Success for Recycling Industry Requires a Team Effort

This week’s Industry Voices is an excerpt from ISRI Chair Brian Henesey’s State of the Industry address March 23 at ISRI2022 in Las Vegas.

When it comes to challenges facing the recycling industry, our companies are rarely alone. That’s particularly true as we deal with headwinds like ambitious regulation; well-intended but poorly crafted legislation; supply chain constraints; and the challenge of finding and retaining employees.

We also live in a world that gets progressively smaller with every change in technology and shift in the global economy. The internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and the supercomputer you hold in your hand all have created astounding new opportunities to do business around the world. But that technology also has a dark side.

Our innate human ability to oversimplify a challenge is worse than ever before. Policies are made by tweets, complex problems are addressed in memes and, regardless of your politics, we tend to self-select our worldview based on what we want instead of what is real. Our high-tech world can show us millions of pictures, yet it can mislead us by not showing us the big picture.

If we want to overcome these challenges and others, working alone won’t get us where we need to be in order to survive and thrive as an industry. Addressing challenges today will take insights from all of us—together. That’s where ISRI comes in. That defines why we have a trade association—and ISRI is one of the best.

Over the past 35 years, ISRI has been at the center of some of the biggest fights we’ve fought: flow control; RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] challenges; international trade barriers; metal theft; restrictions on the movement of plastics, metals, and paper under the guise of waste; and so much more.

So, what’s the secret sauce? What is it that makes ISRI one of the stronger trade associations out there? Strong leadership? A great staff?

It’s those things and a lot more. But the linchpin—the part that holds it all together and that sets the direction we take—comes from people who aren’t experts in lobbying or environmental law. It’s people with both good business and common sense that care about how the world outside the fence thinks about us. It takes people who are willing to take a seat at the table to keep themselves and their industry off the menu.

When you volunteer at ISRI, or anywhere for that matter, your perspective of the world changes. You start seeing how things that affect you are affecting others. At the same time, you get the opportunity to change the perspective of those who don’t see your world from where they sit. You start to get a glimpse of the bigger picture.

Today, much of our industry is seeing some of the best markets in years. Our closeup view of the world is pretty darn good and getting better as COVID-19 hopefully recedes. But what lies around the bend? Will it be smooth sailing, or will it be Class 6 rapids?

There will certainly be challenges that affect how we navigate. If we continue to act only [according to] our worldview, if we don’t seek to understand the bigger picture, then we are inevitably going to find ourselves defined by someone else’s worldview; by someone else’s priorities; by someone else’s rules and regulations.

Despite our individual thoughts and opinions, climate change is a huge issue that we must get in front of as governments and business move towards net zero [greenhouse gas emissions] and green energy. Within this issue lay opportunities and challenges. ISRI is working on both.

Our success is also dependent upon the ability of individual member companies—and our industry as a whole—to demonstrate our commitment to operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, and to develop a diversified pool of educated and trained professional and skilled workers.

We have a story to tell on all these issues and more. Our industry truly is a part of the solution to many of these problems. We must point out our place in the big picture.

When we meet with regulators and elected officials, we must talk about more than jobs created and taxes paid. We have to tell our own story of how we can help achieve carbon-neutral and zero-waste goals; and how recycling is essential to a circular economy; and how it always has been, and it must continue to be, a part of the [supply] chain. Recycling is part of the solution to a more resilient planet.

Our big picture includes Environmental Justice (EJ). EJ initiatives are no longer around the bend; they’re here already. Embracing both the opportunities and challenges posed by EJ is key to our long-term success.

We must engage with our communities. We must demonstrate our willingness and our ability to be good neighbors whose work is good for the environment and our economy. All of us have a vested responsibility to make the communities in which we live and work safe, resilient, and sustainable.

We need to hire from our communities and invest in training a new and more diverse generation of employees. We not only have to be involved in our communities, but we have to get the people in these communities involved in their own communities, as well as our companies and in ISRI. Cultivating leaders is essential to tomorrow’s success at every level.

As your new chair, I will advocate for all the remarkable things this industry does. We are a better industry today than at any other time in history. But all of us can do better and be better.

I know that our innate abilities as good businesspeople will allow us to conquer challenges and create opportunities. I look forward to leading you all bravely. With your help, we will see the big picture of success.