2016 Waste360 40 Under 40
Gena McKinley

The City of Austin's McKinley Hones in on Zero Waste

Waste360 recently spoke with McKinley about her waste and recycling background and the challenges of working toward zero waste.

Gena McKinley, zero waste program manager for the City of Austin and Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient, switched out her medical school career path for public health and eventually found herself in the waste and recycling industry.

McKinley is committed to helping the City of Austin hit its goal of becoming a zero waste city by 2040. Her creative efforts to implement ordinances and programs have made her a leader in her community. In addition to her role with the city, she also serves as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem for CASA of Travis County, a mentor to school children and participates in the Solid Waste Association of North America's (SWANA) Young Professionals Group. McKinley took home another award this year at SWANApalooza when she won second place in the 5K event.

"Gena is an accomplished professional who is admired by both her peers and her team members," says City of Austin Public Information and Marketing Manager Emlea Chanslor. "She provides encouragement to those around her and has an infectious smile and energy. She is committed to innovation and problem solving. She also has a knack for generating creative ideas and is sought out for brainstorming and leading creative processes."

Waste360 recently spoke with McKinley about her waste and recycling background, the challenges of working toward zero waste and some things that she would like to see change in the waste and recycling industry.

Waste360: Tell us a little bit about your background in waste and recycling.

Gena McKinley: I have been working in the field of waste for almost a decade. I have a graduate degree in public health from the University of Texas School of Public Health and undergraduate degrees in both biology and sociology from Southwestern University. I originally planned to go to medical school, but became more interested in prevention of disease versus treatment. To explore that interest, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the field of public health. That confirmed my interest and led me to graduate school to pursue my master’s degree in public health.

During graduate school, I took an internship with a regional planning agency, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), where I worked on a number of community and environmental planning projects. During my internship, there was a job available as a solid waste planner. I was hired onto the team and my career in the world of waste began.

H-GAC served a large and geographically diverse 13-county area. I worked with both urban and rural areas. It was interesting to see so much variety in the way waste was managed and the types of services that were provided to the different communities. For example, some cities had many services in place with community drop-off centers and curbside collection services, where other communities had very little. I worked with a county commissioner to build his county's first recycling center.

Working at H-GAC helped me learn a tremendous amount about waste management because I worked with so many different types of communities.

Waste360: What does your role as zero waste program manager entail?

Gena McKinley: My role as zero waste program manager falls within the City of Austin's Strategic Initiatives Division. In late 2011, our City Council adopted a master plan with the goal to reach zero waste by 2040. My team is responsible for implementing new programs and policies outlined in that plan.

We are the team that explores and tests new ideas for achieving zero waste. We administer pilot projects and work with community stakeholders to develop policies to direct more materials to recycling, composting or reuse.

Waste360: What is the hardest thing about working toward zero waste?

Gena McKinley: We recently conducted a community-wide diversion rate study, which found that the city only directly controls approximately 15 percent of the materials that we generate in the city. That leaves approximately 85 percent of materials that we don't control directly.

My team influences that 85 percent through other means such as public policy. We are fortunate to have a community that generally embraces zero waste. Given the lack of control over a large portion of materials, achieving zero waste will require partnerships and developing an understanding of the importance of zero waste to achieve our goals together as a community.

Waste360: What are the City of Austin's goals for this year?

Gena McKinley: In November 2015, our City Council adopted the Construction and Demolition Recycling Ordinance, which goes into effect October 1, 2016. We are preparing for the implementation of that ordinance and seeing it through its first year.

The City's Universal Recycling Ordinance will begin phasing in organics diversion requirements this October. Currently, the ordinance requires all businesses and multifamily properties to recycle. Starting on October 1, businesses with food permits will also be responsible for implementing organics diversion.

We are also considering expansion of our residential curbside services, which currently reach nearly 200,000 customers. Right now, customers receive weekly trash and yard trimmings pickup plus every other week recycling pickup. We are currently administering a pilot program with an additional cart for expanded organics collection. To reach our zero waste goal, we intend to expand organics collection to the entire community, as well as move recycling from every other week to weekly. It will take some time to work out the details, but we are hopeful to begin expanding some services in the next year. 

Waste360: What is something you would like to see change in the waste and recycling industry?

Gena McKinley: One of my pet peeves is when businesses or events offer and advertise materials as compostable, but then don't offer opportunities for that material to be diverted from the landfill. For example, an eatery may provide compostable plates or other serviceware to patrons, but only have trash and recycling bins to dispose of items at the end of the meal. As an industry, we are influencing others to use green products, but some businesses and events aren't seeing the concept through to the end of a product's life.

We need to shift the way we talk about waste. Rather than seeing materials as waste, we should talk about materials as resources. When you change the terminology, you change the paradigm. In the City of Austin, we try not to use the world waste unless it's prefaced by the word 'zero.'

To help shift the paradigm, the City of Austin changed the name of the Solid Waste Services Department. The department is now called Austin Resource Recovery.

Waste360: What words of wisdom would you give to the next generation of waste and recycling industry workers?

Gena McKinley: Stick with it, and keep putting out ideas that are innovative and maybe a little crazy. Do not throw out the crazy ideas! Write them down and think them through because something may actually come out of those ideas.

The waste industry has seen a lot of changes over the past decade, and I think it's positioned for a lot of change in the near future. For us to be successful and to continue with a goal of creating a sustainable world, I think it's going to require some innovation and ideas from our youth to help us get there.

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