Susan Robinson, who has been central to shaping Waste Management’s strategy around policy and sustainability for over two decades, had her last day with the company on March 31.
Robinson joined Waste Management in 1999 after working for an environmental nonprofit organization and then the city of Seattle. During her tenure at the nation’s largest hauler and processor, she has been a key link between the company and decision-makers in both the public and private sectors, all during a time of tremendous growth and transformation in recycling.
“I never take for granted that my career has grown as the industry has grown and evolved,” Robinson, who finished her career as Waste Management’s senior director of sustainability and policy, said in an interview with Resource Recycling. “I think I was lucky.”
Seen sector from all sides
Robinson was raised in Olympia, Wash. and remained based in the Pacific Northwest throughout her career.
In 1985, not long after graduating college, she began work for the nonprofit Washington Environmental Council on water quality issues. At that time, the city of Seattle was deciding whether to develop a waste-to-energy facility or to put significant resources into curbside recycling (the curbside approach won out).
WEC was one of a number of advocacy groups engaging on the topic. “That was my first exposure to this industry,” Robinson said.
Around 1988, she took a job with the city of Seattle, initially focusing on multi-family recycling. Not long after that, she became involved in the city’s work to develop a new contract for the long-haul transfer of collected materials.
“I fell in love with the logistics of it,” Robinson said, “from collection, to transfer, to the disposal end of things. It gave me that big picture look and I have always found that to be really interesting.”
By the time Robinson jumped to the private sector in the late-1990s, Seattle was one of a number of West Coast cities that were reshaping the scope of curbside recycling in the United States. Municipalities in California, Oregon and Washington were rolling out local regulations geared toward landfill diversion, often relying on private sector partners to help advance city objectives.
Robinson’s first 12 years at Waste Management were spent working closely with West Coast communities. She said that work prepared her well to take on a bigger corporate role.
“In the early 2000s, so many innovative programs were being implemented,” Robinson said. “So then when the Waste Management national policy position opened up, it was like a match made in heaven. I was able to come in with all the years worth of knowledge of programs and innovative change at a time when it was happening more across the country and the company as well.”
She said she was also aided by the fact she had worked for a municipality, an experience that gave her a deep understanding of the priorities and pressures felt by city officials.
“I think everyone ought to work for both the public and private sector to really get that different perspective,” she noted.
The rise of packaging and policy
Over the last decade, Robinson’s work has become more closely intertwined with the shifting nature of the municipal recycling stream, as well as the evolving definition of sustainability.
She said that around 2011, it became clear to her just how much newspaper and mixed paper were decreasing in prevalence in curbside loads. Those fiber grades were being replaced by packaging materials of all types.
At the same time, communities and other stakeholders started to place more value on metrics other than the weight of diverted materials.
Regulators, brand owners and others began to embrace more holistic, life cycle-based measurements of environmental impacts. And issues of equity and social engagement also became more central to the waste and recycling conversation.
“I was in such an opportune position to grow into the full suite of what sustainability is now,” Robinson said. “That really is about making sure we are taking care of not only the environment but our employees and our communities and doing it safely.”
Over the last several years, industry evolution has been particularly pronounced around policy.
In the wake of China’s National Sword, lawmakers at all levels of government have put more focus on stabilizing the economics of local recycling programs. This emphasis has led to proposals – and, in some cases, bills signed into law – in such areas as recycled content mandates and extended producer responsibility, or EPR (a policy strategy in which product makers are mandated to fund and/or manage the recycling of items they bring to market).
As the national recycling policy voice for Waste Management, Robinson has been very much in the middle of many legislative conversations.
She said local control is a hallmark of waste and recycling decision-making in the U.S., but she also acknowledged that state regulations are an increasingly important part of the picture. And she noted that Waste Management has been ready to engage on this policy evolution.
“We supported the Oregon EPR bill and we’ve been heavily engaged in the language for EPR in Washington state and New York,” she said. “Well-written language that really contemplates the complexity of the industry and recognizes how much investment has been made and the players that have expertise – as long as we can really capture that in the legislation, we can get to a place where we can really be satisfied with that legislation.”
Where does Robinson go from here?
She said her first order of business upon retirement would be a trip to the Oregon coast with her dog and husband. From there, she expects to enjoy more time with her three grandchildren and “a little bit of consulting as well.”
Robinson has been in the middle of an industry in transition. But she also thinks the evolution is ongoing.
“I’m really optimistic about the investments that are being made and the policy being discussed,” she said. “This industry plays a big role in reducing the impact of climate change. There is a lot happening around us helping us to optimize that impact that we can have.”
Look for a full Q&A with Susan Robinson in the May print edition of Resource Recycling. Not a subscriber? Get signed up today.
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