of that discussion within the industry?

We have technical policies that guide our positions on complicated issues like that. The policy that guides us on that issue is that local governments are in the best position to determine the goals that they have. What SWANA does is we provide tools that allow local governments to implement their local decisions. So, for example, we offer a zero waste certification course that was developed in conjunction with the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA). CRRA has a lot of credibility amongst zero waste advocates, and, since it was something that was a new area for us, we felt it was important to partner with another organization for that reason. We feel comfortable providing tools for zero waste programs at the same time that we also have other educational offerings about how to run landfills more efficiently. I don’t see that as being contradictory.


Does SWANA have any partners in its work in the solid waste industry?

We do partner with other organizations because there are times when we don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things that we want to do. So, we have entered into memorandums of understanding with a number of different organizations to perform certain activities. For example, we have a memorandum of understanding with the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF). Since SWANA doesn’t have all of the research capabilities that we might like, when we conduct some research we partner with EREF to do that research.


Last year, EREF and SWANA partnered to do research on the frequency of people being stuck by needles in materials recycling facilities (MRFs).


For example, last year, EREF and SWANA partnered to do research on the frequency of people being stuck by needles in materials recycling facilities (MRFs). EREF was able to survey the MRFs, collect data, analyze the data, and then jointly we wrote a report. We are also currently working on similar research with EREF regarding the fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.


Along with NWRA, we just entered into a safety Alliance agreement with OSHA, the federal agency that regulates worker safety. This industry-wide Alliance is consistent with our previous collaborative safety activities with NWRA, such as Slow Down to Get Around, and distribution of the weekly safety newsletter, Safety Monday.


What is on the horizon for SWANA?

There are two things we are going to continue to focus on. The first focus is getting waste collection off the list of ten most dangerous jobs in the United States. We have continued to roll out new safety initiatives every year with the purpose of achieving that goal, and what we’ve done successfully is we’ve made people in the industry much more aware of the variety of safety hazards that workers face out on the route or in the landfill. We haven’t seen the numbers change yet, but we’ll continue to roll out new initiatives and programs to help make that happen. I consider that to be a cornerstone of future SWANA activities.


The other cornerstone is managing the ongoing National Sword (China’s ban on foreign recyclables) issue, and we’re going to continue to provide information to our members and participate in EPA activities and other agency activities to promote improving recycling programs in the United States. We are also engaging in some similar activities in Canada as well.