Tell us a little about yourself and what drove you to work at RTS, given your extensive background in policy and human rights issues?
I actually thought that “RTS” stood for “Rights Training Society.” For some reason, no one corrected me during the interview process, and next thing I knew I was three years into a job at a trash and recycling services provider… No, in all seriousness, my human rights, policy, and ESG background are precisely what drove me to RTS. I love that RTS is a mission-driven company, and I think innovative companies like RTS ultimately can effect as much or more positive change than governments in this day and age. I’ve seen it firsthand during my time here!
What specific policy measures do you think are needed to accelerate our path towards a circular economy?
Pretending for a moment that we live in a world without the dynamics that make change political slow, if I could wave a magic wand I’d want to see Extended Producer Responsibility, a national ban on using recycling arrows on anything that cannot practically be recycled (a la California’s new law), and a massive federally led investment in MRF sorting and organics processing technologies. In our actual world, these changes likely have to occur piecemeal at the state level, which is also ok (it just takes a bit more elbow grease!).
The US is often lagging in environmental policies and issues, specifically waste management. Can you tell us a bit about why that might be and share any key differences that prevent the US from moving forward with environmentally focused initiatives?
I hate to call out federalism again, because it has so many virtues, but in the US states and even some localities have so much power. We cannot realistically compel everyone in the country to, for example, to source separate into nine streams. Another major factor is lack of social cohesion and polarization, which is getting worse as social media comes to dominate our lives. Polarization is not unique to the United States, but it is worse here than in western Europe or Eastern Asia for example, two regions that most people hold up as a global leaders in environmental policy. Sustainability is the ultimate tragedy of the commons, and these are really tough to solve in tribal societies like ours.
A study found that most young people are struggling with climate anxiety, what do you think that means for environmental policy and the future of recycling?
I would encourage young people to channel that anxiety toward action. Studies actually show that people who are more concerned about social good sometimes do less, because we are hamstrung by anxiety or empathy over action. Empathy is needed, and anxiety is completely normal given the scale of the problem, but fighting for practical steps like carbon taxes – and exploring sometimes controversial possibilities like nuclear and fusion power – are great paths!
You also manage municipalities at RTS, can you tell us a bit about how COVID-19 has impacted the state of recycling in that sector?
Residences produced – and continue to produce – significantly more trash and recycling during the COVID crisis. More recently, labor shortages and natural disasters have jammed up the flow of materials. COVID really has hammered home an important reality for us: at RTS, we are pivoting from a “diversion” model to a holistic reduction model. While the recycling market has rebounded a bit since its 2020 lows, given the fact that how much gets recycled is ultimately hostage to market forces, the best solution is always waste reduction. RTS is pushing for waste reduction wherever and whenever we can.
What do you feel is the most important first step for commercial businesses and individuals to reduce their waste footprint?
I think that data is key – businesses and individuals first need to understand what their waste footprint looks like today, as well as what it could look like if they make modifications to their behavior. Ultimately, we can’t expect behavior modifications to “stick” unless people understand their impact, get feedback on how well they are doing, and obtain psychological rewards for persevering with changes until they become new habits. And all of that is dependent on data about what people are putting into the trash and where that waste is going.
Do you find that the municipalities RTS partners with already value sustainability or is RTS leading the charge in many of these towns? Are there specific challenges of navigating local policies?
This is a great question. Some municipalities are thought and action leaders, and choose us because of our sustainability focus and record. Others often care a lot about sustainability, but because they are constrained by budget and political realities, need us and others to help them along on their journeys!
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