Jennifer Milner leads the charge for recycling across Mississippi, where she serves as the state recycling coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Milner executes outreach and education by going out on the road and speaking to residents, local governments and businesses in the state’s 82 counties. She builds awareness, fosters partnership development and works to reduce barriers and improve access to recycling.
Earlier this year, Milner was named a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner. We recently sat down with Milner, who discusses why she works so hard to make recycling a priority in her home state.
Waste360: What are some of your major responsibilities at MDEQ?
Jennifer Milner: I am the state recycling coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and I also manage the recycling and waste reduction branch, which is myself and the assistant recycling coordinator. We are within the waste division of the department. Our main goal is very simple: it’s just to increase recycling in Mississippi.
We go about that several different ways. We offer grants to local governments. We’re working on a rather large grant program right now, the Regional Recycling Cooperative Grant. The goal of that funding is to encourage local governments within a region of the state to work together.
In Mississippi, a rural state, collection and transportation of materials is a challenge, and it can be costly, especially to some of our smaller cities and counties. Also, we have low landfill tip fees in Mississippi, which is another challenge. This grant program provides funding to encourage local governments to work together and to help alleviate some of the costs associated with collection and transportation and to hopefully grow stronger programs.
We do a lot of outreach. We work with teachers on how to teach recycling to their students. We also do events during the school year where we speak with students. We speak to local clubs and at conferences. We will talk about the benefits of recycling—the economic benefits and environmental benefits—and address some of the myths about recycling and answer questions.
We also reach out to our local government folks, because they are really our folks on the ground. We help them with events and talk with their elected officials, if need be, to encourage them to continue recycling programs, to start recycling programs and tell them how to increase participation and decrease contamination.
We also work on measuring recycling in the state, which we have not done up to this point. We do have a statewide waste reduction goal. We have been working with the folks at Emerge Knowledge with their Re-TRAC Connect software and the municipal measurement program.
Waste360: With some of the outreach and education that you're doing around the state, what are some misconceptions that you've had to help to dispel, or how have you worked to train people around why recycling is important or how to do it properly?
Jennifer Milner: I’ve been in the Solid Waste Group for about eight years. When I first came into the Solid Waste Group, I had limited knowledge about recycling. I just thought you recycle because it’s good for the environment. But upon getting into this group at MDEQ and working with the other organizations that we work with, I learned that it’s also good for the economy. I did not realize that before.
That is sort of our messaging, and that’s something that everybody can really get behind. Not that everybody shouldn’t get behind helping the environment, but that’s kind of a big idea, and it’s not easy for people to understand sometimes. We definitely talk about the environmental benefits, but we have focused on the economic benefits as well that maybe some folks don’t know about, and we try to help people understand how that is a benefit of recycling.
There have been some market challenges on recycling. We’ve seen, obviously, the situation in China. We know we have had some negative press here recently about recycling and the challenges.
Our mission has really been to work with the experts, work with those other recycling organizations, let people know what the facts are and what the actual benefits of recycling are and that these are ideas that are really not going anywhere. Markets are going to go up and down, but our messaging to the public and our local governments has been to just hang in there. The markets will rebound.
Waste360: How did you find your way to the solid waste industry?
Jennifer Milner: I got a degree in biology from the University of Mississippi. I worked at an environmental laboratory for a couple of years, and then I worked at MDEQ’s laboratory running water samples and soil samples.
I would say probably my passion for recycling really started the first time I went to a landfill. Once I came to the Solid Waste Group, I took a trip with one of my coworkers to a landfill, and I was just instantly moved. Not what you would expect when you go to a landfill, but I was just like, 'whoa, we have to do something about this.' I just kind of made up my mind to recycle, and I decided I was going to encourage everybody I know to recycle.
When the state recycling coordinator position came open, it just seemed like a natural fit, and I was fortunate enough to be able to have the opportunity to have that position.
Waste360: As a young person in the industry, what would you say to other young people who may not consider a career in the waste management industry?
Jennifer Milner: I definitely never thought this is what I would be doing, but I would just say that there are so many aspects to the waste industry. I think there’s really something for everyone, no matter if you are someone who likes to talk to a lot of folks and get out in the field and travel, or if you like to look at permits and do more of the engineering aspects of it. Whatever your passion is and whatever your strengths are, there is something in the waste industry for you. And the people in this industry are just great people to work with, too.
Waste360: Is there anything I didn't ask you about that you would like to share or something new that you're about to roll out that you want to talk about?
Jennifer Milner: I was really proud to get this award and represent Mississippi. I'm hoping that awards like this and recognition like this will kind of shine a light on Mississippi and let others in the industry know across the country that in Mississippi and the Southeast, we are very passionate about recycling here, we love our state, we love all of the wonderful things in our environment and we want to conserve our environment and our natural resources. Mississippians are very passionate about where they live and want to preserve it.