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Matthew Karmel of Offit Kurman Uses Law to Stimulate Positive Change in the Waste and Recycling Industry

After eight years of practicing environmental law at a regional law firm, Matthew Karmel is excited to take the next step in his waste and recycling journey with the Offit Kurman law firm. This Waste360 40 Under 40 winner sat down with Waste360 to tell us all about this big career move and why the work across his entire career has been so important.

For Matthew Karmel, work is all about making a difference. Working in environmental law at Riker Danzig since the beginning of his professional journey, Karmel recently moved to a new position at Offit Kurman, an AMLAW200 law firm, as head of their new Environmental and Sustainability Law Group.

Molding the group to be equipped for any number of waste, recycling, or organics-related issues, he is excited to see what this next step in his journey can accomplish.

In this Q&A, Karmel tells Waste360 all about his experience working in the legal sector of the waste and recycling industry and how he uses this position to make a positive impact on the world.

Waste360: Can you tell me what that transition has been like for you?

Karmel: Absolutely. I’d say it’s been a really exciting and smooth transition. I won the award last year and was continuing working with the waste and recycling industrydoing the things I do, trying to find new projects and innovative things that excite mewhen I got a call about this position to take over the environmental group at Offit Kurman.

I pitched them an environmental and sustainability group because that's my passion, and to me, sustainability goes hand in hand with the waste management and recycling industries because that's the future of the industry; sustainable materials management. Offit Kurman loved the idea.

I transitioned into the role in September and, as I said, it's been a really exciting transition.

It's nice to step into that responsibility and take the vision that I've tried to live my career withwhich I think the 40 under 40 award recognizesand write that story in a different way. It’s not just Matthew Karmel, but the Offit Kurman Environmental and Sustainability Law Group and all of the attorneys who currently work with me and who will work with me in the future because I have a vision for the DNA of the group.

The vision is a group of attorneys who are practicing at the forefront of Environmental Law, who are doing traditional environmental work, compliance, litigation, transactions, etc., but also looking forward to what's coming next and sustainability.

An example of that is waste and recycling and all of the innovative pieces that make that sector up, like food waste recycling.

That is something that has been a passion of mine and I've worked on a lot of interesting projects at the forefront of, you know, whether in the composting industry or the anaerobic digestion industryall of those kinds of things.

I'm building a group at Offit Kurman that shares that vision, and it's not every day you get the chance to walk into a canvas that you get to paint yourself.

Riker Danzig was a great place to work. It's a New Jersey institution and I've had very close relationships with colleagues in different areas.

Coming over to Offit Kurman, it's a leaner three-person group right now, but we're growing and we have the support of the rest of the law firm’s more than 250 attorneys. That means the sky is the limit, you know? We get to write the story together.

Waste360: Overall, would you say this position aligns more with what you see for your career?

Karmel: The new group aligns with the blend of environmental law that I want to practice and have been building my career around.

It aligns with the clients I've been working with and what they appreciate because that's the most incredible thing. I don't get to do anything without a client.

I've been very lucky to work with really innovative and forward-thinking and hard-working clients in the industry who want to make a difference for the business and their community.

Because I'm leading the group right now, it inherits the clients that I work with and we’ll build from there.

The different blend of companies from private equity groups down to really small startups in the waste and recycling industry; that full spectrum is who we work with.

Waste360: Can you tell me about something you learned while working at Riker Danzig?

Karmel: Riker Danzig’s environmental group has a very diverse practice.

I was at Riker Danzig for practically my entire career up until now and it was a great place to learn.

There were senior partners there who had been practicing environmental law since environmental law became a thing. I got to learn from those people and work with them on a daily basis to take advantage of their expertise and learn from it.

I'm standing on their shoulders now because I've taken with me all of the important skills I've learned over the past eight years at Riker Danzig.

It also gave me the flexibility to focus on the things that interested me. That was really important.

Waste360: Can you tell me what it’s been like overseeing your group of three?

Karmel: Yeah, sure. So we're sort of displaced around. We have a more regional, and soon national, footprint and our attorneys sit in different spots. It’s always fun dealing with that kind of remote coordination.

We're a lean group of three attorneys right now, but we're growing. We're currently hiring a fourth and, my goal is to have probably three to four more attorneys in the next couple of years, so that will make us a pretty sizable group here soon.

The firm itself has a very large footprint with over 250 attorneys at the firm across a number of different practice areas.

Environmental, including waste and recycling, have a tremendous intersection with those other practice groups.

You know, the waste and recycling industry is no stranger to mergers and acquisitions. It’s a bedrock foundation that calls in a lot of different aspects of firms; corporate, real estate, tax, everything.

I get to work on those projects. I worked on them at Riker Danzig. Offit Kurman has a history of working on them as well, and so I'm expecting to be able to continue to do that.

In fact, I have projects coming up in the next couple of weeks where we'll get to do that and that's one of the things I love about working at a firm like this, where you have these other departments with other experts.

I work with the solid waste industry, so I know what matters to a composting business, to a more traditional waste business, and to a MRF.

I know what matters to these businesses because I'm at the industry conferences, I'm reading the news, and I can then be their point of contact and interact with the rest of the firm to get their legal assistance filtered through what the industry needs.

Part of my job is exactly that; to be this fulcrum for the rest of the firm to leverage the resources to help companies that are in the environmental sector and waste and recycling industries.

Waste360: Can you share a project you are excited about getting started?

Karmel: We are working on a project involving micro-anaerobic digestion technology, which is new to the United States really—I mean, there are a couple of companies doing it.

But it is fairly new so there are a lot of regulatory challenges to implementing that technology and we're assisting with those regulatory challenges in a variety of jurisdictions.

This is a really exciting project for me because I think distributed resources for sustainable materials management are one of the future trends that we'll see in the industry.

I think we've already seen it in some ways, but this is just the next wave of putting these additional waste recovery and waste diversion technology at apartment buildings and supermarkets.

I also just get excited about working on projects with clients that care about what they're doing. I'm lucky to have clients that really care.  For instance, I work with a small composting company, based in New Jersey that has an incredibly impressive track record and is a family-run business that does this because they believe in it and so it's exciting to get to continue working with them.

There's another smaller family business that I'll be working on within the next couple of weeks that is getting involved in waste management in New Jersey.

They're a company that cares about what they are doing. It matters to them.

I work with both small and big companies and all of the ones that I see really care about using waste management to drive the future of sustainability and to be the next part of that cycle.

It's really exciting to get to work on those types of projects.

Waste360: What is one project that stands out to you as a time you made a direct impact in the industry?

Karmel: I’m actually not finished with it yet. About five years ago, when I decided I wanted to be a sustainability lawyer and that I could get there through the waste industry, I was talking with nonprofits in the community garden industry in New Jersey, and they were explaining to me that they needed expensive permits in order to do rather small community composting at the gardens.

These are the same types of composting operations that people are doing in their backyards in more affluent suburban communities, but in lower-income urban communities, they would need these permits to do this.

We were just having this conversation.

Together, we figured out a way where could change the laws to allow more community composting in New Jersey without expensive permits and we've been working on that for five years now.

We've had successes and failures and I'm hopeful that we're going to succeed finally and can conclude this phase of the project by eliminating that regulatory barrier later this year. That is my hope.

We have legislation pending in New Jersey now that would accomplish what we've been trying to accomplish and would be the end of a long project where I got to be involved in the founding of the idea on the back of the napkin.

Seeing our plan through the process of working with the environmental regulators in New Jersey and developing really close relationships with them, to now taking the idea to the Legislature, getting them to buy into it, and advancing it has allowed me both to see my impact, but also to see how much I've grown as a lawyer.

This project just has a special place in my heart because I believe that everyone should have access to the healthy food you grow healthy food with compost and you are able to compost because you can compost your food waste and so helping community gardens, to have more healthy food is an intersection of all the things that are important to me like climate change, environmental justice, and food justice.

All those things are important, so this project checks all of those boxes.

Waste360: What draws you to the waste and recycling industry specifically?

Karmel: I like both the innovative projects that you get to work on and how tangible the industry is.

I have the paper right here on my desk from mail garbage that needs to be recycled and I have food waste in a bag down here that needs to be composted. It's a very tangible industry. I can touch it, I can feel it, I can see it, and I know the impact that it has on the environment.

I know the positive impact we can have through sustainable materials management through really conscious choices of how we handle our waste and so that's one side of it.

The other side is, and this may sound cliche, but you get to work with the best people. I was telling you before about some of my clients and I just am really honored to get to work with people who have made this their life; people who created companies and did things that others said weren't possible and did it in a way that created a business and did something good for the environment.

I'm really just awed by the drive and creativity that the industry brings to these types of things. Those within this industry are very creative and they're coming up with great solutions. I love getting to stand by them and go “I can help you make that solution a reality.”

Yeah, that's really exciting.

Waste360: When your career comes to a close, what do you want your legacy to be?

Karmel: That's a big question.

I'm kind of ambitious; I want to leave behind two different legacies.

Firstly, I want to leave behind a legacy of accomplishment.

I want to look back and see that I helped businesses to usher in the next era of sustainable materials management and that I helped waste management and recycling companies do what they do.

I want to know that I made their job easier by making their compliance easy. I want to have projects and accomplishments I can look back on that show that I helped usher in that next wave.

I also want to leave a legacy of example. I want to show other attorneys that it is possible.

I think young attorneys think that you can only help the environment through a couple of small pathways, whether that's working in government or at nonprofits, and I firmly believe that I can make a difference in the world by helping businesses.

The economic drivers of the world are the way that we're going to scale solutions and we need lawyers who are committed to helping scale those solutions and represent the industries that are going to take us into the next era of sustainability.

I actually have a newsletter that I put out to try to help other people. I want to share everything I've learned to make it easier for others to do what I'm doing and to do more than what I'm doing; to do what they're meant to do. I want to help people see all of the options there are.

That’s not to say that I have it all figured out, but that I’ve made mistakes that others can learn from, and I want to share as much as I can.

Those are the two ambitious legacies that I want to leave behind.

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