Striving to make an impact in the waste and recycling industry, WISR was created with the vision to ensure that women have the tools and support they need to be successful leaders and diversify decision-makers.

WISR-logoWomen in Solid Waste & Recycling (WISR) was created 18 months ago by two industry experts out of California—Rachel Oster and Erin Merrill. Oster was the Vice President of Central California Operations at Recology overseeing the operation of several post collection facilities including composting, chip and grind, landscape supply and landfill operations. Oster began her career in the industry as a government and external affairs professional and served on the State Fertilizer Inspection Advisory Board as well as assisted in the development of the State’s certification program for organic fertilizers. Merrill is a lawyer who served as a Senior Administrative Manager at Recology, assisting in the oversight of operations at a landfill and compost facility in Vacaville, CA. Prior to that, she managed the permitting program for Recology, including all of the company’s environmental and operational permit projects. Oster and Merrill left Recology in 2017 to form Diversion Strategies, a full-service consulting firm based in Sacramento, CA, that supports the solid waste and recycling industry’s growth. The firm’s capabilities range from permitting and development of commercial infrastructure, to government advocacy, to facility operations and support.

However, Diversion Strategies was not the only impact the two planned to make. Oster and Merrill had a concept to disrupt the social networks of an industry that has historically belonged to men. In a relationship-driven industry that has been male-dominated since its inception, there has been no formal network for all women in the industry—until now. WISR is the first-of-its-kind networking and professional development, non-profit organization for all women in the solid waste and recycling industry, including those in the private and public sectors as well as non-profit and academia.

Diversifying Decision Makers
The waste and recycling industry has grown and evolved significantly since the early days of the 20th century and while more women are coming into the industry, more needs to be done to both attract and equip them to take on leadership positions. WISR was created with the vision to ensure that women have the tools and support that they need to be successful leaders, thereby diversifying the decision-makers in the waste and recycling industry.

Sharon Kneiss, Executive Director of WISR, along with Rachel Oster and Erin Merrill, Co-Founders of WISR, at the successful Power of Women in Waste event with Kathryn Sandoe, CCO of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Association, who sponsored the event.

“It is difficult to find credible data on the number of women in the industry, but we know that the collection side is comprised of about one percent of women and significant anecdotal data exists about the lack of women in leadership roles,” says Oster “While you will find women in HR, accounting, customer service and other business support functions, the number of women in operations and management is very small. This industry has historically been labeled as a “dirty” one which can be discouraging as women consider their options for a profession. Unfortunately, that perception conceals the benefits of working for this dynamic industry. The face of the industry has evolved significantly and we now have an innovative industry that creates value from waste and many players who actively seek the benefit of having a diverse workforce. The industry has recognized this challenge and several companies have instituted efforts to diversify their organizations and leadership. Perhaps, as a result of these efforts, we are finding that more women are entering the industry.” One of the goals of WISR is to help accelerate this progress by helping women take on leadership roles and thus demonstrate the desirability for women to join the industry.

Creating Industry Opportunities
While WISR has continued to build momentum and interest in the organization, they have just opened the opportunity for membership and are offering a discount for early participation. Membership is welcome from all women in the industry—in the public and private sector as well as academia, media, non-profit, and even women who are looking to join the industry. This is an opportunity to become a foundational member and join WISR in building chapters. They are also offering the opportunity for organizations and individuals to support this important effort as founding partners, sponsors and advertisers as WISR builds the support they need to grow this important organization.

WISR offers programs at the national level for all members, conducting events such as networking at major waste conferences and offering Webinars and educational opportunities. In addition, WISR will establish opportunities for mentoring at all levels in an organization. Recently, WISR held a successful meet-and-greet at WasteExpo and co-hosted a women’s leadership session with SWANA at WASTECON called POWW (the Power of Women in Waste) that was attended by more than 125 women and supportive men. WISR also are in discussions with some SWANA chapters to explore the possibility of jointly-sponsored programs.

In addition, the national organization will offer general administration services, fundraising and crowdsourcing, membership recruitment, advice and assistance for chapter development as well as the promotion of events. Chapters will offer quarterly programs, including:
• Professional development/skills training
• Site tours
• Networking
• Leadership training

Rachel Oster, Co-Founder of WISR,
and Elaine Richards, then President of
Rubicon Global, hold a networking event at WasteExpo.

“To kick off our program and ensure we are addressing the greatest needs of women in the industry, we initiated a survey in 2018 to determine what services would be most useful in their leadership development journey,” says Merrill. “We will use these results to further guide and develop programs and educational sessions. WISR conducted a worldwide survey of more than 200 women in the industry and the results were that women want more opportunities to create and build relationships, and leadership and professional development programs. We continue to encourage women to take the survey to get the broadest responses.”

Sharon Kneiss has also joined WISR’s effort as interim CEO to help build and grow this organization. She also serves as special advisor and Board member for BoomerWorks, an organization dedicated to helping unemployed professionals find sustainable employment in the freelance economy. In addition, Sharon is the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Facial Recovery. Kneiss recently served as the President and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association, overseeing the development of a strategic plan focused on making the association “the most effective and respected voice for the waste and recycling industry”. In that role, she shepherded the rebranding of the association as well as a governance change to merge the organizations for waste and recycling service providers and suppliers, and introduced strong new programs to the association, including enhanced safety efforts, education, and recycling.

“We are so excited to introduce WISR and the benefits it will produce for the industry. The hundreds of women we have heard from directly are excited and encouraged by what this organization plans to do,” says Kneiss. “We want to emphasize that while WISR’s mission is to help diversify the industry, it is not just for women and we have been encouraged in this effort by very supportive men in the industry and we welcome their participation. As we are promoting this effort, many have wanted to know how this is different from existing programs. Our response if that this is complementary to programs such as NWRA’s Women’s Council. While we provide programs at the national level, chapters are core to our efforts and give us the ability to build networks, communities and programs at the local level. We welcome the opportunity to partner with existing groups to leverage our efforts and amplify the efforts to diversify this wonderful industry.”

Upcoming Plans
Coming up, the Los Angeles Chapter of WISR plans to hold a mid-January reception and panel discussion/dialogue addressing the impact of newly enacted and potential California legislation. In addition, the Sacramento Chapter is planning its next event to be held in the next few months. WISR is also planning programs at upcoming national events including exploring opportunities to present at the U.S. Composting Council Conference in January.

By the end of 2019, WISR’s goal is to have six or more chapters in place. Currently, the organization is in the process of getting the first chapters up and running: Los Angeles and Sacramento. They are also in conversations to create chapters in two Canadian cities. They also plan to focus chapter efforts in New York City and Atlanta and, perhaps, Salt Lake City. In addition, as women approach Oster, Merrill and Kneiss with significant interest in creating chapters, WISR will work with them to develop chapters in their area.

Oster says, “We have been encouraged by the reaction we have received from the industry as we introduced WISR to them at WASTECON. At WASTECON, the event on women in leadership, which was jointly sponsored by SWANA and supported by the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, had more than 125 enthusiastic women and many supportive men in attendance. We are now following up on those discussions to solicit support for this important effort. As a matter of fact, we are planning two east coast swings in late 2018 and early 2019 to continue our work to solicit support as founding sponsors and seek participation in our programs. This is an exciting time for women in the industry by helping to build and maintain chapters that can deliver networking opportunities and leadership development.”

For more information, e-mail [email protected].