How HHW programs are an important piece of climate change through the circular economy.
By David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C.

This month, HHW Corner interviews Debbie Raphael, the Director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. Debbie has had a storied career, from entering the HHW field in Santa Monica to leading the California Department of Toxic
Substances Control and now in a key environmental role for San Francisco. However, like most of us, she did not start out with the idea of working in HHW. We talked with Debbie and how she came to be a leader in the HHW field, what she sees going forward and how HHW programs are an important piece of climate change through the circular economy.

Vegetation management using goats in place of toxic herbicides.
Photos courtesy of San Francisco Department of the Environment.

HHW Corner: Like many in the HHW field, you did not start out with a goal of working with HHW. Tell us what led you to this work.

Debbie Raphael: Growing up, I always thought that I would follow my father into the sciences. He was a Physics professor at UCLA, and I followed an academic path through undergraduate school at UC Berkeley and then in Graduate School at UCLA studying desert plant ecology. After three years working towards my PhD, with only my dissertation to complete, I realized that I did not enjoy basic science research. Telling my father that I was leaving graduate school and going to look for a different professional path was really difficult. At that point I was at a loss. If not a college professor or working scientist, who am I?

HHW Corner: What did you do then?

Debbie: I had no direction at first, but eventually some things started to fall into place. That led me to a number of jobs and experiences that helped me discover what I liked and wanted to do.

HHW Corner: What kind of jobs and experiences did you find and what did you learn?

Debbie: I taught high school science for two years in San Francisco, which I loved, but it was not really a good fit for me. Then I worked at the Exploratorium, also in San Francisco, which is a wonderful museum of science and technology where I designed life science exhibits for five years. Then I moved with my husband to Santa Monica and started networking to find out the answer to “now what am I going to do?”

To figure out my next step I did a bunch of informational interviews, talking to people and asking at each interview if they could introduce me to someone else and following those leads. Eventually I had an interview with a person who had a friend that works for the City of Santa Monica. I had never thought about working for city government, but met with Craig Perkins who headed up a group called the Environmental Programs Division. Part of the Environmental Programs Division included Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) as well as recycling work, water conservation and other subjects. In that Division was a man named Brian Johnson who needed some help. Craig and I hit it off very well and he had a temporary job working with Brian that he offered to me. Brian was in charge of HHW as well as other things for the City of Santa Monica.

I had never heard of HHW or thought about local government as a career. But, I very quickly realized that my scientific training and the way I approached problems was a very good fit for local governments. Using scientific investigative and analytical skills you could answer many government questions with scientific rigor and honesty.

HHW Corner: Can you give an example of how you applied your scientific training to answer local government questions?

Pharmaceutical industry product stewardship take back receptacle.

Debbie: For example, one of the questions we wanted to answer was, of all the things that a city like Santa Monica buys with its tax revenues, which of them are toxic and hazardous and which of them have alternatives and still do the work needed?

This was 1993 and there was no body of literature available to answer that question. However, there was a guy named Dave
Galvin up in Seattle that had contracted with Philip Dickey at a local non-profit to help them answer that same question. So, we worked together on trying to answer the question. We were
using terminology such as environmental preferable purchasing and safer alternatives, which was looking upstream from the
creation of HHW to avoid its generation.

HHW Corner: Looking back, how do you see the context of your first HHW related job?

Debbie: In a way you could say it was accidental. But I very much am a firm believer in a quote from Louis Pasture who said that “Luck favors a prepared mind.” I was very “lucky” to have found Craig Perkins and Brian Johnson with the City of Santa Monica, and I was prepared due to my academic training to make the most of it. From 1993 until now, government has been the perfect place to use my background to heal the planet instead of doing so through academic research. So, at 33 I discovered that government is my workplace, my home.

HHW Corner: What was your primary role at Santa Monica HHW, education or collection?

Debbie: In 1993 we were thinking about putting HHW collection out of business, so to speak, through changing the habits of people. This was different than many places that were focused on how to develop or improve their HHW collection infrastructure. The question that Brian wanted me to answer was “What can Santa Monica do to encourage the use of safer alternatives?”

The question of education versus collection is a false dichotomy. We need both. This reminds me of firefighting. Wildfires are on everybody’s mind with current events and no one would reasonably ask the question “Do we need fire departments and firefighters?” Of course, we need firefighters. If there is a fire, we need someone who can put it out. Firefighters understand that they can only do so much and that there is a critical need for fire prevention. If the forest fuel load becomes too large, fires become uncontrollable, no matter how many firefighters are available or how much firefighting equipment is deployed. This leads to larger losses to life and property. That is what we are seeing now year after year.
It is the exact same thing in the hazardous waste world.

Until we get to a world with no hazardous materials in commerce, we will need HHW collection programs. We know that we don’t capture all the HHW out there. Just like in firefighting where we need to have prevention and response, we need to have both HHW prevention and HHW collection. One does not negate the need for the other.

HHW Corner: Can you provide an example of how you have seen that work?

Debbie: Here in California, pressure-treated wood no longer has the hazardous waste exemption that allowed disposal in a Class 2 waste landfills, which are designed and operated in between a normal MSW landfill (Class 3) and full hazardous waste landfill (Class 1). As citizens became aware of the disallowance to dispose their pressure-treated wood in a solid waste landfill, they often turned to their local HHW program to take their unwanted pressure-treated wood waste. HHW facilities were not prepared nor had the space to handle that large bulky hazardous waste stream.

This points to the need for safer alternatives to the hazardous constituents of pressure-treated wood especially for copper, arsenic and chromium, which leach from the wood and are dangerous to humans and animals. This is an excellent example of where the legal framework and collection systems were not sufficiently thought through and things went awry. Obviously, there needs to be practical and legal pathways for disposal of this HHW, but the current HHW system is not well suited for the huge volume of pressure-treated wood waste generated each year.

Another excellent example is compact fluorescent lamps, CFLs, which contain elemental mercury, a neurotoxin. This was a great example of an energy efficient product using toxic constituents. HHW programs stepped up to manage the CFLs as a new waste stream and prevented improper disposal. As we now know, Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps are a better alternative for lighting, which do not contain mercury. So, LEDs help prevent the toxic loading of the waste stream and reduce the burden on HHW programs.

HHW Corner: What is the most significant change or trend that you have seen in HHW?

Debbie: The most significant evolution in HHW is the increase in the idea of producer/shared responsibility. When I started in 1993, all the responsibility was on the local city and county government to collect and manage HHW. No one else was
leaning in or stepping in to say, “let me help.” Nor were there any mandates on other parties to help the local government HHW efforts. We have not decreased the need for HHW collections, but we have expanded the force. We now have both local government and private sector HHW “firefighters” working together.

For example, both the paint and pharmaceutical industries are required to participate in HHW collection and disposal/recycling in California. We may soon have the packaging industry start helping with their end-of-life product management. This is very encouraging.

HHW Corner: Tell us a bit about San Francisco’s HHW program.

Debbie: Our HHW offerings have continued to expand from our permanent HHW collection facility, to home collection, to satellite collection and retail collection elements. It’s pretty easy to do the right thing if you are in San Francisco. So, our ongoing focus is on education and getting hazardous products out of commerce.

HHW Corner: How do you see HHW in relationship to other environmental initiatives?

Debbie: The presence of products that contain hazardous materials has become a significant issue in what the Europeans like to call the “circular economy”. Circularity is directly related to climate change because a primary strategy to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce the resources and energy needed to make products. Reuse and recycling reduces the resource and energy demand for products.

In commerce, if you want to minimize the use of non-renewable resources and promote reducing waste and recycling materials back into the economy, any products contaminated with toxic chemicals become a barrier to those goals and put a strain on the circular economy. To enhance circularity, you need to remove toxic chemicals from the design of products, at the point of manufacture, and keep toxic chemicals from contaminating the recycling stream.
In the past, HHW programs were promoted to protect human health and the environment through collection activities. Now, eliminating the barriers to implementing a circular economy is of critical importance to help address climate change and represents a key role for HHW programs. HHW programs keep toxic materials from contaminating landfills and recycling streams as well as help push private sector actors to design safer alternative products without undue reliance on toxic chemicals. | WA

David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C., is Principal at Special Waste Associates (Olympia, WA), a company that assists communities in developing or improving HHW and VSQG collection infrastructure and operations. They have visited more than 150 operating HHW collection facilities in North America. As a specialty consulting firm, Special Waste Associates works directly for program sponsors providing independent design review for new or upgrading facilities—from concept through final drawings to create safer, more efficient and cost-effective collection infrastructures. Special Waste Associates also published the book, HHW Collection Facility Design Guide. David can be reached at (360) 491-2190 or e-mail [email protected].

Career Timeline
1993 – 1999: Santa Monica HHW
1999 – 2011: San Francisco Department of the Environment
2011 – 2015: CA Department of Toxic Substances Control, Director
2015 – Now: San Francisco Department of the Environment, Director