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Anna DeLage

South Carolina Department of Commerce’s DeLage Works to Close the Loop

The Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient discusses some of her career accomplishments, what keeps her motivated and how she helped the University of North Carolina at Asheville eliminate Styrofoam in its dining hall.

Anna DeLage, manager of recycling market development for the South Carolina Department of Commerce, is motivated by the idea of a circular economy. So much so, in fact, that she works daily to close the loop via partnerships, programs and initiatives.

DeLage mainly works to link industry with access to recycling, but she is also the project lead for Don’t Waste Food SC, which aims to increase food waste recycling and recovery across the state of South Carolina. In addition, she has a hand in Your Bottle Means Jobs, a strategy that focuses primarily on increasing plastic bottle recycling in the Carolinas.

“Anna understands sustainable materials management and systems thinking,” says Chantal Fryer, senior manager of recycling market development for the South Carolina Department of Commerce. “These skills are critical in understanding the full lifecycle, so businesses can maximize the use of goods while limiting waste. She learns by getting involved and asking questions, taking calculated risks and paying it forward as a mentor to new graduates. With her leadership in the Don't Waste Food SC initiative, in the future, she will help businesses and industry meet the goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.”

DeLage was presented with a Waste360 40 Under 40 award earlier this year and recently spoke with us about some of her career accomplishments, what keeps her motivated and how she helped the University of North Carolina at Asheville eliminate Styrofoam in its dining hall.

Waste360: What led you to a career in waste and recycling?

Anna DeLage: My background is in environmental policy and management and economics. When I graduated college, I actually went directly into working on sustainability management, which is where my heart was because I wanted to work on the social circular economy.

I worked as the sustainability director for the Richland County, S.C., government, and when I was there, one of the things I noticed was most of our highly trafficked buildings didn’t offer any recycling. I brought that up to my colleagues, and one of my first projects was to rally some support around recycling and to start a recycling program from scratch. To do that, I ended up working with our recycling provider to host a waste audit at our county administrative complex, which had a lot of fun hoops to jump through because I had to explain why we should be digging through the trash at a county building.

After the audit, we conducted a pilot program in one building with branding, clear and consistent signage and easy access for recycling. We also removed one of the two dumpsters onsite, which decreased our trash pulls by about 150 pulls a year. Once the program proved successful with low contamination rates, we rolled the model out to other county facilities.

The work that I did with starting that recycling program actually led to the job I’m doing now. The Department of Commerce’s director saw the work I was doing and said she would love to have me at the Department of Commerce helping them with their sustainability efforts. One thing led to another, and now here I am.

Waste360: What does your role as manager of recycling market development entail?

Anna DeLage: I work in the group that links industry with access to recycling, which is really unique in the Southeast. We have had someone at the Department of Commerce look at developing recycling markets since 1991. A lot of that early development really focused on recruiting companies that can handle recycling processing for our communities. Now, we focus more on back-of-house consulting for industry and working with businesses to better understand their waste streams and their biggest recycling challenges, so we can support them with the right recycling options.

In addition to that, my group also tracks the economic impact of the recycling industry. In South Carolina, recycling is a $13 billion industry and a big job creator. The state has more than 300 companies handling recycling commodities somewhere along the supply chain, and that’s because we have such a strong automotive and aerospace presence and a strong demand for recycled content.

I also help staff the Recycling Market Development Advisory Council, which is a 14-member, governor-appointed council that supports the economic growth of South Carolina's recycling industry through building recycling markets, increasing material recovery and promoting the recycling value chain in South Carolina.

We also partner with North Carolina to staff a strategy called Your Bottle Means Jobs, which focuses primarily on increasing plastic bottle recycling in the Carolinas. While there’s a robust plastic recycling industry in the Southeast, we have an opportunity to recycle more bottles in the Carolinas. About 70 percent of our bottles end up in the trash, so that campaign really focuses on encouraging people to recycle their plastic bottles on the go and at home.

As part of that strategy, we’ve done economic studies and found that if each household in the Carolinas recycles two more bottles a week, we can create 300 new jobs in the recycling supply chain. These can be jobs that are in engineering, marketing, sorting, manufacturing, driving, maintenance, etc. There is opportunity there to improve recycling and create jobs, which is an exciting thing.

Waste360: You also help lead the Don’t Waste Food SC initiative. Tell us about that.

Anna DeLage: This initiative has allowed us to make a big push on food waste recycling and recovery across the state, and we’re one of the first states in the Southeast to take on a national campaign to cut food waste in half.

When we first started back in 2015, we were working with the Department of Health and Environmental Control, which had put together a regulation that allowed for commercial-scale composting for large industry (hospitals, grocery stores, etc.). At the time, there weren’t a lot of options, so the regulation created an avenue for large composting facilities to exist in the state. We started building infrastructure early on, and now about 40 percent of the counties in the state have access to composting infrastructure on a commercial scale. That’s a gamechanger compared to 2014, when Charleston was the only country that had access.

Charleston actually had a facility that won the U.S. Composting Council’s Facility of the Year award for the work they were doing, so the Department of Health and Environmental Control created their permitting process based on the pilot project they had done at Charleston County. That permitting process exploded into some nice economic activity across the state to bring in new entrepreneurs and to create public-private partnerships on the composting side.

The neat thing about this initiative is that it has really pushed us out of the space where we normally live as waste and recycling people thinking about end products. It really allows us to prevent food waste, donate edible food to hungry people and compost. This initiative has also sparked some new relationships with partners across the state like Feeding America, the South Carolina Food Bank Association and the creators of the Food Rescue US app, which taps into those crowdsourcing for volunteers and for people who can help transport food to food pantries. That app has given two of our cities a new and fun way to interact with our customer base.

As a three-tiered campaign focusing on prevention, donation and composting, we work hand-in-hand with the Department of Health and Environmental Control to get some large-scale clients onboard, such as convention centers, hospitals and universities.

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center started a composting pilot project, and the biggest thing with that was overcoming the perceived "yuck factor." We captured video interviews with the head chef who shared that, “Now that it’s a part of (their) culture, it’s everyday life for (them)." In addition to using composting containers, the convention center now does food donations through a partnership with a nonprofit that’s located up the street.

Since we saw success with that pilot, our next big push will be grocery stores. We have some partners that are open to doing a pilot, so we will likely start with them once we have a plan in place.

Since launching this initiative about three years ago, diversion numbers have more than doubled each year. When you start with nothing, it’s easy to have large improvements, but we have seen some significant numbers and that’s really exciting for us. We’re on track to continue improving diversion numbers, and we’re excited to have some new companies and haulers taking part in the initiative.

Waste360: While you were an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, you helped Chartwells eliminate Styrofoam in the university’s dining hall. Tell us about some of the efforts that led to that success.

Anna DeLage: I served as the executive for sustainability affairs for student government, and one of the things I kept hearing from students were complaints about having Styrofoam in the dining hall while claiming to be a green campus.

In an attempt to do something about those complaints and the students’ concerns, I spoke with alumni and they said they had tried to do something about the Styrofoam but couldn’t get anywhere. Luckily for us, we were in a sweet spot where the dining hall was looking at a new contract for their dining services and were willing to listen to our concerns.

We ended up meeting with senior staff of the school administration, and they told us that we had to find a way to show that students would actually be interested in having compostable packaging because it would be costlier. To capture students’ perspectives, we worked with a statistics class to create a survey for students questioning their willingness to pay more for compostable packaging and how they felt about compostable packaging compared to other packaging. In an effort to get more students to respond to our survey, we worked with Seventh Generation, Inc. to get toilet paper donated. On-campus residents were always in need of basic supplies like toilet paper, so getting a roll of toilet paper for completing the survey was a great incentive.

After we closed the survey and crunched the numbers, we found that students did have a willingness to pay more, a negative reaction to Styrofoam and a positive reaction to compostable packaging. We brought that information back to the student affairs administrator and presented our findings to the new dining service contract folks. They ended up agreeing to switch to compostable packaging right away and to eat the cost of the new packaging for the reminder of the year. For the following year, they built the cost into the contract.

Overall, this was a huge victory for the school, and it really showed how a student voice can impact decision-making. 

Waste360: What keeps you motivated?

Anna DeLage: The idea of getting closer and closer to a circular economy. When I graduated and started learning about what we can do to rethink linear systems and make them into more of a circular economy, I became very motivated. That concept may very well be why I think it’s so much fun to work with manufacturers and connect them with recyclers to close the loop.

One example of this is the Carpet America Recovery Effort’s (CARE) partnership with North Carolina State University (NC State). CARE is working with NC State to conduct research and development for end markets for recycled carpet via their textiles program. They’ve discovered some new applications, but those haven’t been tested yet. Recycled carpet can be problematic because carpet is bulky, and polymers found in carpet are changing from predominantly nylon to polyester. We are trying to see what’s possible with innovation and exploring all the options available.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is looking at the map of recycling companies across the state. It’s amazing to see how these companies are changing people’s lives for the better and creating job opportunities in our state.

Waste360: What is something that you are really proud of having been able to achieve during your career?

Anna DeLage: Last year, I was able to serve as the co-chair for the Carolina Recycling Association at the annual conference, which brings together key industry players across the Southeast who are working in solid waste and recycling. As co-chair, I got to assist with putting together four days of programming, workshops and tours, as well as figuring out ways to push the industry forward and make processes more efficient.

That was a great opportunity for me, and I always love taking advantage of any opportunity where I can connect with others in the industry. For me, relationship building is critical, and it’s going to take new ways of thinking to solve today's recycling problems.

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