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Morgan Connects Austin, Texas, Businesses to Minimize Landfill Waste

The Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner discusses Austin’s initiatives to help businesses and residents recycle, reuse and rethink how they manage waste.

As the Conservation Program Coordinator with the city of Austin, Texas, Austin Resource Recovery, Madelyn Morgan has gained a reputation for being both creative and strategic when it comes to working with businesses to find solutions that will keep materials out of Austin’s landfills.

She helped revamp the city’s Zero Waste Business Rebate, which included redesigning the program to increase applications by 230 percent and resulted in more than $75,000 in rebates being awarded to more than 50 businesses. She also helped develop the Zero Waste Professional Certificate Program.

Morgan was recently named a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner. She spoke to Waste360 about Austin’s initiatives designed to help businesses and residents recycle, reuse and rethink how they manage waste and why she feels like the waste industry is the place to be.

Waste360: What are some of your major responsibilities in your position with Austin Resource Recovery?

Madelyn Morgan: I’m part of our Circular Economy Program, which is a program that has a role in Austin Resource Recovery but also a role in the Economic Development Department. We primarily focus on supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs who interface in the circular economy sector. That is anyone or any business involved with reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, composting, the sharing economy, repair—all of those things and more. We provide them with resources, try to connect them with the right people and just generally help them to both maintain and grow their businesses.

We also have an element of recruitment involved in our teams where we try to attract businesses to Austin through the economic development lens and to help supplement gaps on our transition toward a more circular economy.

Austin does have a goal to reach zero waste by 2040, which means diverting 90 percent of all material from landfill by 2040. In supporting these businesses, we have several different programs like [Re]Verse Pitch, which is a social entrepreneurship program where companies with byproduct waste materials pitch their material and entrepreneurs come up with a business-oriented solution for that material, and there is prize money that is awarded. I help a little bit with that.

I help manage a contract that oversees our Austin Materials Marketplace, which is a business-to-business online platform to collect one business’ waste in hopes of it becoming input for another business. It’s like a materials exchange platform.

I am also very heavily involved with our reuse sector, coordinating programs like our Move Out ATX program. That is a student moveout program for the off-campus area of the University of Texas at Austin.

Also, I am in charge of a project called Material of the Year. This year is our pilot year, but essentially we’re trying to map out a five-year outlook on materials, where each year, we will be focusing on a specific material that is hard to recycle and trying to bring stakeholders together to find outlets for keeping that material out of the landfill. This year’s pilot item was business textiles.

Waste360: How does the student moveout program work?

Madelyn Morgan: In 2016 and 2017, I was in charge of our Zero Waste Business Rebate Program and helped revamp that. I attended the University of Texas and lived in this off-campus area and was kind of aware of the large amount of material that was thrown away at the end of each July just because there is no convenient outlet to donate your stuff. It ends up in the dumpsters.

In 2016 and 2017, I reached out to a couple of apartments and said, “Have you thought about doing something during summer moveouts? We have this zero waste business rebate if you're eligible.” Turns out they didn't need money from the rebate because it was free to work with a reuse organization to put containers in their lobby for them to collect material.

From those two pre-pilot years, we were able to collect data and pictures and document how bad the problem was. It was data on the potential amount of material that could be saved from the landfill and put back to work in our local economy.

Last summer, we had three drop-off stations throughout the off-campus area for a five-and-a-half-day event, where we had eight reuse organizations and community volunteers staffing those stations. Through that drop-off station program, I believe we collected about 25 or 30 tons of material. Then through other programs throughout the summer before that drop-off station event, we diverted another 30 tons. The total was 62 tons of material kept out of landfill through just this proactive engagement of the community.

This year, we are doing something very similar. We are expanding the number of drop-off stations but minimizing the footprints of those stations because last year the stations were a little bit more event oriented, if you will. This year is more bare bones. Hopefully, it will capture more material, and we are expanding our area of capture.  

Waste360: How does the Material of the Year program work?

Madelyn Morgan: The Material of the Year is where we focus on one material, and this year was business textiles. We are trying to better understand what volume of that material is going to the landfill, which is tricky to figure out.

Our process this year was gathering stakeholders from various sectors like hotels, gyms, reuse organizations, retailers, schools, screen printers, dry cleaners—anyone we envision touching textiles in large quantity. We learned more about what their practices are, and we held a meeting where we tried to get the stakeholders from these various industries into a room together.

We had an open dialogue on their biggest challenges. We asked, “How can you guys work together and brainstorm potential solutions?” And from those solutions, we're trying to work on a couple of them.

We are also in the process of ranking which materials to work on for the next five years. We are developing a matrix, based on the amount and how feasible it is to do something with this material, and what is being done with it in other parts of the country or the world. What are the challenges to getting it to the market and that kind of thing. We are trying to see if we can help develop a solution, be it an economic incentive or just connecting businesses to try and keep that material out of the landfill.

Waste360: What advice might you give to a young person who is thinking of starting a career in the waste industry?

Madelyn Morgan: I think because it’s so ripe for change, especially here in the United States and especially in some of the even smaller communities, that there is really an opportunity to make a mark. I think it is a great time to be in the industry.

I think the biggest selling point would be that there is an opportunity for you to make it what you wish and kind of capitalize on carving out something unique.

I will say, too, that in this field, especially on the recycling and zero waste side, from what I’ve experienced, everyone is very open about sharing ideas and working together. We communicate all the time with other cities and other institutions that are working toward this goal of zero waste or of a circular economy.

There is a lot of fostering ideas together and brainstorming, and everybody wants to help. We are all going toward the same mission, and we can’t get there without working together. It is a very supportive community.

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