Staying Afloat In A Sea Of Uncertainty: The Evolving Recycling Coordinator

During the last twenty years, two environmental "crises" have galvanized the nation to de-mand local level comprehensive program development. The first was the energy crisis in the late '70s and early '80s which jolted Americans into the realization that their seemingly endless supply of natural resources actually were limited.

Spurred by national mandates to address this issue, local jurisdictions created the "energy coordinator" to design, develop and implement energy conservation management and awareness programs. Today, with energy conservation ingrained in our environmental consciousness, most energy coordinators have disappeared and their responsibilities absorbed by plant and facility managers.

The second environmental crisis was spurred by the public's image of garbage-laden barges. While federal legislators debated waste management issues, the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., built political support for recycling and waste diversion programs. State legislatures began competing for the highest landfill diversion rates, and local governments, facing another state-mandated, locally-implemented program, created a new municipal position: recycling coordinator.

"We had a major piece of legislation in Flor-ida to look at solid waste management," said Jackie Eldridge, recycling coordinator for Jacksonville. "In our area, it came from the legislative side. Coordinators popped up all over to administer the different programs."

However, considering the number of curbside recycling programs, the emphasis now is shifting from "design, development and implementation" to "monitor and adjust." Similar to the energy management programs of the early '80s which resulted in computerized lighting control and fuel efficient automobiles, government and industry has made a considerable investment in recycling and waste diversion.

So, as recycling becomes part of everyday life, recycling coordinator positions will either evolve or, similar to energy coordinators, disappear.

The New Breed What will happen to those dedicated individuals who have built careers as recycling coordinators? Are they destined to find themselves jobless as municipalities seek to downsize and streamline their workforce?

Today's recycling coordinators could have been the energy coordinators of the past, honing their abilities to develop entire programs in a vacuum. Like entrepreneurs, they took calculated risks lacking hard evidence or research. They also learned to think on their feet and envision complete systems, while battling skeptical and even hostile adversaries.

As a result of the maturing recycling industry, these individuals may be poised to apply their experiences in the next environmental challenge: synthesizing all environmental programs into a single approach. Re-cycling coordinators who have en-joyed both success and support are moving into "broader areas of environmental protection and sustainability," according to Gary Liss, executive director of the California Resource Recovery Association, Loomis, Calif.

"We see programs experimenting with different ways of connecting hazardous waste, solid waste, recycling, energy conservation and water conservation issues," he said. "There have been a lot of experiments, and we'll probably see more, particularly by major cities and some of the county governments." For example, although the city of San Jose, Calif., has never had a recycling coordinator, it has pursued an integrated environmental management approach to aggressively meet the current waste diversion mandates, while preparing for the future environmental issues. San Jose's program began in the 1980s, with its Office of Environmen-tal Management. Other operations that dealt with environmental issues were scattered throughout various city departments.

"In the early 1980s we were establishing long-range solid waste policies," said Ellen Ryan, San Jose's integrated waste management program manager. "San Jose always has had a privatized garbage and recycling system. Our services have been provided through contract which were part of this office."

Soon, however, the city recognized the need to consolidate those environmental functions into a central operation. By 1991, the Office of Environ-mental Management had grown to 65 employees from the original 10 to 15. "We were planning a major shift in how we handled our solid waste and developed a program that would take us to 50 percent diversion," said Ryan.

"On a parallel course, the city also was going through a lot of changes, particularly in environmental quality issues, which involved a variety of departments and the Office of En-vironmental Management."

Eventually, the Environmental Services department was formed in July 1993, which today employs 450 people in three major operations, including the Solid Waste Program, a wastewater treatment plant and a small water company.

The department's responsibilities also include environmental enforcement, policy and planning, community relations and other support services.

As a result, an entire employment classification system has evolved, stressing environmental issues.

"It has opened up enormous opportunities," observed Ryan. "In the past, the classification was limited. Now we're seeing the classification used throughout the entire department.

"For instance," she continued, "one of my staff came from the wastewater treatment plant where she had been a senior plant operator. Through her experience, she was able to compete and become an environmental specialist and move into a new discipline. The positions allow flexibility and mobility."

Recognizing that governmental regulations are not going away, cities are bringing their environmental disciplines together in a cohesive ap-proach. Future environmental issues, tied directly to natural resource management, ultimately will reach a critical mass and demand a policy re-sponse. If some necessary resource is in short supply, a coordinated local level response will be required.

For example, in Florida, high quality water may be an emerging critical environmental issue. "We just got a $100,000 grant from the State Department of Environmental Protec-tion for our pollution recovery trust fund to do major cleanups of debris in St. John's river," noted Eldridge. "In south Florida, where the river starts in the center part of the state, they're getting salt intrusion. It's tied in, but it's a different part of the environment, and it seems we go in cycles."

While the primary issues of developing and implementing recycling programs have been resolved, future issues on materials' use, markets and closing the loop seem to hold the most promise.

Therefore, it will be important for the future-minded recycling coordinator to understand how individual environmental activities fit together, as well as how they fit within the connecting disciplines of social, political and economic development.

Both energy and recycling are aspects of a broader discipline that is beginning to blossom. "The whole concept of sustainability is the next wave linking a number of environmental programs," remarked Liss. "We have the President's Council on Sustainable Development that just came out with its strategy nationally. It has helped formulate some new directions and paradigms of working together in public and private partnerships.

"We're now seeing that there isn't a landfill crisis, but rather a resource management crisis," he continued. "That's why looking at how we manage our resources is really the unifying theme that makes sense. We need land use policies that minimize the resources used in development, and water conservation and energy conservation programs linked together to create more cost effective, efficient uses of the land and revitalizing our urban areas."

According to Liss, deciding how to fund these new activities and channel the investments feasibly will be a challenge. "In the next ten years, we will be coming up with new tax policies and incentives that will move us towards more sustainable resources and sustainable society in general," he predicted.

What Can You Do? Being prepared for these opportunities may mean rethinking your current experience and knowledge levels and identifying ways to grow. "A background in environmental studies or a degree in public administration is a first step," suggested Ryan, who noted that she is educating her staff on the budget process. "[Finances are] a big part of our business," she explained.

She suggested that the recycling staff understand environmental issue planning, both strategically and from a traditional government perspective.

While the evolution of the recycling coordinator is sure to continue, it's smart to position yourself to assume a larger role within both the environmental field and in your organization.

Solid waste and recycling still will be important components of the field. Those who can fit these pieces together with the other environmental challenges facing today's cities will find their careers prospering well into the 21st century.