As the zero waste coordinator for the city of Phoenix Public Works Department, Lucas Mariacher manages a diverse range of education programs, outreach events, tours and business recognition programs, all designed to inform and engage the Phoenix community.
Mariacher, who started his career as a recycling truck driver while studying at Arizona State University, was recently named as a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner. He spoke with Waste360 about his work to help Phoenix meet its ambitious zero waste goals.
Waste360: What are some of the outreach and education programs that you manage?
Lucas Mariacher: There are really three components. There are presentations for schools, colleges and business communities. We do all sorts of presentations, almost every day of the year.
We do community events. We get requests to have a booth and a table and talk about the programs we offer to residents.
The third component is the free tours of the materials recovery facility and our transfer stations. Those are open to the public. We do those every week of the year on Thursdays. I think that is one of the most important [things we do] because it is very effective in terms of getting residents to understand why things are recyclable, why certain things aren’t recyclable and the time it takes to sort recyclables.
We educate about 20,000 people a year, with just my team of five specialists. We are a big city. We are the fifth largest city in the county, so there is a lot to do. The job is never over; there is always more education you can do.
Waste360: What is the Phoenix Green Business Leader Program, and what are some of its goals?
Lucas Mariacher: About two years ago, our previous director was really interested in educating the business community. Although the business community is not necessarily our customer, it doesn’t mean we can’t help them and support them with education. He devised a plan, and he tasked me with developing the plan and implementing it. What grew out of that two years ago was the Phoenix Green Business Leader Program.
It is a recognition program for the business community, specifically the businesses that are taking on sustainability initiatives. One of the biggest things is they have to have recycling. How it works is that we will do a 30-minute site visit at the business and mark off action items they are completing. If they hit a certain amount of those items, then they are certified.
What we want businesses to get out of this program is to understand that they have a resource at the city—completely free. When they are certified, they can call on us to ask for something as simple as bin labels to put on their recycling and trash cans. They can also call on us to come out and do a tailored training, specific to the waste they create at their business. We also do free tours of our transfer stations, just like our residents receive. Then, we recognize them once a year with our mayor and city council.
We are looking at other benefits to add to the program. It’s only the first year and half, and now we have 55 certified businesses.
Waste360: You manage zero waste programs. Can you talk about how that fits into Phoenix’s larger zero waste goals?
Lucas Mariacher: We have our 40 by 20 goal, which is our public goal to divert 40 percent of the waste in Phoenix, specifically the waste that the city of Phoenix hauls, from the landfill by 2020. We are at around a 30 to 33 percent diversion rate at this time.
Then, we have a long-term goal of zero waste by 2050. At this time, it is more of a visionary zero waste goal. How I fit into that is I provide the education component—the public-facing education side—and I also help each of our different solid waste divisions seek out programs [that could be adapted to Phoenix].
I look at a lot of the cities that have similar landscapes to us—whether that is political or climate—then I try to see: a) is that program working in that city?; b) is it helping increase the diversion rate?; and c) is it feasible to think that we could replicate the program design in Phoenix? I think if my management were to say what I did for them, I would hope they would say that I help them find solutions.
Waste360: You have been described as someone who helps to empower residents and businesses in the city to increase recycling participation. How do you do this?
Lucas Mariacher: My job is to make recycling easy, to make it consistent and to make sure that no matter where you go in Phoenix, the language and the content that we put out is unified so that we have a unified message with a single call to action for our residents.
We have also tried to give more opportunities to the public to be involved; we have done more events than we have ever done, we have done more tours than we have ever done and we have done more presentations than we have ever done.
[Last year], we created an annual lecture series to talk about our diversion goals and also to bring in a well-known speaker. The coolest thing about the event was that the 100 or 150 people who showed up to the event we have never seen before, ever. The people who showed up to the event are interested in this, but they don’t really get involved in some of the stuff that we do. We are trying to give them more opportunities to be involved.
Right now, the national media has been very negative about recycling. China has clamped down, but I think things are OK. Commodity prices are trending up. If we can do anything as a municipality, it should be to reinforce the message that recycling is OK, and these trends go down and up. And that here, in Phoenix, we are always going to have recycling, and we are always going to do our best to try and make it an easy program for our residents to participate in.