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Image Making

EVERY NOW AND THEN, WHEN I'M introduced to someone and tell them what I do for a living, the person will make a crack about me being in the Mafia. I usually laugh, mainly because the image of someone so thoroughly un-tough as myself being in the Mob is patently absurd. However, the jokes occur often enough that I can understand why members of the industry are sensitive about the stereotype.

In April, Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), sent a letter to Brad Grey, executive producer of “The Sopranos” TV show, to complain about the portrayal of the industry in a recent episode. In the episode, the waste firm Barone Sanitation — which has the series' central protagonist and mobster Tony Soprano on the payroll — is sold.

Parker goes on to detail the measures that New Jersey and New York City have put into place to eliminate the presence of the Mafia in the hauling business. “Stereotypes are hard to break, especially when perpetuated by a popular show like ‘The Sopranos,’ which reaches a wide viewing and demographic audience,” he writes. “[This episode], and others like it, continue to demean the tens of thousands of honest, hard-working men and women, from the vehicle drivers and helpers to senior management, in both the small and large companies, who each day provide a vital service in protecting public health and the environment. Barone Sanitation and the people who run it could never be licensed today in New Jersey. The Tony Sopranos in the waste industry are of another era.”

The letter concludes with Parker extending an invitation to the show's creative and production staff to attend next year's WasteExpo in Atlanta on NSWMA's dime. So, if you see more plot lines about landfill closure workshops, you'll know why.

I think it's good that Parker stood up for the industry, but it's also important to recognize that stereotypes will always exist in TV shows and other forms of popular culture and art. And, besides, the Mafia stereotype is hardly an insurmountable obstacle, especially considering that one of its main perpetrators is a TV show that reaches about 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Rather than fretting too much, waste firms should focus on the best way that they can influence the public perception of their industry: their interactions with customers and surrounding communities. At its heart, garbage is a local business, and the industry's image must be shaped locally.

Good customer service, clean operations and positive community involvement will put the Mafia stereotype in the same place as many of Tony Soprano's enemies: in the grave.

The author is the editor of Waste Age