To be honest, I’m as surprised as anyone else that I have volunteered and/or worked for the same nonprofit organization for over 32 years, and recently just retired from this awesome industry. Here is my story, along with my thoughts about the industry and its future.
My Background and Context
Since middle school I’ve been a “Hey, I’ll do that!” kind of leader, and an advocate for the environment. In college I graduated with a B.S. in Forestry Management and a minor in Soils. So how did I end up focusing my career in the recycling & solid waste topic industry? It’s a two-part answer: 1) It started with me “Thinking Globally - Acting Locally” and getting recruited and, 2) Once I became involved I was never bored and always felt like I was making a difference.
Part 1: How It All Began
Life-changing events can begin very small, such as simply exchanging letters. After college in the 1980s I found both love and employment in the Stevens Point area. I worked at a local nature center, got married, and my husband and I bought an old duplex. As it often happens the previous owners left a lot of “stuff” behind including some old newspapers and used motor oil. Wanting to handle those items properly, I learned about a local nonprofit organization that had a drop-off for recyclables and happily gave them my items. Afterwards I reflected and thought that this simple action was a great example of “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally”. With proud excitement I wrote an Open Letter for the local printed newspaper (yes, this was in the days WAY before the Internet). One of the nonprofit’s board members saw my letter, and sent me a handwritten letter and asked if I wanted to help with their outreach. Sorry, but I’m emphasizing it was handwritten since back in the 80’s even typewriters were a type of technology that most people didn’t use on a day-to-day basis. Ooops, I’m digressing and need to move on. Now, looking back I consider her letter as sort of a recruiting fishing line hoping to catch me and get me to continue “Acting Locally”. It totally worked and I became hooked. Soon I was volunteering with their outreach by talking to school groups, staffing booths, and creating promotional materials. Eventually I also served on their board. This all happened during the early days of the nonprofit now known as Recycling Connections (RC).
In 1991 the organization was able to fund a part-time job for recycling education and outreach, and I then became an employee vs. volunteer. Funding for the position and its activities was challenging for many years. However, over time the organization was able to find funding for broader messages beyond curbside recycling. RC began to educate and help develop programs about all kinds of solid waste topics including composting, landfill operations, household hazardous waste management, and mercury reduction, just to name a few. The organization continued to grow and evolve, and in 2004 it officially became Recycling Connections and I became its first Executive Director.
Part 2: A Fascinating and Essential Industry
Every day this industry becomes more and more essential as our modern living-style keeps evolving. As humans we create a tremendous amount of waste, and its composition continues to get more complicated. The industry is usually expected to ‘just deal with whatever comes its way’ and is continually at the mercy of people’s actions and choices. I’ll tell ya’ now, this is very frustrating on our end and is not sustainable!
This is where education, advocacy, policies, and consumer choices can all make a difference. We need all of these tools to change things. In my mind it really starts with how something is designed, packaged and used in the first place. Is it a single-use item that is cheaply made and gets discarded immediately? Can we purchase more durable and reusable items? Was it made with any hazardous items or materials that complicate its disposal later? For producers (businesses, manufacturers, shippers, etc.) and consumers alike (individuals or in the business world), we ALL must think about these kinds of questions. Which makes me ask, “What choices can you influence, or what changes can you make happen through your work or personal life, to make a difference?”.
This industry is constantly evolving, which for me I found fascinating and challenging. Today cutting-edge technology is used to collect, sort, and manage these materials. The goals are to create safer work environments and to better protect our environment. One area that has most notably changed is how recyclables are collected and processed. In the early days all materials were source-separated, if collected at the curb each material was put in a separate box or tub, or they were separated like this at the drop-off. Nowadays, the majority is collected all mixed together, or “single-stream” recycling. Another way the industry has changed is the makeup of its workforce. Historically it had been a “mans-world”, but now women hold positions at all levels, from operating heavy equipment, engineering the facilities and equipment, and starting their own industry-related businesses, to holding leadership roles with agencies and organizations
Technology has also changed the way information is shared, especially for the industry’s education and outreach. When I started in 1991, computers were still in their infancy and electric typewriters were the typical tool for writing formal letters. To make printed flyers I literally ‘cut out’ paper graphic images and then taped them carefully onto the paper before making copies. If something had to physically get anywhere, it was mailed via the US Postal Service. The only way to actually speak with anyone was either via a corded telephone, or by talking to them in-person. Today using computers and sending emails, talking and texting on cell phones, and making social media posts, are just every-day things.
For me a fascinating aspect to this industry is that employment opportunities can vary tremendously. Work environments may include working mostly indoors, outdoors, or both. Positions may require working only at one location, or may include some travel. The responsibilities and tasks vary as well. The solid waste & recycling industry employs engineers, equipment operators, onsite operational managers, service and sales businesses, administrator and department heads, and so much more! My favorite roles of course have been providing education, outreach, and program development.
So what lies ahead for this industry?
I see the challenges and changes only continuing. In my opinion ALL of us need to take more responsibility for our choices and actions, whether you’re the consumer/user or the original manufacturer. I want everyone to “Begin With the End in Mind” and think about how your purchases or the products you developed will be used and ultimately managed at their end. Consumers, think about what you purchase and use. You don’t need to be perfect with every choice you make, but start making simple changes. Manufacturers and producers, before you even begin developing the item please consider the product’s end-of-life and/or its hazardous components. The process includes the product’s design, manufacturing, shipping, and even its advertisement strategies.
Looking ahead, emerging issues for this industry include finding safer ways to manage rechargeable or lithium-ion batteries, as used in so many of our devices and products. When these batteries are improperly discarded into our garbage or mixed recycling programs, they can cause dangerous fires in the hauling trucks or at the facilities. Other emerging issues or opportunities include recycling mattresses, and how to manage old paint. However I and others feel that the biggest horizon for the industry is for diverting organics from going into landfills. Keeping these materials out of landfills will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and when composted and applied to our soils will improve all soil’s health and structure. To me, this sounds like a win-win!
In conclusion, this fascinating industry is essential to protect both our public health and our environment. When you ‘Think Globally and Act Locally’ related to solid waste and recycling, please know that you are making a difference.