Just like police and fire protection, the regular removal of solid waste is a public service that many Americans take for granted. Most people simply put their garbage out to be picked up and never think about it again. But a new image campaign, called "Environmentalists. Every Day: America's Solid Wastes Industry" and headed by the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), aims to change that and educate people across the country about the essential services provided by their local garbage workers.
"The remarkable thing about our industry is that when trash is collected on schedule, and streets are clean, and there are no threats to public health, no one thinks about us," says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of NSWMA. "On the other hand, because of concerns over climate change, there's increased regulatory and public scrutiny of all industries that generate greenhouse gases, and that includes us because landfills generate methane, and trucks produce emissions. So, we want to educate key audiences that the industry is using innovation to reduce its carbon footprint through recycling, creating renewable energy from landfill gas and conserving natural resources. Bottom line, we are part of the solution — not the problem."
NSWMA's campaign is a grassroots effort to equip waste management companies across the country with tools and resources to educate their communities about the infrastructure and environmental contributions of an often misunderstood and largely ignored industry.
No Time Like the Present
The time is right for a solid waste industry image campaign for a number of reasons, officials say. First, it makes sense to share the industry's commitment to the environment as public awareness of environmental issues is increasing. "Now that everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon, it is important that our industry receive the credit it deserves for being at the frontline of environmental protection and stewardship for decades," says Mary Margaret Cowhey, executive vice president of Park Ridge, Ill.-based Land & Lakes Disposal Services.
"I don't believe our overall company or industry message has changed throughout the years, but I do believe the public's opinion of the vital community services we provide needs to change," adds Mary O'Brien, chief marketing officer at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Advanced Disposal Services. "With the increased focus on environmental stewardship across all sectors [including] citizens, businesses and governments, we believe the public may now be interested in what new efforts, as well as tried-and-true efforts, we have implemented to help promote a cleaner and safer environment for all."
Although the public is more interested in environmental issues than ever before, the current economy has the potential to cripple many efforts to address climate change. Waste management companies, however, have the power to keep the environment a top priority without extra expense. "Given the recent downturn in economic conditions, our industry can help communities to incorporate strong environmental practices into their everyday living [such as recycling]," Cowhey says.
Also as the population and gross domestic product grow, more solid waste is produced. "Thus, the economy couldn't grow without a reliable way to remove trash, and more decision makers are realizing the importance of the industry," Parker says.
From the environment to economics, the reasons for launching an image campaign now are varied. But whatever the impetus, "it's always the right time to tell your story," says Will Flower, vice president of communications for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services. "This industry is full of very humble people, and, in most cases, we don't boast. However, I think it is critical that the public understands the value and the importance of the services we provide … People may not think of us as environmentalists, but no one is a bigger environmentalist than your garbage man or recycler. In many cases, these are individuals that have spent their careers caring for the environment by taking care of society's waste."
The Campaign at a Glance
With the help of a development committee consisting of industry professionals, NSWMA devised its "Environmentalists. Every Day." campaign with three goals in mind, Parker says. They include:
- Building a "bank of goodwill" that can be drawn upon when public support is needed for things such as permitting the construction of a new facility or changing industry regulations.
- Reaching industry employees to instill a sense of pride in their jobs and encourage them to share how they help the environment.
- Increasing the visibility of NSWMA as the voice of the industry and facilitating better industry advocacy.
Because the solid waste industry is ultimately a local industry, a grassroots, localized campaign made the most sense to NSWMA. While the association will pursue some national media, its core strategy is to equip individual companies to conduct outreach and communications programs in their own communities.
To that end, NSWMA created an in-depth toolkit — a 76-page book of ideas and information that can be easily adapted in any community — to be distributed to all its members. (The toolkit also can be downloaded on the campaign's Web site, www.EnvironmentalistsEveryDay.org.) The toolkit includes a sample PowerPoint presentation and script that can be used to make presentations to community groups about what happens to trash after it leaves the curb. It also includes lunchroom posters to help educate solid waste employees about the environmental impacts of their work. The kit also provides a number of options for participating in the campaign that can be implemented individually or collectively, such as speaking to community groups, including a campaign message as part of email signatures or working with local media to secure press coverage.
In November 2008, NSWMA mailed toolkits to its 636 members. During the coming months, the association plans to conduct regional training sessions to educate members on how to use the toolkit and put the campaign into action.
The Campaign in Action
Each waste management company will implement the ideas in the toolkit in its own way, to meet the needs of its local communities. NSWMA recommends that each company establish one person as its campaign leader. While some companies will use "Environmentalists. Every Day." to begin communicating about their environmental impact, others will incorporate the campaign into their existing programs.
"As a service provider in a community, it's vital to be actively involved in that community," Flower says. "Our company has tried for years to present ourselves as experts on solid waste issues. This campaign gives us added tools to enhance that message and to have a consistent message throughout the entire country. And there is a great deal of interest. People are interested in finding out what happens to their solid waste, what happens to their recyclables and what they can do to be good stewards of the environment."
At Advanced Disposal, the company has already redesigned its Web site (www.advanceddisposal.com) "to mirror the message [of the NSWMA campaign] and convey the work that we do," O'Brien says. In addition to developing the new site, Advanced is actively identifying opportunities to share the campaign's messages with political and business organizations and citizen groups. It also invites community groups to tour its disposal and recycling facilities "to teach them that there is nothing to fear from properly managed landfills and processing centers," O'Brien says.
Land & Lakes also will use the campaign as a "springboard" for its own public relations campaign, Cowhey says. "We will be making major expenditures in the coming months to expand the basic toolkit provided by the NSWMA into a broader public relations program in our communities," she says.
The tools and resources provided by the campaign can be used by companies of all sizes, but they are especially helpful for smaller companies. For instance, Waste Management, the largest provider in the industry, has its own "Think Green" public relations campaign. "But the industry is made up of hundreds of players, many of them small, that do not have their own campaigns," says Lynn Brown, vice president of communications for Waste Management. "This is one way for the association to enlist their help in telling the industry story."
Before launching their campaigns, haulers should remember that residents and local leaders are more likely to buy in to the story if the company appears to practice what it preaches. "If your trucks are out there and haven't been washed in six months, have never been painted, and leak hydraulic fluid on the street, it's hard to talk about what a clean company you have," Flower says. "It's about making sure your actions match your words."
Looking for Results
As is typical for educational campaigns, "Environmentalists. Every Day." isn't expected to yield overnight results. "The program is funded for the next three to four years," Parker says. "We don't expect to move the needle in the first year."
To see how far the needle does move over the next few years, NSWMA conducted an Internet survey before starting the campaign, which established a benchmark of public opinion. The association will measure results based on the number of hits received on the campaign Web site, the number of speaking engagements, articles written about campaign messages and the number of contacts received from the media, especially environmental journalists, Parker says.
Company officials have their own objectives for the campaign. "My personal hope is that every American will, first, learn what happens to their waste, and, second, appreciate what Waste Management and others do to protect and enhance the environment," Brown says.
"I would love [for] the general public to appreciate how hard our industry works on their behalf day in, day out, in every kind of weather conditions to improve the environment for our customers," Cowhey says. "The garbage man is a very underrated member of the green movement."
While the campaign is new, the principles it hopes to communicate have been part of the industry for a long time, officials say. "Being environmentally aware is nothing new for the solid waste industry," O'Brien says. "Our companies and our employees have been working diligently ensuring clean communities for all, whether it is in the collection business, the transportation business, the recycling business or the landfill business. A clean environment is not a trend — it's our business."
Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer based in Florence, Ala.