With more than 17 years of experience on sustainability initiatives for both governments and the private sector, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton’s (GBB) Jennifer Porter has extensive expertise in solid waste management, recycling and composting program evaluation and development.
Recently promoted to vice president (VP), Porter joined the McLean, Va.-based national solid waste management consulting firm in 2016 as a senior project manager.
“Jennifer has successfully tackled high-visibility, strategic and ambitious projects, which involved multidisciplinary teams and a wide range of stakeholders. She has proven she is up to the challenge,” said GBB President Steve Simmons in a statement. “The combination of her passion for the environment, business acumen and expertise make her a great addition to GBB’s leadership team.”
Waste360 recently sat down with Porter to discuss her career, new role and the key to an effective sustainability plan.
Waste360: Please describe your history with the waste and recycling industry.
Jennifer Porter: I have always been fascinated with waste and recovery, including the design implications to avoid waste in the first place, and finding the most beneficial use for materials. Circular economies, regenerative agriculture, sustainability—these are the systematic ideals that fuel my professional life.
I really enjoy working on solving complex materials problems using a collaborative method with a group of engaged team members. I feel a real urgency to this work and want to make the best use of my next decades of work.
I have a graduate degree in urban and regional planning. I worked in residential collection for the city of Portland, Ore., for a number of years, then for a few nonprofit and private companies back on the East Coast (where I’m from) before landing at GBB in 2016 as a senior project manager.
Waste360: What is your day like as the new VP at GBB?
Jennifer Porter: If I’m not traveling to a client for kickoff meetings or tours, I am likely on the computer, phone or a video conference, managing projects (usually I have three to five active projects at a time) or meeting with internal teams, contractors and client groups. As VP, I’m focusing too on business development in GBB’s target areas—my focus in particular is sustainable business parks, like we are planning in Kent County, Mich.—or mentoring staff.
Waste360: What are you most passionate about in this new role?
Jennifer Porter: More than anything, I appreciate the platform that GBB provides to make a difference in the world. I am linking arms and locking step with my incredible colleagues and our committed clients to see that discarded materials are used as a resource and write the next playbooks to solve our collective waste challenges.
I am relentless about seeking ways to shape a paradigm shift for more communities to look at circular models for waste management over the next three to five decades. As a self-directed leader, I am always seeking opportunities to work with people and communities who are also looking outside the box.
Waste360: What is the key to an effective sustainability plan or initiative?
Jennifer Porter: The combination of vision and influence is how change happens. You can have a municipal leader who has control of a landfill and MRF [materials recovery facility] but doesn’t have a vision for sustainability and is therefore ineffective in leading a team and the community to change. Or, you can have a community with a shared vision for zero waste but no control over materials, production or collection. Without both vision and influence, it’s very hard to make change happen.
Waste360: What is the key to solid waste management and recycling?
Jennifer Porter: Understanding where you are and where you want to go. And making sure your team and community does, too!
Waste360: What is critical in creating a circular economy?
Jennifer Porter: For a circular economy to be born, we need to bring together diverse stakeholders and make sure connections on the manufacturing side are at the table. Forging into uncharted waters with an interested manufacturer who is truly thinking outside the linear “take, make, dispose” model, looking at its supply chain and tying that into the waste processing possibilities in a community is critical for circularity.
For example, the vibrant furniture manufacturing industry in West Michigan is pivotal to the sustainable business park project in Kent County. Those companies are looking for solutions to meet their corporate sustainability goals and that pairs with the county’s goal to reduce waste 90 percent by 2030.
Waste360: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the industry today?
Jennifer Porter: Most prominently, the changes in the international commodity markets are forcing changes felt all the way past the curb and into the home. The entire recycling collection and processing system has felt the reverberations of China’s import ban restrictions and stringency on material quality. I would say that in the end, this will force necessary business development and policy changes domestically, which we will look back on as a turning point for good, despite the short-term pain.
Waste360: How are you tackling those challenges?
Jennifer Porter: With collection being two-thirds the cost of solid waste management on a per-ton basis, I see communities looking at mixed waste collection and processing now in a new way and with renewed vigor. Could diversion be higher with co-collection of all materials at the curb? Are there opportunities to optimize collection routes? Possibly a new look at wet-dry collection might make sense for some communities as existing MRFs age out and new facilities come online.
Waste360: What does the future look like for sustainability in the U.S.?
Jennifer Porter: One implication of the commodity market changes from China’s National Sword policy and constriction in other international recycling markets is that U.S. cities and towns are looking at what they can process easily on their own, or as locally as possible.
Compared to building a MRF, managing organics can be more cost effective, so organics recycling is becoming more attractive at all scales. Urban or rural, many communities can use an aerobic or anaerobic process to create soil nutrients and even heat/power from food scraps, yard waste, compostable paper and other organic wastes without having to ship long distances and incur transport and environmental costs. Organics is a win for communities, for the climate and for soil health.
Waste360: What are you most passionate about in your personal life?
Jennifer Porter: My husband and three kids (8, 6 and 5 years old) are my cornerstones. I try to integrate who I am personally and professionally. I have prioritized reducing waste for my whole life—carrying my own to-go containers, bringing refillable bottles with me, recycling always and rarely have I eaten an apple whose core didn’t find its way to a compost pile at my house or somewhere else. Building soil nutrient value is what it boils down to for me. Better soil means better food and healthier communities.