Retiring after almost a 30-year career in the waste and recycling industry, Mary Ann  Remolador, the Northeast Recycling Council’s Assistant Director talks about her experiences working on various programs, committees, and conferences as well as how things have changed over the years within the Council and the industry.

 

How did you get into the waste industry?  My master’s degree is in International Administration from the School for International Training and my bachelor’s degree is in Natural Resources Economics from UMass. After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines for two and a half years. When I came back to the states, I was doing fundraising and managing a donor base at the nonprofit, Institute for Community Economics, in Springfield, MA that dealt with promoting and supporting land trusts. They helped communities develop land trusts as well as helped families with financing and building the houses where they were going to be living on land trust property. When I was ready to leave that job, I put my résumé in the database at UMass, and Ed Boisson, who was the Director of NERC, called me to come in for an interview because there was a position open that was perfect for my skillset. At the time, NERC anticipated receiving an EPA grant to hold Recycling Investment Forums, which were half-day events where financiers would gather to hear the pitches of startup recycling companies looking for financing. Ed expressed that NERC needed somebody that could organize these events plus handle other new things that were going on, such as the EPPnet, which was a listserv for green purchasers. All these things pieced together nicely for me since they included my primary interests of working on environmental issues, as well as working with businesses. Working in the Philippines allowed me to be able to work with diverse groups with a lot of participatory management and decision-making group discussions, so I felt like my graduate and undergraduate work really fit in nicely with NERC on these projects he described. 

Talk about your career path within NERC. What role did you first have there and what was your trajectory? After I was hired, I started as a project manager of the investment forums—developing them from concept to reality. EPA had a lot of funds at that time, and they were put to good use. My job was to find investors, identify startup recycling businesses, create teams to review applicant business plans, and help the businesses come up with a 10-minute presentation. That part of the project was such an interesting experience because most people take 30 minutes to describe their business, but they had to do it within the time constraint given. So, how did I prepare the businesses to do this? I found a professor at Boston College who was a speech expert, and he donated his time to help coach the businesses. As a result, 33 percent of the recycling companies that participated ended up finding financing. Through this project we also learned that financiers really do not understand the cyclical nature of recycling businesses—market-based companies. What happens when the market goes down? How does the company recover and remain viable? Are recycling businesses really stand-alone businesses or are they part of a larger company?  Where was the data about recycling economic benefits of the industry? NERC really saw the opportunity to work with bankers, investors, and economic developers to help them understand how a recycling company works and to prove to them that this is a real industry where there are many sectors. At that time, financiers were also looking for an industry to make new investments. We laid out all that information in various projects, which I led, and it was fascinating. 

I also developed a training program for financiers, bankers, and economic developers, to help them to understand the workings of different recycling companies and what it takes to maintain their financial health and well-being since they are very dependent on what is going on in the marketplace. This was all brand-new information to them. We were very much connecting ourselves to the financiers and the state economic developers. 

Since NERC’s work in the late 1990s, recycling businesses can more easily find financing; the message has gotten out and financiers have come to understand that recycling is a viable industry. I do still see the need for those working with and for recycling businesses to connect with economic developers. Economic developers need to receive and understand the message that recycling businesses still need their assistance to combat the pressures of the marketplace. However, it is hard to get the attention of economic developers and convince them to focus their attention on recycling businesses. A good example of how economic developers could play a vital role is with the region’s glass industry. There are only a couple of beneficiators (companies that clean recycled glass for manufacturers) and a few manufacturers using recycled glass to make new products in the Northeast. Generally speaking, recycled glass coming from Northeast MRFs is too dirty and costly to clean for manufacturers’ use.  There is a lot of room for economic developers to intervene and to help improve the marketplace by developing partnerships with industry leaders, providing needed guidance, and identifying and assisting with obtaining funding sources for MRF equipment upgrades.  

Over the years, the focus of my work changed based on the priorities of the board as well as available grant funding. My first 10 years were primarily focused on recycling business development and financing. The Investment Forums were conducted from 1996 to 1999.  Afterwards, EPA’s funding was cut, and we no longer had access to the resources needed for these intensive projects. After that dissolved, I handled a variety of projects working with diverse groups in communities and businesses, assisting them with incorporating more recycling into their operations and finding the needed markets for recycled materials. The different projects helped me to achieve a greater understanding of how recycling programs differed by state and figure out how to be the most helpful and supportive of the 11 Northeast states’ recycling programs.  

About 25 years ago, NERC’s conference began as a scaled down version of today’s event. Initially they were just meetings of the board. Then there were some industry associations included, but they were only allowed in the room to listen, they could not sit at the table.  NERC’s Executive Director, Ed Boisson decided to make a change that initiated a pivotal change in NERC’s history.  He welcomed industry to participate in the meetings and with a seat at the table. After this change, NERC’s meetings evolved into a space where government and industry began sharing ideas and opinions on the most important matters of the recycling industry.  At the same time, NERC created its Advisory Membership Program, which included industry, municipal government, non-profit organizations, and universities.  Before long, NERC had built a strong network among the Northeast states and industry, and the meetings became conferences. I managed these events since the start of this evolution and played a major role in nurturing the collaboration of government and industry in developing the agendas, identifying speakers, and participating in the discussions at the events. Every year, advisory members and attendees are also asked through a survey what they want NERC to focus on for the next conference. The results all get put into a list and we invite advisory members and our board members to participate on the agenda planning committee. Then, we whittle down the topic list to what we think are the most relevant topics and send out a call for abstracts. The submissions are reviewed and decided upon by the conference agenda planning committee.

“Mary Ann was a bedrock for NERC. Not only did she help nurture, guide, and support committees like the glass or diversity/equity/inclusion committees, but she consistently delivered quality conferences where industry, government, and nonprofits, built relationships, knowledge, and understanding that improved recycling in the Northeast and beyond.” —Josh Kelly, NERC President

What are some of the changes you have seen at NERC and within the industry over the years? The one primary change at NERC that was made is that now we have advisory members, and we involve industry, nonprofits, trade associations, and many more in the work that we do both at the conferences and in our committees. This is where a lot of decisions get made about the work we should focus on and the resources to be developed that will be most beneficial to our constituency. If you think about the early days when the industry was around the edges of the room to now where we have advisory members involved in our work, the change is great because we see the value of their input and presence in our work more than ever before. It makes for much richer conversations, programs, projects, and impacts. In addition, there were no committees when I started. Over time, we made the decision to start working on different committees based on what was happening, such as the glass committee that started in 2017 when states were really concerned about what was going on with the material. It has always been an expressed desire of the board and advisory members to create a committee that is needed based on the current trends. For example, the last one created was the DE& I committee. I spearheaded that one because I really felt that NERC needed to become more aware of DE&I and start incorporating it into our operations as well as the projects that we work on. I presented it to the board, they agreed, and I pulled together the committee. Other committees coming soon are an organics committee and a bottle bill committee. I am involved with the supply side committee, the DE& I committee, and the glass committee, and those three groups have done so much work since we began. We dive into the issues and plan on how to address them.  

Not only did the DE&I discussion in the industry have an influence on creating the committee, but also some of my experiences early in my career like working in the Philippines had an influence. I experienced firsthand what it meant to work with people who spoke a different language, had a different culture and belief system, and there were valuable lessons learned from having worked in that situation. It seemed that with what was going on in our country with race and environmental justice issues, that we absolutely needed to embrace these topics and make them part of our work. Not only are we impacting the states, businesses, nonprofits, and other trade associations, but also communities where we are working That’s what really pushed me to start this DE&I committee. I wanted to learn more about DE&I and share the information. I was willing to make mistakes through this process and I didn’t allow that to get in the way of what we wanted to accomplish.

Today, one of the things that I see is that people are starting to value the perspective of the younger generation. When I first came to NERC in the 1990s, the people that I saw were older men, and they ruled the industry. I asked: where are the women, the younger people, and the people of color? That progression I have seen happening within our industry, where people are filling roles they never had before. For example, the fact that we now have a board member who is a young woman is huge. It is wonderful when more diverse people get involved because new ideas and perspectives are brought to the table. When I first started at NERC, I said instead of asking the same questions, why don’t we switch it up a bit and look at it from a different angle? I remember there was a woman from Connecticut DEP at the time who said that the questions had come full circle since she had been there, and it was time for her to retire. I kind of feel like that’s where I am now. I didn’t think I would use it as a benchmark for me when it was time to retire, but I am now seeing the same questions come back to the table. There is a lot that we have improved like understanding how to work with communities more effectively, with regards to environmental justice issues that would not have happened even two years ago. 

“It didn’t take long for me to recognize the unique strength that Mary Ann has in bringing different perspectives and voices to the table. I admire the ability she has to create an environment that encourages individuals from different backgrounds to share their ideas. Our team will very much miss her contributions and insights that come from nearly three decades of experience in the recycling industry at NERC.” —Megan Fontes, NERC Executive Director

I think that overall, our industry attracts people who want to be working on the issues like environmental justice. The younger generation is very much interested, and I think they are going to lead us to a better place in the future. I think more people have access to recycling now more than ever before, but we still have room for improvement. We may not have all the solutions yet, but as an industry we have identified what things work, what things don’t, and what we need to improve. Now, I see us at a point where we are dealing with the harder parts of how do you solve the problems. We’ve done a lot of identifying and learning, so how do we move forward? NERC’s strength of collaboration has always allowed us to get both industry and government in a room to talk and hear both sides of the issue. That is something that I’ve seen change over time when we started really recognizing industry as part of the conversation and opening the doors to having advisory members by making sure that we engaged them in our work that went beyond just states. 

What was your most memorable experience at NERC? The investment forums made the greatest impact on me because I saw things happening and changing right in front of me on the day of the forums, such as having investors learn about recycling companies. I liked seeing the reactions of the people in the audience as they were listening to the 10-minute pitches—the look of surprise or the interest when the presentations ended and then seeing them meet face-to-face for the first time. That is the most memorable part of my time. During those years, I worked on it full-time because there were so many details I had to organize and manage dealing with financiers and recycling businesses. I did a lot of handholding and keeping companies and financial institutes on track. At that time, we did a lot of marketing by hand, so we had to plan how to get those messages out to get the right pieces of information to the key people. It was rewarding work and quite intense. There was a lot of moving pieces. With NERC’s current staff, we have talked about different ways that aspect of its history can be brought back to the table. We discussed a number of ideas for moving this forward. There is currently no regional recycling market development effort, and that’s where I think NERC could definitely play a role. 

Megan Fontes, Executive Director, Sophie Leone, Development and Program Manager, Mary Ann Remolador, and Mariane Medeiros, Senior Project Manager.

What are you most proud of? I am most proud of bringing things to the table at NERC that were not being talked about. My tenacity allowed me to present the ideas until they were heard. I also insisted that everyone have a voice. Early on at NERC, the staff and I were at a board meeting, and we were not allowed to talk. We were required to be there, but the moderator literally skipped over staff for a response to a question, and I said afterwards, this can’t happen again—we are an important part of this conversation. Having that experience, I never wanted anyone else to feel that way. If you’re on a committee of mine, I won’t let people be silent. Everybody’s opinion matters; there are no bad ideas. Let’s make the space for everyone to be part of the conversation. That is what I’m very proud of because I feel that it makes people work together more effectively and brings out different perspectives. I tried to help people be more comfortable in expressing their ideas. That’s how I have approached all my work here. 

Why did you decide it was the right time to retire? There have been many things that have happened from the time I started with NERC until now and people ask me why were you there for 29 years? Why didn’t you switch jobs? One thing I can tell you is that no two days were the same because as the industry changes, the job would change all the time and that made it very interesting and exciting. I would always think, what am I going to be doing next month? It was very dynamic. Right now, I’ve gotten to a point where I feel as though I have given what I can to NERC and the industry, and it is time for me to look at other things and move on. My husband retired three years ago, and he is waiting for me. We bought a camper, and we will start doing our own thing. While this does not mean I am never going back to work again, I may focus on special projects and explore other interests. 

For more information on NERC, visit www.nerc.org.

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