Enacting Waste-Reduction Strategies with Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District’s Steve Christman

September 7, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have on the line with us Steve Cristman. He’s the Executive Director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District. Welcome to Green is Good, Steve Cristman. STEVE CRISTMAN: Thanks, John. It’s good to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Steve, you have an amazing biography, 30 years in the field of environmental science, which is really just truly amazing, compared to where most people are right now, just starting in the green revolution. Can you share a little bit with our listeners, before we get into asking about what you do exactly on a day-to-day basis, can you share your journey? How did you ever get to where you are today as the Executive Director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District? STEVE CRISTMAN: Hearing you say 30 years reminds me that we’re getting old, John. It started out back in the seventies. I was able to earn an undergrad degree from Purdue University. I had a family that loved the outdoors, and my dad had instilled in me the love for environmental protection. He was an outdoorsman, a hunter and a trapper, and taught me a lot about the respect that we needed for our environment. So that got me started off to school to get a degree. Got out of Purdue, had an opportunity to go to grad school, but as a lot of folks out there might relate to, I fell in love and ended up getting married. Life takes off from there, and from that point, over the years I operated a landfill, a materials recovery facility. I was asked by one of the local units of government, this would have been back in the eighties, to set up some environmental programs. I was able to do that from scratch, which was a challenge, but a great opportunity. Since that time, of course, I kind of evolved with professional organizations like the Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA as we call it, and had the privilege to serve on the International Board, which allows me to learn from and work with my counterparts from all over North America, which is quite a treat. I’ve been on a HAZMAT team, we call it, hazardous materials back in the early eighties, as part of emergency response. I was one of those guys in zoot suits, we called them back then. Even back before they had air conditioning and all those things, in these totally encapsulated suits. I worked at waste water treatment plants, cleaned up things like zinc cyanide and those types of things, so it’s suddenly been, as I look back, pretty interesting, very educational. I was part of that 1970s environmental movement, John, that some of the folks that are old enough in their 40s or 50s might remember. When we landed on the moon, we were able to get some really great pictures of the Earth coming back, and some of that spawned this concern for the environment. A couple with a tragic environmental effects are happening, such as the Santa Barbara oil spill. I believe it was in ’69. The Cuyahoga River fire over in my area outside of Cleveland, those kinds of things, started that first Earth Day in 1970. Going green has been evolving since then. I’ve been really privileged. I’ve worked for state regulatory agencies, environmental consulting firms, operated a variety of solid waste facilities that, to make a long story short, landed me here at the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste District, which is a regional or multi-county local unit of government that’s charged by the state to reduce the municipal solid waste stream. So we have waste reduction programs, if you will, or strategies, like recycling, composting is another one, for example, and it was borne out of a very real concern for dwindling landfill space back in the early 1990s. So, these programs are helping, and it’s all across North America, not just the Midwest. California leads the way in a lot of those areas. Many of us in the industry now, and many folks that we serve that are part of this green movement, John, are beginning to recognize and realize that, indeed, trash or solid waste management really is resource management, and that’s part of the good news I wanted to give. Everybody listening today, it’s no longer carry and bury; it’s resource management. I’m a student of environmental science, will be all my life, so it’s kind of exciting to see some of these new and changing things, especially now that you’re old enough to look back and see some of the trends and that type of thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Steve, this is why we wanted to have you on, and we’re so honored to have you today, because you’re in great company here. We had the founders of the NRDC on, John and Patricia Adams, and they explained to our audience how literally they sat at a kitchen table 40-some odd years ago and started the NRDC, and you’re in the same position. You’ve got a wonderful visibility on where we’ve been and where we’re going. What does a solid waste district do, and in terms of landfill rates, I know the EPA publishes rates right now, Steve, that somewhere around 54% gets buried, 33% gets recycled, 13% gets incinerated, and they say those numbers are changing over the next 10 years. Can you share a little bit with our listeners, as you just said, in terms of where we’ve gone, from carry and bury to resource management, where the recycling rates can go with great people like you leading the way? STEVE CRISTMAN: Sure. I’d be glad to. It really is pretty amazing. There are a number of different trends that are occurring. The EPA, of course, tracks generation rates, we call it, and so you can refer to those numbers and watch the percent of final disposal, the percentage being recovered and recycled. It has fluctuated and changed a little bit. Of course, the economy and the condition of the economy directly affects the generation of solid waste. As you might imagine, since about 2008, their volumes have dropped off quite a bit, by as much as 20% in some places, especially here in the Midwest. Lots of change is coming on. The trend over the past few years has been larger, more regional landfills, rather than years ago, especially here in the Midwest, which I’m most familiar with, each county had a final disposal facility. That trend has drastically changed. The number of landfills in a given state over the past 20 years has greatly dropped off, while the number of transfer stations has greatly increased. A transfer station is a facility where the garbage that you see on the street simply comes in and drop of their load, and is loaded into a larger semi-trailer that goes a longer distance to the regional landfill. So distances have increased, the number of times we handle the material has increased, the final disposal facilities have grown greatly and are very large. Part of that is due to what we in the industry call the implantation of Subtitle D regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RECRA as we call it. Some of those regs are the driver in this as well. This trend that’s happening now is final disposal as we call it, landfills, from a cost standpoint, as you might imagine, is getting more and more expensive, well over $100 on the East Coast. The cheapest areas still are typically here around in the Midwest or Upper Midwest, anywhere from $20-$30 per ton. But because of those changes, John, other technologies over the past few years have kicked in, like recycling, for example, and composting. The exciting news, especially with regard to composting, and I know you’re familiar with this being out in California, is food waste composting. Here’s the good news. This is why there’s great things coming. We can continue to recover more resources, rather than landfill them, and it’s because we’re learning that we can capture those organics out of the waste stream, compost it, and make soil, which we desperately need. One of the latest trends is a good example, and that is food waste is going to help us greatly, greatly achieve those goals of zero waste. You’ve probably heard that term. So you’ll see more and more of that coming. Typically, it’s much more found on the East or West Coast than it is here in the Midwest, but we’re slowly catching up. We have a lot of rural recycling programs, as well as some curbside programs here in my area. We compost as well yard waste, currently, and many operations are looking at food waste, although there’s some regulatory work to do here in Indiana to make that happen. The trends are increasing recovery, as well as more organics, more composting. Another trend, another term you’ll hear, is waste conversion technologies, where we can extract energy from our waste. One of the exciting things that’s happening is you’ve probably heard of the term cellulosic ethanol. There are some technologies out there now that will allow facilities to make ethanol from cellulosic materials, like all our wood byproducts, for example. Here in the Midwest, corn stover, which is the corn stalks and everything left in the field after the corn is picked, as well as hay and straw and those types of things. There’s a facility that’s going to be built here in Indiana that will be able to make ethanol from municipal solid waste, and that’s exciting stuff because we can make our own energy from what used to be a waste product. MIKE BRADY: You know, Steve, that’s really exciting because when you mention the ethanol products, I know there was the big rush, everybody just couldn’t wait to invest in corn futures, thinking, “OK, that’s a renewable fuel source,” but it’s good to know that the corn stover, which is the cornstalks. When people started thinking about it and thinking it through, the price of corn did go up but so did the cost of food for feed for livestock, so it’s good to know that we can eat the corn and get the same ethanol, basically, out of the cornstalks. That is great news. STEVE CRISTMAN: It really is. There are some really exciting things happening in the wonderful world of municipal solid waste management, as I call it. Creating our own energy is one of those things. The industry also has focused quite a bit of resource towards landfill gas recovery. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. What does that mean exactly? STEVE CRISTMAN: Well, there are other landfill gas experts out there, I certainly don’t consider myself one, but very simply put, when municipal solid waste decomposes in a landfill initially, it will create methane gas. Part of these Subtitle D regulations require that gas be captured. Many firms now are capturing that gas, firing generators with it, and making electricity because it’s considered a renewable resource, rather than let that methane escape into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas, by the way, depending on what literature you read, 21 or 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So that gas is captured and recovered and used as energy, and that’s a good thing, especially with these large regional landfills that already exist. Let’s take advantage of that resource that’s there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Steve, when you capture the energy from the waste and create a new resource out of it, whether it’s on the ethanol or the gas, where does that energy go? Who buys it and repurposes it? STEVE CRISTMAN: A couple different scenarios I’ve seen. Sometimes the energy is used right onsite to power the facilities that are part of the landfill operation. Sometimes they are sold to, or the methane gas itself if piped to generators, to power a local industry that’s nearby. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And in your case in Indiana, what will happen to the energy that’s created out of the waste stream? STEVE CRISTMAN: The classic example in Indiana is there is an asphalt plant that is using landfill gas to make asphalt. And there is a General Motors plant that builds those tough Chevy trucks that many of us love, and they use that methane gas to power their boilers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, if you’ve got your iPad open or your laptop or your desktop, we’re so honored today to have Steve Cristman on. Steve is the Director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District. Open up your laptop or your iPad, and go to www.niswmd.org, and see all the great work that Steve and his colleagues are doing over in Northeast Indiana, leading the way to create new resources. Steve, you’re a very humble guy. You teach also, besides also being in management and being the Director of Northeast India Solid Waste Management District, you’re a teacher on composting. Go back to that composting. Is this now taking the food stream that historically had gone into the landfill, and you’re saying 100% zero landfill on food now through composting? STEVE CRISTMAN: Well, in some programs. We’re not there yet in any of the programs because of the collection and handling challenge, as you might imagine, but in some parts of the country, we’re definitely well on our way. Keep in mind, municipal solid waste management, I’ve always argued, is not a garbage problem; it’s not a solid waste problem. Solid waste management is a materials handling problem, and if you’re around a few years, you start to realize it’s a matter of being able to pick material up and put it down, and do something with it in between, as efficient as possible, or the least amount of cost. Food waste, as you might imagine, John, creates some interesting challenges that some programs are getting really innovative and are effectively recovering substantial amounts of food waste in order to make compost. However, it’s only one component of most compost facilities, because they handle a lot of yard waste, for example. Yard waste being the brush, leaves, grass, that type of thing. Many of them will handle all the barn cleanings from the horse tracks, for example, or here in the Midwest, as you might imagine, from the dairy operations. We make what’s called a recipe. The feed stock coming into the compost facility makes up a recipe for us to build these long wind row, they’re called, in order to cook the material down. As part of my involvement with the Solid Waste Association of North America, they offer a number of classes having to do with integrated solid waste management, by the way, anywhere from landfill operation to composting to household hazardous waste programs, all those aspects of what we call integrated solid waste management. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Explain that. What do integrated solid waste management and going green work hand-in-hand, and why is there a relationship between both of those terms? STEVE CRISTMAN: Sure. Integrated solid waste management is basically an environmentally and economically systematic approach to handling solid waste, and by that I mean it combines all those technologies that we have, like forced reduction, even, as well as recycling, composting. You’ve heard of waste energy facilities. Integrated solid waste management also includes collection, those transfer stations I talked to you about, and all those items we use, or technologies we use, including processing facilities, in order to conserve and recover those resources, or to dispose of what can’t be recovered in an environmentally and economically sound manner. That’s the science that I often refer to, or the science of solid waste management. There may be a particular facility that’s most appropriate for some communities, John, because of the size, because of the nature of the waste stream, and those types of considerations, but not necessarily are appropriate for another community in another state. What integrated solid waste management allows you to do is to, again, practice the science and fashion those programs and plans, like you’ll see on the district’s website, to suit those communities and those economic, social, geographic situations to handle what we refer to as the municipal solid waste stream. SWANA has all these courses that cover those types of things that train professionals in the field, and of course the composting course is one that I’ve been heavily involved in the past couple years. It’s a lot of fun to teach, and I do it, quite frankly, because I get to work with compost operators from all over North America. I get to learn a whole bunch of stuff. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, and bring the best practices back to Indiana. STEVE CRISTMAN: Absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, underneath all the great work that you do, you manage all these amazing recycling programs, electronics, battery, fluorescent bulbs, compost, as you’ve already talked about, also the sharps program, which we’ve had a show on sharps with regards to syringes and things of that such, shoes, and also HHW, which is commonly known as household hazardous waste, oil, paint, and all that kind of stuff. Talk a little bit about household hazardous waste, if you might, Steve, and talk about what the future of that waste stream looks like to you. STEVE CRISTMAN: Household hazardous waste here in the Midwest account for roughly about 1% of the municipal solid waste stream, but as you might imagine, it can be extremely toxic if mishandled. They’re very popular with the people that we serve, but not only that. From a regulatory standpoint, these Subtitle D landfills that I keep referring to, are required now to have waste screening programs. The landfills don’t want that particular material under current regulations, so that’s one of the primary drivers, as you might imagine, that pushes that material to programs like ours, so we’re able to set up these recovery programs to direct the material here to the district, to where our contractor can safely and properly package them and recycle as much of it, or recover the energy from it, if possible. A lot of programs get started to handle the paint, for example, which is one of the largest components. About 85% of all the material we handle in our program is either latex or oil-based paint. They tend to just naturally grow, then, into other materials, like electronics, fluorescent bulbs, and those types of things. We were able to establish a permanent drop-off location here at our office shop complex. It’s very popular. Folks come every Friday morning, and bring those materials here to be safely recycled and/or disposed of. Many districts, many entities across North America, hold tox-away days, and the purpose of that is to capture that material or to give homeowners, and in some programs small companies, the opportunity to safely and properly recycle their household hazardous waste or small quantity hazardous materials. Tox-away days are great things, however they can be extremely expensive. Back to this concept of practicing the science of integrated solid waste management, I’ve been able to establish at least one drop-off location that’s open every week for our customers. By doing that, we’ve been able to cut the cost of that program in half on a per ton basis. That’s the great thing about the practice of integrated solid waste management, and that’s why we say to economically and environmentally recover those resources, because it can get very, very expensive. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Steve, unfortunately we’re down to the last minute-and-a-half or so. Do you have any words of wisdom, based on your amazing career, with regards to the youth out there that listen to our shows, both here in the United States and around the world, because not only do we air on the great Clear Channel radio network, but we get uploaded onto the Apple iTunes network after our show airs, and we have listeners from Shanghai to Singapore to Mumbai and Paris. Share a little bit of your words of wisdom with regards to environmental science and the young entrepreneurs and students that are listening to the show as we get to sign off in the next couple of minutes. STEVE CRISTMAN: Sure. I’d be glad to. I’ve been privileged over the years to use a lot of college interns in our programs, and it’s great to work with these bright, brilliant young minds that are coming on. I want to encourage the younger generation. Environmental science, to me, is the only place to be. How in the world these young interns study boring things like engineering or practice law or be a doctor or something, how could they possibly do such things when there’s environmental science to practice? I mean, come on. Going green is not new. For the young folks out there, go back a few generations, and do your homework. Going green is something this great country of ours has always been able to do. We’re just revisiting that issue, and there’s some great information out there online. The younger folks I work with are much better at it than even I am. A good dose of common sense, John, is going green, I would also say. That’s the thing to do, is look at that, and buy carefully, recycle, do those things that help to take care of that material. Rather than waste it and bury it, let’s recover it and reuse it, or let’s make a new product out of it, or let’s extract the energy from it. So, that’s the mindset, and I think the youth have that even more so, and that’s good news, of course. It’s just part and parcel of what we need to do as we move into the future, and integrated solid waste management is going to do that for us. That’s the science, that’s the tools, and look at some of the exciting things that are happening as far as making fuel from some of our materials, and even more exciting is making compost. We have t-shirts here locally that, a lot of times I’ll give to my students that say, “Compost happens.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s perfect. STEVE CRISTMAN: As we’re talking about going green, that’s probably what I’d like to leave with you and the listeners. Folks like me get terribly excited over that. Guys, I’m telling you, compost happens. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Steve, you’re always welcome back to our show. You’re just wonderful, and we’re just so thankful for your time today. For our listeners out there, to see more of the great work that Steve and his colleagues are doing in Indiana, please go to www.niswmd.org. Steve Cristman, you are an inspirational sustainability leader, and truly living proof that green is good. STEVE CRISTMAN: Thanks, guys. What great fun. I enjoyed it. We’ll have to do it again some time.