Waste Management Municipal and Community Relations Manager Russell Hightower has used his government relation skills to land a career in the waste and recycling industry, started curbside recycling programs for nine municipalities in South Carolina and Georgia within the past five years and most recently earned a Waste360 40 Under 40 award.

Hightower has been in the industry for nine years now, and he sees technology as a valuable tool for the future of waste and recycling. Hightower is also an active member of both the Solid Waste Association of North America and the National Waste and Recycling Association, where he serves on the board for the Carolinas Chapter.

“Russell’s razor sharp ability to connect with elected officials serves him well as he works across the aisles with officials from all parties to secure numerous contracts,” says Waste Management Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief Legal Officer Barry Caldwell. “His strategic thinking about votes, community involvement and long-range planning has helped him become a tactical leader in our industry. Russell’s relentless pursuit to conquer challenges is unmatched. His approach is open-minded and not always conventional, but usually produces results. He solves problems, connects with people, provides solutions and represents our company and industry as well as anyone.”

Waste360 recently spoke with Hightower about how he got his start in the waste and recycling industry, how the industry has changed over the years and what he would like to see more of in the industry.

Waste360: When did you learn that you wanted to become part of the waste and recycling industry?

Russell Hightower: It was not on purpose, which I am sure is the case for a lot of people. I was a lobbyist at the State House of South Carolina, and I was doing some government affairs work there when I was approached by Waste Management. Waste Management was looking for someone to sharpen its skills in the government relations arena, and I was hired as a local government representative for municipal management and sales. It was the luck of the draw, and I had never really thought about the waste and recycling business prior to that.

I took the position because I loved the guy who hired me, and he convinced me that Waste Management was a great company to work for and that the waste and recycling industry was a great industry to work in. My government relation skills brought me to the industry and to Waste Management, and I have been with them for nine years now.

Waste360: What are some of the biggest challenges that the industry is facing right now?

Russell Hightower: I have found that whenever I am out in communities talking to people, a lot of people want to do things that are not financially or politically feasible. I always let people know that they need to communicate with their elected officials to make sure that everything comes together both financially and politically.

Over the years, citizens in every town and county that I have worked with have started to understand the importance of selling recycling to their elected officials. But in the last 10 years, the local governments have been really strapped when it comes to budgeting and many citizens are demanding no new taxes or fees for recycling and garbage programs. The challenge with this is that both the government and the industry are forced with the task of coming up with creative ways to give citizens the services they want without increasing fees.

Both citizens and elected officials alike understand the value and importance of recycling, but many times it’s more expensive to recycle items than it is to send them to landfill. It’s important for us as an industry to have this conversation with elected officials and citizens so that we can all come up with a process that works for everyone. We need to tell our story and help them understand the world of waste and recycling.

Waste360: How have you seen the industry change and what is your focus for this year?

Russell Hightower: When I first started off in the industry at Waste Management, a lot of the municipal customers didn’t have recycling. Since then, things have really changed with me being in South Georgia and South Carolina. The biggest change I have seen is that recycling is finally starting to become mainstream in the South. Transitioning customers to implement our recycling programs has been the biggest challenge, but people are starting to value and accept recycling.

We are currently working on implementing additional technology into the company, which includes adding cameras, computers and tablets into all of our trucks. While technology helps those in our industry, it also helps customers, and we are really starting to build systems around the customers’ needs.

Waste360: What are you most proud of in your career thus far?

Russell Hightower: When I was in college for my undergrad, I applied for an internship at the BMW Manufacturing Co. in Spartanburg, S.C., which was a big deal to the State of South Carolina at the time. I actually landed the internship, and that internship turned into numerous semesters of interning for them. Several semesters, they would call me, and I would go back and intern for them.

It was a pivotal learning experience for me because I was roughly 20 years old, and I was working with a great company in the real world. I was able to learn the ropes and master a few different things, which I am very proud of. That internship helped me change my undergrad stance because I was getting up and going to work at 4 a.m.

That was one of the most important moments in my career because that internship helped me make the decision of switching my major from finance to industrial management.  I was also able to put that internship on my resume, which helped me gain attention after school.

When you are young, you think you’re on the right career path, but most people realize after graduation that they actually made a mistake. I always tell people to take advantage of internships because mine was such a pivotal experience for me.

In addition to that, I would also have to say the day that I married my wife, and the day that I received the Circle of Excellence award from Waste Management in 2011.

Waste360: What would you like to see more of in the waste and recycling industry?

Russell Hightower: I would like to see more technology because that’s where my heart is. The developers are pushing it out there, but our industry is still behind other major industries when it comes to technology. We are getting there as an industry, but I want our industry to use technology as a toolkit to solve a lot of the challenges we face.  Waste Management has been a leader in the technology space in our industry, and we are heading in the right direction by implementing more technology every day, with a focus on service and a focus on the customer.

The issues vary in every state, community and region, and improving the industry’s technology infrastructure to help the average citizen and the average customer is something we’re focused on at Waste Management.  Customers want and expect a technology solution to solve many of their problems and answer many of their questions, and as an industry, we need to provide those solutions.