Sharing his thoughts on the industry and where it is headed as well as the big buzzwords that have continued to grow during the past year, Bryan Staley talks about EREF’s continuing mission to be an important voice in moving issues forward.

Sustainability and circular economy were a couple of the big buzzwords at WasteExpo this year, do you see this as a continuing trend? How can the waste and recycling industry incorporate these strategies? How has EREF included this in their education programs?

Yes, I do see a continuing trend toward sustainability and circular economy as guiding concepts in the industry. For example, minimizing environmental burdens through mitigating risk and enhancing the use of waste as a resource is central to achieving greater sustainability. Circular economy, the idea that materials can be reused again and again, involves management of wastes along the entire value chain simply because 100 percent efficiency of materials use is currently not feasible. As a result, sustainability and circular economy concepts are intertwined with waste and recycling activities.

Because waste management is one of the core processes identified in circular economy, the industry is already a major part of the equation. And because sustainability and circularity are inextricably linked, any efforts to increase the transformation of waste to a resource (e.g., recycling, composting, energy creation, etc.) and minimize environmental burden (e.g,. emissions and energy reduction) help further these concepts.

EREF has incorporated these principles in a significant way by updating our mission and vision based on circular economy and sustainability. Therefore, all of our efforts moving forward are strategically focused on these concepts. This has resulted in a broader focus that maintains an emphasis on finding solutions for ongoing problems while extending our efforts to address data and research gaps that advance and help measure circularity of materials.

How have you seen waste and recycling change over the last five years? How have education strategies changed?

Broadly, waste and recycling has been an activity that has been somewhat inwardly focused, with the perspective that whatever waste is generated will be effectively managed. Today, that perspective is changing with the realization that if upstream product manufacturers integrate circular economy principles, this helps develop stronger end market demand or more sustainable disposal options once these materials are discarded.

From an education standpoint, online and virtual education are now more widely used, whereas before the COVID pandemic, there seemed to be more of a preference to use in-person educational efforts. That said, another trend has been that there is a tremendous amount of content available but, unfortunately, some of the education offered is less robust or credible. This means that those seeking to educate themselves risk being exposed to misinformation or incomplete information.

Why is research so important to the future of the industry? What can we learn from reports available? How does it make the industry’s jobs more efficient?

As waste and recycling efforts become more sophisticated, the need for data and credible science to inform decision making is more critical than ever. Sound research guides the implantation of good operational practices and policy. An example is landfill emissions management and measurement, which has matured substantially as a result of ongoing research and technological innovation. This has made jobs more efficient in that the time it takes to monitor and manage emissions continues to be less.

Give an example of some of the research projects happening currently. How do you see them moving the industry forward?

Currently, EREF has nearly 40 active research and data projects that focus on topics such as: landfill emission measurement, PFAS management, composting availability and management, number of garbage trucks in operation, improving recycling and creating a roadmap for circular economy.

Such efforts help create a more informed industry. These efforts also connect various stakeholders along the circular economy framework, which, ultimately, will create a more sustainable world and
increasingly efficient materials management infrastructure.

How does EREF work with other associations, such as SWANA or NWRA, in educating people throughout the industry?

Given EREF is not an advocacy organization, and its core values align with advancing objective and credible research and data, it works synergistically with trade associations. Many of the advocacy and educational issues these associations seek to address for their members can be significantly informed by EREF’s programmatic efforts. In this respect, many educational efforts by SWANA and NWRA have incorporated EREF staff, EREF’s scholars, or EREF research grant recipients into their educational programs or conferences.

How has EREF transitioned from its beginnings in the 1990s to what the foundation is today? How does it plan to continue to adapt to current trends?

EREF was a very small organization for quite a few years, until the late 2000s. During those early years, EREF primarily focused on a few research grants and scholarships and tended to be well known amongst top executives and industry business owners. As a result, EREF was also supported primarily by those people as a way to leave a legacy. While EREF continues to be an excellent way to support the industry by endowing a scholarship to support students or research, its mission and stakeholder base has expanded substantially to become the largest source of research and scholarships related to sustainable materials management in the U.S. This growth has also seen a significant increase in programs since the 1990s with the addition of data and education programs in the 2010s to support the existing research and scholarships programs. Staff has also increased during this time from three to more than 15. EREF’s strategic growth is based on the interconnectivity between what is manufactured, consumed, and thrown away, and how these materials may be able to be returned as a raw material. While this has always been the case, there is significantly greater awareness and effort in this space due to the integration of ESG and sustainable principles along the entire value chain.

Considering the challenges with finding employees today, what kind of strategies do you think the industry can take on recruiting and training the next generation of waste and industry

Finding and keeping talent is not necessarily a new challenge to the waste and recycling industry, which battles the perception that this particular industry has less “curb appeal” than other industries, such as manufacturing, finance, and other areas. However, ensuring good pay, strong benefits, and, when possible, incorporating lifestyle considerations (e.g., work remote, flex time) will ensure that the industry stays competitive with others. Ensuring sound education that facilitates the understanding that people can have an extremely rewarding career in the waste and recycling industry remains a priority.

In what ways do you believe the industry will change by the end of the year?

While the industry is always evolving, in many respects, significant change is measured in years, not months. However, some of the fastest moving issues right now include: PFAS regulation, landfill emissions measurement, supply chain issues on the equipment side, extended producer responsibility, and environmental justice. Specifically, what change will be impacted in these areas is difficult to predict given there are still many unknowns. However, turning an unknown into a “known” is what EREF’s mission is all about, which assures the Foundation will be an integral voice in these issues moving forward. | WA

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