PROFILE: Sawyer Predicts "Mixed Bag"

Editors Note: Deborah Sawyer, president and CEO of Environmen-tal Design International Inc. (EDI), Hillside, Ill., has been elected as president of the Chicago Area Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Sawyer founded EDI, a full service environmental engineering firm specializing in solid, toxic and hazardous waste management service in 1991.

WW: In your opinion, is the solid waste industry still a good place for entrepreneurs?

DS: The solid waste industry is a mixed bag for entrepreneurs to-day. Some parts are good and others are not.

For example, landfills, aren't, be-cause they are capital intensive, strictly regulated and require sophisticated engineering design and on-going compliance. As landfills become scarce, transfer stations are be-coming more prevalent.

Transportation is competitive, but there is a fairly low initial in-vestment. Also, it is a low margin business because the entrepre-neur competes against the major players; however, there are many small companies in this arena.

Finally, recycling has a tremendous political mandate and is ex-tremly popular. There are many places in the process stream for an entrepreneur such as scavenging, sorting and processing.

WW: How are environmental en-gineering services changing?

DS: Engineering firms have ex-perienced a shrinking in the market somewhat parallel to that of disposal facilities. With increasing regulations, "mom and pop" landfills have disappeared. Only a fraction of waste management facilities remain. Instead, there are re-cycling programs to develop and solid waste management planning to be done, but there is a fraction of the work in the industry compared to a decade ago.

The market now is for firms, large or small, that specialize in niche markets like recycling and waste minimization and source re-duction research.

WW: What are the latest challenges facing collectors, processors and disposers?

DS: Public relations is a continuing problem in the solid and hazardous waste industry. For example, the death of incinerators was driven by the "not in my backyard" mentality, rather than by economics, environmental health risks or technical soundness.

Landfill capacity will be a problem and with incineration deemed not an acceptable alternative, where do we go from here? The recycling market is still unreliable, costly and volatile. Waste minimization is drying up the market which is bad for collectors, processors and disposers.

WW: In what direction do you see the solid waste industry evolving?

DS: I really don't expect much to happen in the Midwest in the next five years. However, I think we will continue to make recycling a more stable, reliable and cost-effective solution. The cost for landfilling in the Midwest is not prohibitive and landfill space is available which is not true other areas of the country such as the East Coast.

WW: What advice would you give to women who are interested in a career in the waste industry?

DS: The environmental field as a whole provides wonderful opportunities for women. The solid waste industry will provide some challenge for the person looking for a career. My suggestion would be to look to the research end of the business such as innovative methods for separating and sorting waste. If their bent is manufacturing, then waste minimization and source reduction are areas that are receiving a lot of attention.

The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) is searching for recycling firms to participate in their second annual Northeast Recycling Invest-ment Forum, scheduled for May 1997 in New York City.

The forum is a one-day event for selected firms to make formal presentations to individual and corporate investors, venture capitalists, banks, economic developers and state recycling officials. Firms can gain training in how to ap-proach and market to potential investors.

For more information, contact: Mary Ann Remolador, 139 Main St., Ste. 401, Brattleboro, Vt. 05031. (802) 254-3636. Fax: (802) 254-5870.