Rachel Oster, owner and principal of Diversion Strategies and founder of Women in Solid Waste & Recycling (WISR), is motivated to change the impression that the waste and recycling industry is mainly for men.
Oster’s attraction to the industry began at a young age, and she eventually turned that passion into a career. Over the last 12 years, she has climbed through the ranks of the industry, constantly challenging herself to come up with ideas for how the industry can be more efficient and how it can implement new and improved solutions for source reduction, reuse and recycling.
“Rachel will create the only nonprofit organization in the industry focused on solely bringing women together, empowering them with the network and skills needed to be innovative, connected and powerful leaders in the waste and recycling industry,” says Erin Merrill, co-founder of Diversion Strategies and Oster’s business partner. “This industry is STARVING for female leadership and a more diverse workforce, and Rachel has the vision to get it there.”
The Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient recently chatted with us about how she has seen the industry change over the years and how she is working to give more women opportunities in the waste and recycling industry via WISR.
Waste360: Tell us about how you launched your career in the waste and recycling industry.
Rachel Oster: As a young girl, I was sort of obsessed with figuring out where our waste goes. It was something that I would ask my father about constantly, and something I would anxiously worry about at night while trying to fall asleep.
As I got older, I went to Syracuse University and studied geology and environmental science. After graduating, my now husband and I packed up all of our things and moved from Connecticut to California. We didn’t have jobs or a place to live, but we knew we wanted to be in California. We ended up landing about 45 minutes outside of San Francisco and found jobs walking door to door selling promotional marketing items. After doing that for several months, I finally found a job on Monster.com that stood out to me. It was an environmental permit coordinator position at a company called Norcal Waste Systems (now Recology). I knew I wasn’t qualified for the position, but I was interested and applied for it anyway. I ended up interviewing and getting the job, and that’s how I got my start in the industry.
I guess you can say garbage found me, as it often does with people in this industry.
Waste360: What does your role as owner and principal at Diversion Strategies entail?
Rachel Oster: After a decade-long career with Recology, I started Diversion Strategies with my partner and former Recology employee Erin Merrill. I wanted a better work-life balance after giving birth to my second child, and there was a massive opportunity at the time to start a company without geographic or organizational boundaries because of policy shifts that were occurring both within California and across the country.
For example, in California, legislation passed that required 60 percent diversion of organics by 2020 and 75 percent diversion by 2025. The state was estimating that it would need an additional 100 to 200 new organics management facilities to handle that volume.
When we launched the company, we expected it to be focused on hard development work, infrastructure, planning, etc., but looking back over the last year and a half, it has been really interesting to see the type of work that has found us.
For example, we are helping tech companies and innovators find market growth opportunities through advocating, policy initiatives and working directly with local governments to achieve goals they are responsible for achieving. The startup and tech world often sees regulations as barriers, but we have been able to work alongside these companies to share goals and visions so they can understand why some of these diversion policies are in place.
One company we work with is Compology, which has in-container sensors that take photos of bins throughout the day so customers can pinpoint what type of contamination is happening and when. This technology can be very useful for the state of California because as a requirement, local governments and haulers will soon have to do bin monitoring to make sure they’re spotting contamination and giving feedback to the generator about contamination and how to overcome it. Compology’s solution is a less-expensive option and offers more accurate measurement of contamination in the bins opposed to just flipping the lid and only seeing the top of the pile. A picture is worth a thousand words, and it can serve as a great education tool. If we can stop contamination and make a clean organics stream, we can decrease the cost of organics recycling drastically and create a much better product.
Waste360: You’re also the founder of WISR. Tell us a little bit about that.
Rachel Oster: WISR’s ultimate vision is to diversify the decisionmakers in the industry by giving women the tools they need to be successful leaders. We believe the biggest opportunities to push this industry forward are to have more women in leadership roles and for the industry to embrace the technological advances that are knocking at the door.
WISR is really excited right now because we’re about to start a big fundraising push for founding sponsors. We recently held five proof of concept events, and we had wonderful feedback. We also launched a survey to gather information about what women really want in an organization like WISR, how they want to engage with WISR, how they want their information, what tools they are interested in having, etc.
Out of about 200 responses, 50 percent of women come from government, 20 percent from small, private companies, 10 percent from large private companies and the rest varies from nonprofits and medium-sized companies.
When it comes to what women want from an organization, 85 percent said more networking opportunities, 73 percent said more leadership development, 68 percent said more professional development and 45 percent said more organized mentorship.
At WISR, we want to offer women a soft spot to land. We want to bring women in the industry together and establish a strong network of women to help progress careers forward. To make more women aware of WISR, we cohosted a session called PoWW (the power of women in waste) with the Solid Waste Association of North America at WASTECON in Nashville this month. Over 120 women attended the session, where we made time for networking as well as learning. We asked Nina Butler, CEO of More Recycling, to speak to the group about what it means to have a diverse and inclusive workforce as well as a female leader to look up to in this industry. There was a great deal of energy generated as a result of Nina’s words, and we had an overwhelming response from women interested in starting WISR chapters in their own backyards.
As we continue to grow WISR, one of our goals is to start three local chapters by the end of 2019 and to establish a national membership option by 2019. WISR national membership programs begin January 1, 2019, and we’re offering a reduced annual membership rate of $75 for early birds until December 1. After December 1, the rate will go up to our normal annual rate of $100. The national membership will give members access to webinars, national events and online forums connecting them to other WISR members.
Waste360: Since joining the industry, how have you seen it change?
Rachel Oster: I joined the industry about 12 years ago, when there was a major shift in organics recycling and sustainable packaging in areas like California. That to me has brought so many different innovations into the industry as well as other industries.
For example, other industries are starting to think about edible food recovery and better managing food waste. They are working with garbage companies that are sending logistic functions (trucks, assets, etc.) to assist in edible food waste recovery, and there is now conversation about how we can use these logistic functions to manage waste to its highest and best use.
The waste and recycling industry used to be a lot about picking materials up at the curb and making it disappear so people didn’t have to worry about what happened to the materials, but now people are becoming more and more curious about what’s happening to their waste. This curiosity is leading to more conversations and more ideas, which is great for increasing and improving waste diversion and recycling efforts.
Waste360: What are one or two accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
Rachel Oster: I am most proud of how I entered my role as vice president of operations at Recology not having any operational experience. I knew my peers had grown up on the back of a garbage truck and earned their respect, and I knew that coming into my role from a government relations and policy background that I needed to put in the work to earn my respect as well.
To make that happen, I got up at 3 a.m. many mornings and made myself visible at safety meetings and on routes. I spoke to every employee I could about their experiences, interests, opportunities they saw for improvement, etc. It was very difficult, especially with young children, but it paid off in dividends. I learned so much and gained even more respect for those out in the field doing their jobs every day.
An old manager at Recology would always say “boots on the ground,” and that has become a motto at Diversion Strategies as well because you really have to get up close and understand how things work on the ground before applying it to the bigger picture. Having that experience also helps determine how you look at and solve problems in the future.
Waste360: What advice would you give to women who are interested in having a waste and recycling career?
Rachel Oster: Build your community by networking and find a mentor who is open to a mentor-mentee relationship where both parties can learn something from one another. Don’t be afraid to be the one to reach out to others to make those connections happen. I have people send me LinkedIn requests and messages all the time asking to speak to me about a number of things, and I always offer them my time because it always comes back to me. Plus, I get to learn too, which is one of the beautiful things about mentor-mentee relationships.