John Trujillo is likely the only public works director of a major metropolis who boasts a stint mining turquoise and gold. And he will tell you his mining days helped shaped who he is today. He’s also learned more along his decades long climb from managing small town landfills to leading waste operations for all of Phoenix.
“I saw the evolution from throwing everything away, to burning garbage, to terminating subtitle D landfills [sites with no lining or gas collection systems] that radically changed how landfills operate,” Trujillo says. “As far as recycling, we weren’t doing it at all in the community where I began. By the time I started with Phoenix in 2002, we serviced approximately 320 thousand customers using a one-man automated system for recycling. Today, we service 394 thousand using sophisticated technology to collect and process 110,000 tons of recyclables a year.”
Trujillo spoke with Waste360 to discuss what has changed in the solid waste space. He shares his take on the power of partnerships. And he sheds light on how his agency became about a lot more than dealing with trash.
Waste360: Describe how you have grown and your leadership philosophy.
John Trujillo: When I started my first job with Gila County, I was an inexperienced engineer after having begun as a laborer mining turquoise, then gold. Because I grew up in a small community and worked in one I understand the importance of being part of it. I got an understanding of what the labor force goes through when serving residents. Here in Arizona they work in 113 degrees picking up 500 tons a day of construction debris and green organics.
Having started in a small county with limited budgets, I learned that a good leader needs to recognize all employees’ value and … bring everyone together as a team. I have also been privileged to have great mentors that continue to help me improve my leadership skills.
Waste360: What were your main focuses when you came to Phoenix?
John Trujillo: After I learned how the solid waste program functioned, I could focus on improvements to be more efficient, especially in collections. I listened to employees’ ideas, and one improvement that came of this was to find a way to collect garbage and recycling on the same day versus separate days. We converted approximately 385,000 customers without major customer issues and saved the city approximately $1.2 million.
Waste360: How are you faring in the rough commodities market?
John Trujillo: Like other recycling programs, our revenues have decreased. However, the city is focused on being a good steward of our resources. And we are faring okay because we own landfill, transfer stations and MRFs and do our residential collections, so we are not at the mercy of the private sector [to negotiate]. Because we control our destiny we can improve existing programs and create new ones focused, not just on economics, but social and environmental benefits.
Waste360: I understand Public Works partners with the mayor and multiple stakeholders. What has come from these partnerships?
John Trujillo: The mayor and council created sustainability goals, including zero waste by 2050. Our programs are structured toward achieving these goals. For instance, the Reimagine Phoenix initiative [to improve education and create partnerships] resulted from a collaboration between the mayor, council, Arizona State University (ASU) and the Public Works department to reach zero waste by 2050.
Recently, the mayor [with other stakeholders] and Public Works worked on a resolution at the Conference of Mayors to develop a nationwide network of cities to reduce food waste. Our resolution will provide a model enabling cities to develop and share best practices.
Waste36o: Can you describe your work with Arizona State University to pump innovation?
John Trujillo: The city and ASU created the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN), public and private partners to create economic value and drive a circular economy. RISN partnerships cultivate cutting edge research and development opportunities to advance waste diversion. RISN, operated by ASU, will manage an on-site technology incubator for innovators developing products and technologies from the city’s waste resources.
Waste360: Describe what has changed, and the culture of the agency you run today
John Trujillo: The real catalyst to change within our agency is development of working relationships with public agencies, institutions, private sector and businesses. Through our focus on economic development we partnered with our community and the economic development department to fund a position to support Public Works that focuses on creating entrepreneurs, jobs and businesses.
We have become a recognized leader, not only in the solid waste industry, but in economic development through creation of jobs.