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As a freshman at Cornell University in the 1970s, I had the pleasure of taking an introductory course in mass communications. During the initial lecture, the professor had the class listen to Edward R. Murrow’s radio program “This I Believe.” The show was very popular, with millions of Americans gathering by their radios or opening their daily newspapers to hear or to read compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Albert Einstein, as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries. Each short essay distilled into a few minutes the guiding principles by which the authors lived their lives. For many, these words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried by the Cold War, racial tension, and divisive politics. Our society could probably use a series like that today!

In the fashion of “This I Believe,” the theme of my guest editorial will focus on some observations from my personal life and our industry, as I reflect on my Life Member Award from SWANA at this year’s WASTECON.

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First, some personal observations about work life:

  • Always try to return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion. Sometimes, the smallest little things can have the biggest impacts. “I’ll get to it eventually” is a thought that has likely run through the mind of many a young professional. While you may think that not returning a phone call promptly is not that big of a deal, it can have massive repercussions on your career. Most obviously, it gives a bad impression of your work ethic—that you cannot be relied upon to provide expedient service. In today’s world, people expect things fast. You are competing against the almost-instantaneous responses individuals can receive from Googling their question. Returning phone calls and email shows that you are dependable and that you prioritize individual relationships. It’s also simple good manners.
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  • Be genuine and have integrity. You have probably heard this from parents, professors, or mentors, but when it comes to career success, it’s all about who you know. When you are trying to work your way up in your field or take on a greater role, a positive referral from a well-respected professional can make a big difference. Of course, this doesn’t mean be overly nice or fake—people can see right through that facade. You need to be genuine and put in the effort to get to know and get along with others. People do not just care about your ability to do the job; they are also interested in your demonstrated integrity. If you have strong convictions about something, stick to them. Anyone who can be convinced without effort to change their mind illustrates that their convictions were not steadfast in the first place. Moreover, most people will respect your opinions if you verbalize them appropriately. On the other hand, have the maturity and grace to accept the arguments of others and be prepared to learn a thing or two. No one can ever say they have everything figured out perfectly.
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  • Be active in a professional or social organization. Given the number of responsibilities we must juggle daily, joining a professional association may not be among your top priorities. Which busy person, after all, has the time for more meetings and activities after spending a whole day at the office? Thinking this way may cause you to miss the numerous benefits that membership of a professional association can bring. Whether you join a national-level organization, an industry-specific body, a neighborhood community association, or a special focus group like SWANA, the decision to join an organization can result in valuable professional contacts and access to a wealth of information, as well as the development of meaningful, lifelong relationships.
  • Mentor others. A mentoring partnership can be rewarding to both the mentor and the mentee, personally and professionally. Both sides of such relationships can be an opportunity to develop communication skills, expand your viewpoints, and consider new ways of approaching situations. It is a win-win, where both partners can advance their careers in the process.
  • Write. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be “a writer,” you should consider writing about your contributions, projects, or community. Writing can be a great way to share knowledge and engage others in your work, and it has personal benefits as well. It can help you meet new people, learn new skills, and improve your communication style and confidence. I find that writing often clarifies for me what I don’t know about a topic. The process highlights gaps in my understanding and motivates me to fill in those gaps through further research, reading, and asking questions.

Now, a few thoughts about our solid waste industry:

  • Recycling—Rates of recycling skyrocketed in the US with the advent of single-stream curbside services in recent years, mainly because China and other Asian nations were willing to take our garbage embedded with recyclables. Many communities patted themselves on the back about the “good recycling” they were doing. Aspirational and lazy recyclers alike were able to just throw everything in the recycle cart. Single-stream recycling was literally the least we could do. However, once China and other nations established rigorous quality controls on importing our recycling, the market for mixed paper and plastics collapsed. This exposed the reality that single-stream recyclables were usually highly contaminated with plastic bags, broken glass, expanded foam packaging (Styrofoam), rubber hoses, food residues, and other trash, making the whole mix unrecyclable. The truth is, as a society we are actually pretty bad at recycling. Strong public education programs as well as penalty systems will be needed to fix this problem and minimize contamination to acceptable levels. We also need to focus on developing our own mills to turn these recyclables into useful products without reliance on exporting materials. Moreover, we need to ban things like single-use plastics, which are degrading our environment!
  • Regulations and Costs—As someone who does rate studies for a living, I have been amazed at all the discussions about the cost of waste disposal. When compared to typical items in public works, solid waste collection and disposal are relatively inexpensive. As a society, we really do not place a premium on the clean water and air afforded by modern waste collection and disposal. We need to do a better job of valuing these regulatorily driven benefits—when I consider the current state of the environment compared to when I started at Cornell in the 1970s, we’ve made some remarkable progress. On the other hand, as a society, we still have a tendency to push environmental costs onto future generations. For example, it is my perception that the financial assurance requirements within our current landfill regulations still do not fully account for some long-term environmental costs of landfilling. We are kidding ourselves that the tipping fees currently charged truly account for all future costs. We need to require a more robust life cycle cost accounting for landfilling so as to properly assign costs to environmental externalities and not just pass these costs along to our kids and grandkids.
  • Facility Siting—Not in my backyard (NIMBYs) concerns control the siting of most public works projects. All you need is a small minority to force decision-makers to quiver in their boots about making the right decision on siting a solid waste facility. Political decision-0--makers need to have a backbone and trust in the advice they have received by subject-matter experts. And we need to do a better job in supporting them in making difficult but correct decisions that can never please everyone.
  • Producer Responsibility—Recycling as it is currently practiced should be called what it is—the transfer of producer responsibility for their products and packaging to the consumer and taxpayer, who must ultimately ensure and pay for its pickup and management. Local governments are left holding the responsibility for businesses’ inability or refusal to do what is right, which is to take charge of the materials used and produced, particularly with regard to minimizing the use of non-recyclable materials and single-use packaging. Until manufacturers become directly responsible for the costs associated with their decisions on materials and packaging, we should not expect serious progress on recycling.
  • Waste-to-Energy—In the US, waste-to-energy (WTE) has always been the piñata for environmentalists and zero waste activists, who tout that everything can be recycled. In comparison, European and Japanese cities have turned to WTE as an essential component of the circular economy, with unrecyclable solid waste being turned into electricity, fuels, heat, and/or steam. Landfills are rightly frowned upon in Europe and Japan and only used to dispose of the byproducts of WTE. In the US, we primarily dispose of solid waste through long-haul transit into mega-landfills. What environmental sense does that make? As outlined by the US EPA in their sustainable materials management hierarchy, WTE is the preferable disposal option over landfilling if recycling, composting, or other waste diversion options are not available.
  • The Newest Mousetrap—For my entire career, I have watched as one snake oil salesman after another touts their latest “revolutionary” technology that can recycle 100% of a raw solid wastestream and is cheaper than landfilling. It is hard to believe how many local governments have been taken in by these claims. We should be wary of anything that has not worked beyond pilot scale, that has not been working on a consistent basis in our industry for several years, or—most importantly—for which the vendor needs the government to take all the financial risk. There’s usually a good reason why the private sector can’t bring something to market on their own. 
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