Jeff Meyers always knew he was meant to work in the sustainability field. He has been the chief operating officer (COO) of The Recycling Partnership for more than four years now. Before that role, he was the sustainability manager for BP and worked in sustainable packaging at Coca-Cola.
But it’s through his position at The Partnership that Meyers can accomplish the “boots on the ground” type of work that he feels matters most. During his time there, he has led work with the organization’s funding partners, educating corporate America on the critical role in supporting community recycling programs. As COO, Meyers focuses on making sure the organization runs as efficiently as possible so it can positively impact more communities.
“Jeff has really pushed The Recycling Partnership to be a trusted friend of both our corporate partners and our community colleagues,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership. “His analytical assessments bring rigor to our data, confidence to our approach and a caring heart to our work and relationships. During his time with The Recycling Partnership, he’s helped lead the organization to reach hundreds of communities, improving recycling for millions of Americans.”
We recently sat down with Meyers, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, to discuss his career path in sustainability, the importance of design for recycling and his goals for the organization heading into 2020.
Waste360: Please discuss your previous roles in sustainable packaging at Coca-Cola and as a sustainability manager at BP and how they led you to The Recycling Partnership.
Jeff Meyers: My sustainability journey started with a close friend who gave me a book about Ray Anderson, a business person in the Greater Atlanta area who started a company called Interface. The company sells carpet squares to businesses and as they wear out, the company collects all those carpet squares and remanufactures them. The book is about his journey, but what I realized in Ray’s journey is that maybe there is a different way to do business that doesn’t involve selling a bunch of products that have one life. And that maybe instead of using my engineering background to make a bunch of new things, I should instead focus on getting [the products] back for a second life. That was a lightbulb moment for me.
I was at BP, which makes plastics, and said, “I’m going to see if I can influence a major oil company to start taking a journey down this road of thinking about reuse or recycling and really kind of buck the trend.” It was really exciting, and they gave me a lot of opportunities to really shape their agenda in this space and to be very progressive, which I loved.
It got to the point where I wanted to go try to work for a brand as well and see if I could make an even bigger change. If you could influence a major brand, like Coca-Cola, and get that Fortune 50 company to change their trajectory, you can have a huge impact in the world.
So, I left BP and went to Atlanta and joined Coke to work on sustainable packaging and things like recyclability and recycling to try and push them to a whole new place. Coke decided to make some investments in a few different groups, like The Recycling Partnership, the Closed Loop Fund and others, to help promote recycling and drive the national narrative around that. I was on the board of The Recycling Partnership, and I left Coke and joined The Partnership so that I could pursue the work I loved doing full time—which was the boots on the ground, real action focused, national change kind of stuff—and do that in a really powerful, collaborative way.
Waste360: As chief operating officer for The Recycling Partnership, how are you able to ensure operations run as efficiently as possible?
Jeff Meyers: When we talk about operations, that means a few different things. One is there are internal processes that must be done correctly and done well. As we’ve built the organization, we’ve basically had to implement those types of operational processes just to make sure people know what they’re doing, what their responsibilities are and that the processes are in place to get everything done efficiently and quickly.
We have a number of different tools we use and software platforms. What I love about The Partnership is it’s small enough that if we find something is just not firing on a full cylinder, we can immediately go look at what the best-in-class companies are doing and talk to our funding partners, like Amazon.com and others. We can find out what they’re doing and, in a month, have a whole new system to implement. We don’t have a lot of resistance to change, and I love that because it’s a collaborative culture that values excellence and is willing to be flexible to achieve that excellence.
Waste360: Please discuss the importance of design for recycling, particularly in today’s recycling climate.
Jeff Meyers: The role of design for packaging is critical. I think more and more of what we’re seeing is brands are innovating with their packaging, not only to try to lightweight and reduce their footprint but also to attract consumers’ attention and to differentiate themselves. What we’re seeing is a rapid evolution in the design of packaging and what’s being put out in the marketplace and how the recycling industry, despite how innovative it tries to be, is struggling to keep up with the pace of change.
We’re seeing the explosion of flexibles. If you go down the grocery aisle for cereal, there are more pouches for granola covering the whole aisle and those didn’t really exist a few years ago. So, we’re seeing a pretty rapid evolution, and if we don’t get it right up front when we start or get it into a format that is easy to handle for the industry and recoverable, we are just going to see more and more packaging go to landfill, and that is really a waste from our perspective.
Waste360: Can you discuss The Recycling Partnership’s Circular Economy Roadmap and its significance?
Jeff Meyers: The Partnership just released the “Bridge to Circularity Report,” which is important because it essentially provides an industry roadmap of the next couple steps. The consumer-packaged goods industry needs to consider it and participate if we’re really serious about moving to a circular economy for all packaging and to meet some of the commitments that brands have made related to recycled content or to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
We looked at that and said, “We see a lot of commitments out there. What are some steps we should take as an industry?" Then, we said, “Let’s jump in and create a report that outlines key steps.” Some of those key steps and findings are pretty straightforward. One of the findings was around the speed of packaging innovation, which has been pretty fast, and our recycling infrastructure hasn’t kept up with that. So, we launched an initiative as a response to that finding that basically helps companies think about not only how to design their packaging but how to make it so it could actually see a pathway to being fully recyclable. What are the steps that the industry needs to focus on and invest in so that 10 years from now items like pouches are widely recyclable and easy to recycle?
So, point one is really on the design of packaging outpacing the recycling infrastructure and capacity to handle. Point two in the report is around the amount of recycled content that brands are calling for, which will not really be delivered unless we make substantial improvements to the U.S. residential recycling system. We looked at a particular resin as an example, because all of these materials have some challenges. So, we said, “Let’s look at PET [polyethylene terephthalate] plastic, look at all the brand owner commitments for what they want to use for recycled content and look honestly at what the residential recycling system is collecting for them.” There is quite a big gap. For PET, I think it was more than a billion pounds, which equated to every American family having to recycle 100 new PET bottles per year if everyone is going to meet those commitments.
So, we try to take this concept of big recycled content targets and look at whether the system can deliver it. Based on the conclusion that the current system won’t deliver, we said, “Really, we’re looking for the industry (brands, retailers, packaging suppliers and the whole value chain for packaging) to help fund a $250 million investment over five years to help fund the growth of collection from the residential system to make sure that everyone has access to help produce participation and to help educate folks about what they could recycle so they could recycle properly."
The third key finding of the report is saying if we’re serious about the circular economy and if brands are serious about delivering on that, we really need to not only look to shore up the existing system but really look at innovation to push and design the system of the future. We are calling that initiative Recycling 2.0 and, essentially, it’s saying we want to collaboratively bring industry to the table to design the system of the future and talk about important things like technology. What innovations are needed both in the home, at the community level, around design, around packaging? What does the future MRF [materials recovery facility] look like to handle the recyclables and take all these new formats? We also want to have a conversation of not only what that future system should look like but how it should be financed and funded.
In that third initiative of the report, we also called for a $250 million innovation fund to design and develop and prove out the technologies that are needed to recycle things that today aren’t easily recyclable via curbside in our current system.
We feel this is a pivotal time for the whole industry to come together and see that consumers are demanding more and that regulators are looking hard at the recycling industry and how to improve performance. So, we wrote this report because we want to provide a roadmap; inspire an even bigger movement through the U.S. recycling system; and say status quo is no longer acceptable, and we are being held by a higher standard. This is all about really making the U.S. system go from average to a top performer globally.
Waste360: What do you feel have been some of your greatest accomplishments so far at The Recycling Partnership?
Jeff Meyers: When I started, we had four staff members and an operating budget that was less than $1 million. We said, “How are we going to make national change when it’s just the four of us and a pretty small operating budget?” I think some of the successes that I have been able to have—and it’s always done in teamwork at The Partnership—is having a solid corporate background. I was able to lead the charge on corporate fundraising and not only elevate the idea that recycling investments make sense for companies right now, but also that to move it from it’s a “nice and interesting part of the portfolio of the corporate sustainability program” to becoming a pillar of the program. Through this work, I have been able to influence a lot of companies—not only converters, brands or retailers, but every year, we have seen significant double-digit growth in our fundraising as people see that not only does the model work, but it’s delivering real results.
Another big success is really proving out the model that industry can come together and, even though they’re competitors at times, they can work collaboratively to accomplish big things like improving the U.S. recycling system. We keep to our mission, and we focus on the work, not competition, and the results we are trying to achieve. Proving out the model, in addition to successfully recruiting funding partners and raising money to fund the mission, is something I have spent a lot of time investing in to make all these parties work together. Our operating budget is 20 times what it was four years ago because of the work we have done.
Waste360: What are some of your goals for The Partnership heading into 2020?
Jeff Meyers: As we look forward into 2020, we are in the middle of an important expansion where our funding partners and members have said, “It is great that you’re looking at collection and working so much with consumers and giving them access and educating them because if we don’t have collection, none of the recycling system works. We really see a bigger role for you in the world in terms of expanding along the recycling value chain and playing an even bigger role in things like design.”
How do we influence design for the industry and not step on anyone’s toes or push anyone away while improving what’s being done to help companies design for recyclability? How do we work on collections and with our MRF partners that process and sort recyclables? How do we help them be better, invest in new technologies with them and give them grants and other tools to make the MRF infrastructure not only more capable but to run at higher efficiencies? What’s our role in the end market space in terms of helping MRFs connect with material end users that can recycle these materials? What do we need to do to cultivate and develop new end markets?
Our big goals next year are centered around not only maintaining our core work on collection, consumers and education but really expanding along the entire recycling value chain to play a role in design, collection, sortation and end markets. So, we’ll have a broad and deep involvement of all areas of the recycling value chain.
Waste360: What are some of the ways the industry can work with the general public, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and legislators to advance recycling commodities markets in the U.S.?
Jeff Meyers: I think there is definitely a role here as we think about advancing the commodity markets. One of the things we are finding is there are still, amongst a number of different groups, including NGOs and legislators, a lot of gaps in knowledge about how the recycling system works, how it brings value and how it creates jobs while also fueling manufacturing in our country. As we meet with regulators and other NGOs, we are trying to help them see the big connections between recycling, climate and greenhouse gas impacts. We are trying to help them understand the impacts of recycling on water, on creating jobs and on healthier and stronger communities.
A perfect example is we were working with the city of Chattanooga, Tenn., and we were trying to get a project to go forward there to improve collection with consumers and residents. We were able to bring in elected officials and show them how a consumer recycles a box in Chattanooga. Not only is it employing local workers at the MRF, but then that box goes on to one of our funders and a major box maker, who in that area, takes that box, recycles it into a new box and then ships it in town right to the Amazon distribution facility. Then, it goes right back out into the world to be reused again. To see all of that domestic economy being fueled by the simple act of a consumer putting their box in their cart really helped legislators and elected officials in that area make the connection between recycling jobs, manufacturing and recycling in their economy. After showing them that, they went from a “well, maybe we’ll invest in recycling” to “why aren’t we doing this; how soon can we make this happen?”
That’s the kind of stuff that gets our team out of bed every day—helping influence people to make investments and to see the whole picture of what recycling can offer—not just for the environment but also for manufacturing and the economy.
Waste360: If you weren’t in your current role, where do you think your career path might have taken you?
Jeff Meyers: I would probably be working on advancing chemical recycling in our country. I am a chemical engineer by training. I would say that’s the most likely alternate career path for me because I don’t see myself doing anything outside of the sustainability field.
Waste360: What keeps you motivated in your day-to-day work?
Jeff Meyers: We all want our lives to matter. We all want our lives to be impactful. I think one of the things that really motivates me in advocating for recycling is I live in a pretty rural area, and we have struggled a lot to get recycling at our home. And all around where I live, I see quite a bit of litter—just valuable material that could be recycled littering the roadways—and it’s just such a visible and tangible representation of how we need to change our mindset around waste. My son and I have mobilized some people in our community, and we’ve adopted a couple roads in our area where we do litter cleanup and recycling. We do that because we think nature is beautiful and that it should be protected, and that keeps me motivated and inspired.