Interview with Bob Gedert -Waste Reduction Guru

Bob Gedert has been in the sustainable materials management industry for over 40 years, and is a champion of waste reduction. While serving as Austin Resource Recovery department director, Mr. Gedert was responsible for a 400-employee operation that provided services to Austin citizens, including trash, recycling, yard trimmings collection, street sweeping, litter and dead animal pickup, household hazardous waste and the implementation of the Austin Zero Waste Plan. From 2003-2008, Gedert operated the residential and commercial recycling service for the city of Fresno Department of Public Utilities. He also sits on the board of SWEEP ( Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol),  National Stewardship Action Council, the National Recycling Coalition, and the Association of Ohio Recyclers.

 

I was told that you’re a numbers guy, and I’m curious how you go about the process of collecting, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from the data that you work with in the industry?

Bob Gedert: Numbers are hard to get if you’re not operating the system. In both Fresno and Austin, where I’ve worked in the past, I had access to numbers such as tonnages of yard waste collected, recycling, and what was going to the landfill. From these, I was able to calculate out total tons diverted in percentage form, as well as pounds per household, which is my favorite number. It gives a more acute look at how families are recycling or composting at a granular level. Still, in many communities, access to numbers tends to be restricted. If private haulers are contracted with the city they have to report their numbers, but in the case of private hauler subscriptions not related to a government entity, statistics can be pretty well hidden.

Where do you see the value in waste characterization studies? What do you look for in the results, and how do people like yourself use this information?

Mr. Gedert: Of the few waste characterization studies that I’ve done at the various stops along my career, I find them very valuable. Although, I think they’re often misinterpreted. For example, the EPA’s national waste characterization study done by Franklin and Associates, is a conglomeration of numerous studies put into one. There’s sincerity in gathering the numbers, but the numbers don’t reveal anything meaningful about any individual city, because of the way it’s aggregated together.  The waste characterization studies that I value are the ones that show differences between communities. At a larger scale, it’s hard to draw assumptions and correlations. With studies done on the small scale, you are able to tell people’s eating habits, buying habits in the form of different types of packaging, or the difference in recycling programs to see what’s going to the landfill.

I primarily look at two types of waste characterization studies; what’s going to the landfill, and then a picture of all the waste streams (recycling, landfill, compost, etc). With this you can create a pie chart of what’s being diverted and not being diverted. This global picture tells the citizens what’s going on, and acts both as public educational and motivational tools to divert more.

In Austin, a city with a 43% diversion rate for single family households, we did a waste characterization of what was going to the landfill, which was very useful. Austin is better than the national average when it comes to diversion, but not as good as I wanted it to be. This means that 57% of what’s collected at the curb goes to the landfill. Of that material headed to the landfill, it was interesting to see the composition of it. We found that more than 80% of what goes to the landfill can be recycled or composted among the city’s current programs. That means that if residents put the material in the right cart, 80% of what’s going to the landfill will be recovered, in addition to the share that’s already being diverted.

Did that tell you anything about what you need to do to boost those diversion numbers?

Mr. Gedert: That’s precisely the value right there. As we crunch the numbers in the waste characterization study there are some lessons to be learned. Firstly, I look for the largest portions of material that could be captured. For example, in Austin, 25% of what’s going to the landfill from single family households is food waste. That’s a huge chunk! So I went to City Council and said, “here are the numbers from the waste characterization study. Here’s the carbon footprint resulting from all this food waste that generates methane at the landfill uncaptured and unmitigated.” I presented to City Council the option to collect that food waste for Austin’s 200,000 single family households, and the council gave me permission to pursue it, but to come back with the cost numbers, which is what they are concerned with.

The City Council approved it this past September, and the Food Waste Collection Program will begin in June 2017.  When you put a number to the amount of food waste it becomes less of a philosophical conversation and more of a hard reality.

Another, lesson from waste characterization studies is identifying what different types of recyclables are going to the landfill. It gives us target materials, and tells us that we need to change our educational programs to assure those items aren’t ending up in the trash cart.

A lot of U.S. cities, like Austin, New York, and Philadelphia have zero waste goals by 2030, but do you think those goals are attainable? 

Mr. Gedert: If the zero waste goals were for 2020, I don’t think it would be realistic. That’s only 3 years away, and a lot would have to happen. Although, by 2030, I think zero waste goals are realistic. If the public values zero waste, which the numbers tell me they do, and they participate in changing their habits, zero waste can be achieved. It’s important to note that “zero waste” is defined by 90% diversion or more. Personally, I prefer to lean towards 95% diversion or more, which I think is equally achievable.

If you look at Austin, whose 2015 waste characterization study sorted its material into twelve different categories (and I’ve seen other communities sort it out into 25 different categories) you provide detailed data on what’s recyclable and compostable. With an understanding like this, you can get to 90%. Most communities have the processing capacity, not all, but the trick is getting the public motivated to use the right cart.

What is the key element to zero waste if there is one? 

Mr. Gedert: Zero waste is, in fact, more than just recycling and composting. It’s looking at the discards in the waste stream, and eliminating their direction towards the landfill. Some of that is extended producer responsibility (EPR). Manufacturers need to re-design their products from multi-layered mixed material type packaging to single material type packaging that could be captured through recycling/composting. We need end-of-life management by producers that capture that in their pricing strategy, so that it’s less desirable to buy products that are more difficult to recover.

The other component of zero waste that often gets overlooked is reuse. Reuse is underrated, and needs to be a strategy prior to consideration of recycling. A classic example that every community is faced with is retail checkout plastic bags. Technically, they can be recycled into plastic lumber if they’re captured in a clean form, but what would be better for the environment is if every consumer brought in their own reusable bag, and avoided the plastic bags. It’s easier to do this than generate all these plastic bags, and later attempt to capture them.

Recently, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a moratorium nixing the state’s proposed 5 cent plastic bag fee just before it was going to take effect. How difficult is it going to be to change the status quo towards more environmentally-friendly policies? 

Mr. Gedert: It’s an uphill battle. There are plenty of vested interests with money willing to fight against these policies. Usually, it’s investment from an oil industry partner. Although, let’s remember that plastic retail checkout bags were not the norm until the mid to late 70s. If you looked at how society carried their groceries or retail items before this, you’ll see that people used either paper or reusable bags. This was the common consumer habit in the 1960s. People didn’t do it just for the environment, but it was just their habit. There was no expectation of getting a free bag at the checkout counter. Then, all of a sudden, these plastic bags came in, and consumers liked them because they seemed free, and businesses liked them because they carried their logo for free advertising. Later in time, people began to realize the long list of environmental concerns with plastic bags, such as their long-term lives and how wind takes them to places where they are not wanted, like the ocean or a wildlife refuge.

There is an entrenched industry that wants to continue the use of plastic bags. There are two primary arguments to argue against them. When the industry sites the image that plastic bags have always been around, and it’s our American right as consumers to have plastic bags at the checkout counter, we need to counter that by exposing the abnormality of plastic bags in history. It’s only a recent practice. Reusable bags are a product used by our grandparents. The second is to educate the public on the harm to the environment they impose. Natural gas and oil is used to make them, and they impact the environment at the disposal level as well.

I believe that above the environmental factor, is the public convenience factor for consumers. What we did in Austin, was write a city ordinance banning plastic bags based on public input. Generally, the people of Austin favored the plastic bag ban, but we also heard people’s concern. To help the public with the ban we looked at the number one problem that people faced; having their reusable bags in the car and forgetting to bring them into the store. The Austin ordinance requires retailers to put signs in the parking lot to act as a reminder to not forget your plastic bag. Right above the cart corral you’ll have a sign that acts as a nice polite reminder. Retailers still had their doubts, but every retail manager I talked to, after six months, reluctantly agreed that it was working. So really you have two barriers to getting over plastic bags. One:  the interests of the bag manufacturers, and two: the public remembering to bring their own bag.

What are some interesting recycling trends you’ve seen lately, and would you say that recycling participation has been increasing overall?

Mr. Gedert: It depends on the community that you’re talking about. I’ve seen participation as low as 20% in some communities and as high as 90% in others. It directly relates to convenience and communication between the public and their governmental agency. If you look as national trends, right now there is less of a push for recycling than ten years ago. I’m saddened to see that. What’s missing in the public conversation is the impact we’re having on the climate with our waste habits. We spend too much time telling the public we don’t want it in a landfill, and not enough time talking about the environmental effects if we don’t recycle.

If you were ruler of the universe what would you decide to help reduce waste?

Mr. Gedert: I’d love to be in that position (laughs). I would begin to change the vocabulary from “waste management” to “discard management,” and require municipalities to provide discard management services rather than waste management services. I would change the service mix so we’d be honoring the integrity of the discard stream for second use.

What’s some advice you would give to a young professional starting off?

I always value a college education for the ability to learn how to cope in a complex world, although it won’t get you very far in this type of a career. A college education simply gives you an edge in communications and motivation techniques with the public. There isn’t really a particular degree that advances you far in this field. What is really imperative is hands on experience. I speak with authority on my opinions simply, because 40 years ago, I was out there collecting cans and bottles off the street, crushing glass, visiting paper and plastic mills who were converting recycled material. I’ve learned through visiting many facilities and talking about the difficulties of recycling with the various end-users. It’s important for anybody getting into this field to just get your feet wet and observe, as well as to ask questions. One thing I still do to this day, is whenever I’m on vacation, and see a landfill or recycling center, my car drives me there and I take a tour. I see what’s going on and I learn. Get out there and see what’s happening is my advice.

Do you have any recommendations on the numbers side of things?

Mr. Gedert: The data is extremely important. One thing that I’ve learned in my career is to fight the assumptions. Look at the numbers as real, and avoid the assumptions that people often make. An example is the assumption that poor people don’t recycle and that rich people do. Well, that’s not true. When you go out and do cart counts along the curb, the exact opposite is true with more people in low-income neighborhoods taking out their carts just as often or more than their rich counterparts.  In Austin, we found that Spanish speaking neighborhoods has lower set-out rates for recycling than English speaking neighborhoods. The reason this correlation existed was simply because the city never published anything in Spanish about recycling. They have now, after that observation was made, and set-out rates in these areas have improved. Trying to identify cause and effect is nearly impossible, so you have to find the correlations that exist, and carefully draw conclusions from them. It’s important when looking at the statistics to not let the assumptions interfere with the facts. There are a lot of common beliefs that are not true, and can be countered with hard numbers.

An old belief that still exists is that a city has to pick up the trash, and that recycling is optional. Maybe we have the money for recycling collection and maybe we don’t. This is the old waste management philosophy. But if you look from the perspective of a complete collections system, at the lowest cost way to handle what’s out there at the curb, it’s composting and recycling. Not landfilling. You realize this from looking at the holistic cost per household numbers of recycling’s collection and processing cost versus trash’s collection and disposal costs. Recycling comes in cheaper.

Another one of the fallacies out there that’s thrown around is that we always need to pick up the trash, so the collection cost number is oftentimes bypassed. This makes an unfair cost comparison between trash and recycling collection, and recycling seem more costly. A lot of cities do this when they publish their waste data. They don’t add in the collection cost, and only include the disposal cost. In some places, state law requires cities to pick up the trash, so trash collection has become imbedded, and won’t be reported as an addition to the cost formula. It’s not true cost accounting for the trash and recycling comparison. This is why I recommend fighting the assumptions and looking for the facts.

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