Waste Management Companies Must Battle NIMBY-ism with Better Tactics

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Published December 2013 in Waste Advantage Magazine (pages 36-37).

As the anti-development movement continues to spread across communities throughout the U.S., it is affecting “business as usual” in more industries than ever before. Dissent within communities can arise instantly to oppose any type of development from wind and solar projects to real estate and housing developments and everything in between. Waste management facilities in particular have been subject to strong NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) opposition for years, affecting both project development and operations. Slate’s Brain Palmer shows just how effective NIMBY activists have been in this industry by reporting a 75 percent decline in the number of waste disposal facilities across the U.S. from 7,683 sites in 1986 to only 1,908 sites in 2009. Such a strong anti-development sentiment means companies will need to meet public opposition with better tactics throughout the planning and entitlement phases of project development for a successful project approval.

Companies need to look more closely at their strategies for building public support as a smooth entitlement process could be at risk if community opposition is not properly planned for prior to the announcement of waste management projects. When opponents create a unified voice to rise up against waste facility developments, numerous case studies show the devastating impacts to developers in terms of wasted time and resources. Often, the opponents’ promotion of myths about noise and odor pollution that would allegedly result from a new waste facility aim to portray waste management developments in a negative light to stall or prevent new facilities. As landfills continue to fill up, communities will be faced with more decisions about how to dispose of their waste, and in order to provide the most useful solutions, waste management facility developers must get ahead of the opposition to educate and build support for their proposals.

Baton Rouge, LA

NIMBY opposition outside Baton Rouge, LA has resulted in two unsuccessful attempts since 1997 by Louisianna Land Acquisitions LLC to gain project approval for a new landfill. Though this new landfill would bring benefits, such as job creation, funding for community programs and cleanup of the current site, public opposition remains fierce. However, in this third attempt at project approval, developers’ efforts are now supported by an organized group of about 50 supporters who attended the most recent Department of Environmental Qualify hearing to speak out in favor of the proposal. This base of vocal supporters who are willing to attest to the benefits of the project are a vital resource to draw upon for letter-writing campaigns to local officials and newspapers to garner further support on a grassroots level. Community engagement for purposes of coalition building is one aspect that was lacking in the developers’ first two attempts, but it appears supporters in the Alsen, LA no longer wish to silently allow the opposition to control the conversation surrounding this issue.

Lindenhurst, NY

Public opposition is not limited solely to landfill-type waste management facilities. It extends beyond waste facilities to recycling centers, despite the overall positive effect of those types of facilities on the environment. In Lindenhurst, NY, one such existing recycling facility faces strong NIMBY opposition in response to its plant to triple its production to be able to move holding sites indoors. Opponents argue that additional noise and odor will hamper the quality of their lives, and they actively seek to prevent the facility from gaining necessary state approvals from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. An organized campaign by One World Recycling that would inform the community on the benefits of a capacity increase is crucial to the process of identifying supporters to voice their opinions to public officials. With the creation of a supporter database, a coalition could be mobilized for action such as, displaying lawn signs, writing to public officials or newspapers, and speaking at hearings. Lindenhurst Mayor Thomas Brennan, acknowledged he might be more inclined to support the expansion if the recycling center was a better neighbor with less complaints. The Mayor’s position shows that the best way to mitigate the voices of opposition is to amplify those of supporters, who can be mobilized easily once coded into a project database.

Campaign Style Approach

Having been in the business of running public affairs campaigns to build public support for controversial projects for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that the key piece of the puzzle missed by developers in their public outreach strategy is the “campaign”-style approach that the opponents seem to do so well. Whether residents in a community band together to oppose a new facility or an expansion to an existing facility, or whether the facility is a recycling center or a landfill, NIMBY critics are no match for a properly executed project announcement. Too often, waste management companies do not offer up an aggressive public affairs campaign when they announce a project, often letting crucial time pass between the announcement of a proposal and when public outreach begins. Opponents use this time to build opposition and sway residents against these projects, creating a more difficult task for project developers. By running an initial political style campaign, you can reach all the residents and stakeholders in the community, identify the supporters to add to the database and harness them into action in support of your project.

Once a project is announced, other measures of identification must be taken through direct mail and phone banking. Direct mailers, such as postcards with a tear-off component are often the bet first step. These tear-off cards can be returned with information about how a resident is willing to show support, either by writing a letter or speaking at a hearing, and e-mail addresses that are provided can be used for further, more cost effective communication. Phone banking not only identifies supporters, opponents and those who are undecided, but it can also be used to gain additional demographic information that would aid in further strategically targeted outreach.

The key goal of these types of campaigns is to never allow the opponents an opportunity to seize the moment because of an inaction by the developer. Just announcing a waste facility development is not enough to assume that everyone will be on board to support it. By running an aggressive campaign and identifying supporters, you have taken a key step of any successful campaign. Knowing what to do with the identified members of a community who support your project is the next step, and one that will allow vocal support to outnumber opponents – whether it be petitions, letters or crowds at public hearings. In 2014 and beyond, companies should plan for NIMBY opposition to waste facility developments instead of waiting until it is too late. Meeting this challenge with proven grassroots techniques will be critical to making 2014 a success for these types of developments.