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Episode 112: What It Takes to Run Miami’s Solid Waste Management Dept. (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

[music]

[00:00:27] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Mike Fernandez, Director of the Miami-Dade Department of Solid Waste Management. He's also a cherished Waste360 40 Under 40 alum. Hi, Mike, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:42] Mike Fernandez: Good morning, Liz. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for having me on the show today. Really an honor to be here.

[00:00:50] Liz: I'm happy to have you and I'm thrilled that I've seen your promotion. We have a lot to catch up on since you won your award. I know you've worked your way up in your career, but could you please share more about your background for everyone else, and the journey of how you ended up in your current role with Miami-Dade?

[00:01:08] Mike: Sure. I started back 25 years ago, I think, back in 1996-'97 as a temp, basically. I started as a temp, remember they gave me a call. The temp agency gave me a call and say, "Hey, do you want to work at this garbage company?" I was like, "Garbage, really? Garbage?" They were like, "Yes, try it out. See what you think." Then I went to work for a company called Browning-Ferris Industries, also known as BFI, down in Miami. Spend some time there, worked my way into the operations, became a dispatch supervisor, roll-off supervisor, and then finally ops manager over the roll-off line of business.

Then, decided to move on to the public sector somewhere around 2005. I remember 2005 because that was a year of hurricanes. There was Wilma, Katrina, and I think that it hit New Orleans as well, but that came through Florida. I remember starting a job in this little city called City of Hondo Beach. It's located in Broward County, down in Florida here. It was almost running like a little district office, like in the private side and like a little mini holding firm, where they had automated residential, commercial front end load, grapple trucks, et cetera.

Then I moved on to joining Miami-Dade County around 2008. That was the first time I was exposed to the post-collection side of things. Really big operation. They joined Miami-Dade County, running all their transfer stations. It was a twenty-five-million-dollar operation, about 150 employees. It was operating three transfer stations, about 600,000 tons a year, and some satellite transfer hauling operations of the landfills, and Waste Trangie Facility that we have. Really, overall, it was about a million tons a year we were hauling.

It was really a great opportunity, just to get in and dive into the post-collection side of the waste industry. Little after that, I got promoted to assistant director of disposal operations. On top of the transfer operations, they said, "Hey, we want you to take care of all the landfills too, in Miami-Dade County." I was like, "Okay, I'll do that too." I start managing a class one landfill, a nice-sized landfill of about a little over half a million tons a year. Then a class three landfill. We have, maybe, about 250,000 tons a year.

Then an ash monofil that really is for our Waste-to-Energy facility, which is another 100 feet. Overall, it was about 800,000 tons a year I was managing on the landfill side on top of the transfer operations. Then they said, "Hey, we want you to do the code enforcement in the County." Which I had never really dealt with code enforcement, only on the private side, but it was really interesting. We handle all the waste code enforcement in the County, and I was in charge of that.

Then, I think around when I went up to a Waste360 for that 40 Under 40, from that time I got promoted again and became the deputy director over the waste operations. Now, on top of everything I already had, I have the disposal side. They said, "Hey, we want you to take care of the waste collection side as well, the hauling side." It was about 350,000 households. When you're in 50 residential routes daily, and over a hundred grapple trucks for bulky waste, about 13 neighborhoods drop-off sites for a residential drop-off of bulky furniture and things like that, some commercial and also hazardous waste sites, and mosquito control.

Mosquito control is a part of the portfolio down here, so back in 2016, we dealt with that whole Zika outbreak down here. I was part of that leadership team, so they said, "Hey, you can do that too." Overall, it was really the responsibility of the 1.8-1.9 million tons a year of waste that we have here, but running just the operations. A few years later after that, they said, "Hey, we want you to become the director of the whole department. Just run the financials, run everything. The administrative part. We have our own accounting, our own HR procurement".

They wanted me to do all that and so I did, essentially becoming the director of the department, basically, the CEO and the CO at the same time, because I'm still involved with the day-to-day operations. I'm basically the CEO-CO of the department. We're talking about half a billion-dollar operation by 1,100 employees. Also doing the waste collection disposal and doing mosquito control on a serving of about 2.8 million residents in the County. We're really known as one of the largest in the Southeastern United States.

Liz, it's been a long journey. I can't believe 25 years have flown. It's basically almost 25, I think about 25 years. I still got a lot more in my tank. I got a long ways to go, so that's where I started. That's how I got here, basically.

[00:07:16] Liz: I love it. Just the way that you've grown over the years, taken on more responsibility, open to that, killing it, and then given more responsibility. You've seen it all. I'm sure that helps, Mike, with the respect that other people within your department have for you. That you've come up, starting from scratch.

[00:07:40] Mike: Yes, it goes a long way. My staff, everybody just really appreciates where I've come from and you're right. Starting from the bottom, basically, they loved the story as I started a temp over 25 years ago and worked my way up. Really been able to work with great people along the way in different capacities, and built some great relationships along the way. I show folks my CDL. I still have my Class B license, just to prove a point that I still could go out and drive a truck if I wanted to. And I have.

I think there've been some publications of me driving the automated side loader, as well as a grapple truck in the past. It's really my way of showing everybody that, "Yes, I've been there with you." It's not like I'm just behind an office, just calling shots and not knowing what I'm talking about, basically. It's great. Yes, you do get that respect. I get that respect from everybody, just for being in the waste industry such a long time and growing through the waste industry.

[00:08:58] Liz: Fantastic. I love it. I love your story and I love to hear the enthusiasm you still have after 25 years in this. It's awesome.

[00:09:07] Mike: Yes [laughs]. Let me tell you, sometimes you tend to hate the garbage, but then you tend to love it. Garbage, the waste industry, is a great industry. The people are just fantastic. It's the hardest group of people that you could think of in any industry. This is it. They're the hardest working group you could-- I mean, pandemic, hurricanes, you name it, they're out there delivering the service. Excellent service, by the way.

[00:09:37] Liz: Right, exactly. The silver lining that has come out of the pandemic is that, really, our industry is deemed essential. It always has been, but now, I think people respect it a bit more and appreciate it more because people tend to forget. Let's talk about that a little bit. I know that you, your department, your area really was resourceful during the pandemic. Can you talk about how it affected your work in your region? 

[00:10:09] Mike: Sure. Early on, yes, about March of last year, I think, when everything started happening. First thing is, "How can we keep our staff safe?" Priority was, one, on the administrative side was, "Hey, we need to send everybody home. I want laptops, let's set remote working locations. I want everybody out of here. Out of the office. Out now." Everybody else was trying to buy laptops, trying to get everybody else to go home and we were able to start early. We started purchasing laptops, we sent everybody--

We sent our IT folks to the people's homes and set them up on virtual networks. We got that part straightened out. That was about 10% of the population that we have, the workforce, is our administrative staff. We sent those folks home. The other priority was, "I don't care where you get it, how you get it, just get it. PPE, personal protective equipment. The mask, the gloves, the sanitizer, the shields." I needed that to happen next. We built a stock room just full of supplies before supplies really got hard to come across to the point that there was a shortage.

I remember talking to our emergency management team, and they were trying to do the same thing, but for police, fire, that essential group. I explained to them, "Hey, we're essential too and we need as much supplies as well." They understood because we're out there. We're still picking up while a lot of the folks were working from home. There's no way you could drive a garbage truck from home. We're not there yet.

We stocked all the personal protective equipment you could think of, gloves, everything, and we built a stock of six months. At least six months' worth of supplies in case of a future shortage, which again, we did come across. Luckily, we had that inventory in our stock room. The next thing was, "Hey, what's the contingency plan? We need a contingency plan. Priority is picking up the garbage. Garbage needs to be picked up because if you don't pick up the garbage during a pandemic, you're going to have another problem in your hand".

We built a list. The great thing with our workforce is a lot of our workforce is internally promoted. They may have been a labor worker. They may have driven a garbage truck. Maybe they'd been on Yellow Iron, so they've all been cross-trained. We built a list of where everybody was prior to their classification they're at right now, to see what experience they had. Because, again, my priority was, "We'd got to pick up the garbage. Can we give up a little bit of the bulky pickups? Can you have some flexibility?" Yes.

Maybe bulky pickups don't need to be prioritized, but the garbage needs to be picked up. We built a good contingency plan. Luckily, we didn't really have to use it. Again, we kept our staff safe. Positivity rates, and at least in our workforce wasn't that bad. We didn't really get hit that hard, but I think it had to do with the separation, the early planning, the protection, just the constant reiterating.

Even though we have three-man trucks, in some cases we had to change our operation, protect our employees, just, again, to try and minimize the impact of COVID. At the end of the day, we had a contingency plan. We had a deep bench, I like to call it, where if push comes to shove and something will happen, we'll still had additional workforce behind the, I guess, the first seat to continue working and picking up the garbage. I tell people all the time, I like to say this was like when you say, "Ready, game, fire".

You could plan along. This is ready, fire, aim. You got to just go on the fly and make decisions, good decisions during a situation like this. We've dealt with hurricanes, we've dealt with tornadoes, we've dealt with other emergencies. The Zika the outbreak with the mosquitoes, but no one ever experienced something like this. It was quite the experience and I'm glad we've come to the finish line, I guess you could say. Again, there was a couple of times during that pandemic where it got a little hairy there. Again, uninterrupted service through the whole pandemic.

We've seen 20-25% increase in tonnages. From everybody working from home, everybody just eating from home, because everybody's taking takeout. Our tonnage just went up, blew out of the roof. Everybody decided to clean out the backyard, start doing their early spring cleaning, just cutting, cleaning out stuff to the curb. I think the industry as a whole just really saw an increase in tonnage, which really put a hurting on our workforce.

We were nonstop and on top of that, you add this extra additional tonnage to our workload. It was really tough. It's stabilized now but, again, it was just good planning. I want to also mention, [unintelligible 00:16:45] and David Biederman really came through in that time with some masks for us as well. Sent me a bunch of masks, I want to say over a thousand masks for our workforce. I think they did that for other organizations as well. [unintelligible 00:17:07] really came through for a lot of the organizations out there during this pandemic. Let me tell you, it's definitely one for the record books. Definitely, I think one for everybody.

[00:17:21] Liz: Definitely. Now, are you seeing a resurgence on the commercial side now that we're getting through and things are opening up?

[00:17:28] Mike: Yes. It starts to come back. We service a small components of commercial, but we're starting to see the commercial side come back a little bit and we're starting to see the residential has stabilized. I don't think the residential is going to come down to pre-COVID time even with growth. Regardless, it's still going to be higher. I think you have seen a shift in the work culture out there that companies are really taking advantage of the work-from-home situation.

Even us, even from a county perspective, we've seen the flexibility and the opportunity there of working from home. I think it's going to be a hybrid. I think the option's going to be there and people are going to utilize it. With saying all that is, I think you're still going to see the tonnage higher than pre-COVID times on the residential side, but it has dropped. It has stabilized to our original forecast what we thought was going to continue happening along the way for another year or so, but it has come down, yes. We have seen a little shift on the commercial side.

[00:18:52] Liz: Interesting. That's a good point, that what our benchmark was pre-pandemic may not be the same benchmark for residential going forward.

[00:19:02] Mike: Yes, exactly. From a company standpoint, from a county standpoint, working from home, I think it's a great thing. I think, again, companies can start looking at office space, saving rent, area. It gives that, I guess, flexibility for employees to maybe if they have that appointment then they have to go to. Attendance will improve because now they can have that flexibility of working from home. Now with all this virtual stuff, we had all this stuff at our fingertips all along, we just never used it [laughs].

Now, virtual means are our normal. How many virtual means do you have? I have a ton of them all the time. It's a great thing. Again, it gives flexibility and convenience. We're starting to get into in-person meetings, but I think the tonnage, I think the residential side's still going to be higher than what we've predetermined, what we pre-estimated prior to COVID. We'll see what happens in the future.

[00:20:24] Liz: Definitely worth watching. I'm just really glad to hear that you all came out of this well and handled it all because it really was a trying year. That's great news. Mike, it seems Miami-Dade is really striving to be an even more sustainable county. How are you helping with that?

[00:20:45] Mike: Liz, we got a lot of things in the pipeline. One is on the sustainability forefront. Electric vehicles, I think, are the future. I think there is gaining momentum out there. You see all the lighter vehicles, your regular vehicle, regular cars out there, Teslas. Yes, I see a lot of the larger manufacturers, like Ford and Chevrolet coming out with their electric lineup. Garbage trucks, I think, are going to be the next big thing with the electric refuse trucks.

We're all over it. We actually just got awarded a $1.8 million from the EPA through a grant to purchase newer diesel technology on this side. We just ordered newer diesel vehicles. They come with better emissions than the older ones that we have now that we're trying to retire. The next one we got coming up, and hopefully we get that grant, is we're going to buy electric vehicles. We're buying electric vehicles. What I want to do with that is see how we could tie that to our waste-to-energy facility.

We do have a waste-to-energy facility down here in Miami.

Again, that was our commitment, I think, from a sustainability standpoint back in the mid-eighties, I believe, that's when that plant was built. It's all about reducing the waste and then making something beneficial out of it. Let's continue that. That electric garbage truck that's picking up that garbage is going to use that same fuel to fuel itself up from the energy that it's processed from the waste energy facility. From the waste that's processed, make energy out of that.

I think it's a great concept. It's a closed-loop concept. That's one of our commitments there on the sustainability forefront. We're actually in the middle of a pilot as well with the Ash and seeing how we could use that aggregate through cement mix. Yes, electric vehicles are definitely the future and we want to jump on that as soon as possible and really start showcasing that down here in Miami-Dade County.

[00:23:35] Liz: That's a perfect location for that. I'm glad to hear about that grant and that you're going to put it to good use. That's great.

[00:23:41] Mike: Yes. I think just the connection, again, with a waste energy facility. We process about 1.1-1.2 million tons to that facility. The beauty of that is, imagine again, that same garbage that garbage truck is picking up, that you're going to process that garbage into renewable energy. I think about it like, you remember the movie Back to the Future?

[00:24:12] Liz: Yes.

[00:24:14] Mike: I may be dating myself a little bit, but yes, Back to the Future. When Doc comes with the DeLorean and he pulls up into Marty's house and then he opens the Black & Decker food processor and he starts dumping banana peels and all that to power the DeLorean. Think about that. That's basically what we're going to be doing. Think about the fuel, the waste energy facility is the fuel station. I don't think we're there yet that you could actually open the Black & Decker and throw garbage and hence to keep fueling the truck, but it may now be the next big thing. Yes, that's how I see it. I think it's going to be a beautiful concept.

[00:24:58] Liz: Me too. I love that. I'm glad you brought up Back to the Future because now we can all envision it as well. Mike, you said you've been doing this for the last 25 years. From your perspective, what has changed the most technology, innovation, people, what do you think?

[00:25:16] Mike: That's the technology for sure. It's come a long way. First of all, 25 years ago we didn't even have GPS on the trucks. You had to go behind trucks, we used to do house counts with a tickler in our hand, counting houses. We used to do our routing on a map, on a true map with pins on the map. We had a black and green screen, basically, to do any couple of route sequencing, things like that. Now, you got all these routing systems. You got GPS, you can find out how long it took it to pick up a home, how many houses you picked up on the road based on just pulling information from a data screen. Technology for sure has changed substantially over 25 years. The great thing is, again, growing up in the waste industry from 25 years ago now, I've been able to see all that. Really, I could connect the dots on how to, somehow, link together what we did 25 years ago and throughout that time into future technology.

One of the things we will love to do in the future here in Miami-Dade County is I would love to put tablets. We already have tablets in some of our trucks and we're doing a pilot with that, but it's just to automate everything. Automate the process, get away from the paperwork, get away from paper altogether. That's another sustainable priority we got here. Trying to get away from paper, just into tablets, the future technology where that residential automated truck, when he or she is driving up your neighborhood, let's say your lids broken off, or let's say your wheel's broken.

They could just press a button on their tablet and the firehouse, it pulls up all your account information and, "Hey, let me put a work order in for you." So you don't have to call in. They could do it for you. You don't have to call in saying your lid broke. They sent a work order to our car crews and we get that job done without you having to do anything. That's really a great service delivery. That's one thing of technology that we would like to look at, is putting tablets in every truck.

Again, we already have a few tablets in our bulky trucks where when they pick up a pile in front of your house, they could take pictures of the pile. Then you get a notification via text or email that says, "Hey, we picked up your pile" or, "We're on our way." Once we were done, again, it sends you a confirmation that's all done, it's all cleaned up. I think that's just the beginning stages of that, but technology is really the future. We want to look at putting cameras on the trucks where somehow we could connect the dots with other departments and maybe potholes, our public works department.

Maybe one of the trucks driving down the street, you could pull information or a report, like automated AI technology, basically. Maybe stop signs are down, could send it to our sister departments where you don't have to have somebody driving around looking for that or somebody calling in once, unfortunately, when an accident happens or something happens. Definitely, technology's come a long way over 25 years in the waste industry. And people. Let me tell you, workforce, and I think it's something that everybody's experiencing. Now, especially after the pandemic, the workforce has changed. Your workforce definitely is a lot more technology-savvy, basically.

It's hard to find people that want to drive a truck. What we've done here is, again, we do our internal training. You can come as an entry-level labor worker and we're going to help you get your license, teach you how to drive a truck, provide you promotional opportunities to even become a supervisor one day. Workforce has changed where you have more of a selection out there. Nowadays is hard to come across experienced drivers. It's hard. You're competing against Amazon. You're competing against these other logistical companies and they pay very well.  It's hard to come across resources. I think those are two things that changed, actually, in the past 25 years.

[00:30:39] Liz: That makes sense. You're speaking at WasteExpo, really looking forward to that. Can you tell folks what they can expect from your session?

[00:30:51] Mike: Sure. I'm doing a session. I'm part of a group there. we're going to be talking about COVID, our experiences with COVID, and what we did to continue our operations. Basically, talk about how to plan ahead. I love planning for a pandemic. I don't know how you do that, but I think it's more about just how to make good sound decisions during emergency situations. Just our experiences on what we've dealt with. I know there's been a lot of folks out there giving their experience.

Everybody has their own experience and everything. Every operation's different. Yes, we're going to talk a little bit about COVID. Hopefully, that'll be the end of talking about COVID. Hopefully, we can just move on and get away from COVID and just get back to normal. Yes, it's going to be a great session. We'll talk a little bit about that and how we deal with emergencies down here in Miami-Dade County.

[00:32:05] Liz: People will definitely get a lot out of that because you've talked about some of those challenges, Zika, hurricanes, and, of course, the pandemic. I can't wait to hear more on-site.

[00:32:17] Mike: Yes. It's going to be fun and it's going to be great to get out again and see everybody in Las Vegas. It's going to be fun.

[00:32:25] Liz: Yes, definitely. I think we're all pretty ready to get back together finally [laughs]. 

[00:32:31] Mike: Yes, finally.

[00:32:33] Liz: You're one of our prestigious 40 Under 40 alums, so you know what it takes to be young and successful, Mike. Do you have any advice for people entering the industry?

[00:32:47] Mike: By the way, I just want to mention we have another 40 Under 40 recipient coming now from my organization here, from Solid Waste down here, Kisha Murray. She's our code enforcement manager and she just got selected too, so she'll be going to Vegas as well to, basically, be recognized there at the 40 Under 40. So we got other alumni coming from Miami-Dade County Solid Waste, so it's great.

The advice I'll give folks coming into the industry will be, try and learn as much as possible. Listen to people, listen to everybody. Because listening is a big thing, and you just got to learn from listening, I'd like to say. It's definitely an industry with, again, like I mentioned earlier, great people, hardworking people. You're going to get into a leadership role, build your team, have vision, surround yourself with good people. Yes, just take it. When you come into this industry, get to know everybody, take advantage of the different areas you work in.

You could do it in the private sector. You could be in sales. You could be in operations. You could be on the business side of things. Just really absorb all of that because I was able to do that long time ago, and I really appreciate just getting to know the overall business on the private side, as well as the public side. I liked interacting with people. Try to interact with as many people as you can, learn every segment of the business, and you will eventually be successful in that arena. It's just a great beginning.

The waste industry is a great industry to be in. I think there's always going to be garbage. There's always going to be recycling. Waste industry is something that's necessary. I think is recession-proof, it's pandemic proof, and it's very resilient. I think it's a great industry to get in, get involved. Again, if you get in, listen to the people, learn as much as you can, and get ready for a fun industry to be part of.

[00:35:34] Liz: Love that. So true about the people. Thank you also for mentoring mentioning Kisha Murray, because she's special too. Her nomination stood out like yours did. She just worked her way up, has kept on going, and has impressed people along the way. Thank you for mentioning her. I'm really looking forward to meeting her.

[00:35:58] Mike: Yes, Kisha is a great person. I got to work with Kisha when I became the assistant director over the disposal ops operations there. She was very eager to learn and very eager to move up. She's very motivated and definitely has come a long way. She was very excited when she got the news that she was selected and she's looking forward to it. I'll be at her side up there in Vegas. I'll be doing my session, but I'll also be there along her side during the award ceremony. I think it's a great thing. You've got 2018 recipient and then you got now 2021 side by side alumni. Good stuff.

[00:36:53] Liz: It is good stuff. I think it says a lot about the culture that you are nourishing and fostering down there. I know that you all have won some awards too outside of ours, can you talk about those? They're pretty prestigious.

[00:37:08] Mike: We've been recognized NACo awards of the National Association. We received the achievement awards for our Illegal Dumping Prevention campaigns, as well as using aluminum trailers. We've transitioned to these aluminum trailers, lighter trailers. Prior, we were using steel trailers, which we got away from that. Our Recycle Right Campaign was also recognized. Our Mosquito Control Wolbachia Program was also recognized.

We got the GFOA certificate of excellence for producing great financial documentation on the administrative side of our organization. We just received a bond rating upgrade from Fitch and S&P maybe about six months ago. We were, I think, the only department that received upgrades in our bond ratings in the middle of this whole pandemic. Yes, we're doing good things down here. Definitely doing good things down here.

[00:38:37] Liz: It's great to see and great that you're getting recognized for it. I love that. Keep it up, I know you will. Mike, is there anything else you want to share before I let you go about your busy day?

[00:38:48] Mike: No. Look, again, it's been a great ride. Great journey, I'd say that. Being in the waste industry, we got good things coming over the horizon. Again, waste and energy. We want to look at, hopefully, building a new plant in the near future. The last plant that was built in the United States was in 2015, and we want to be the next one to build that next new plant. Definitely, we got lot of projects coming in and you'll be hearing more about Miami-Dade County.

It's a great organization down here of people and what we do down here. I think pretty much you could equate this to an area or a region in the private sector. We got it all. It's a fully integrated solid waste system here with landfills, collection, hauling, you name it, we got it. You're definitely going to hear more about us in the near future, so stay tuned.

[00:40:09] Liz: You have to keep us posted and I love to hear what you're working on. You are like your own ecosystem down there. I love it. You're working toward that closed-loop that everyone is aiming towards so, congrats, Mike, I'm so glad to hear about all these good things happening.

[00:40:28] Mike: Yes, Liz. Definitely stay tuned and we'll see what comes next. I'm sure you'll hear about it somewhere, some way. You could read all about it, so stay tuned.

[00:40:48] Liz: Sounds good. I look forward to seeing you at WasteExpo.

[00:40:53] Mike: Likewise, I'm looking forward to it, seeing everybody and seeing you. Please, come to our session on COVID and hear all about what we did down here.

[00:41:08] Liz: Okay, we'll do. Thanks, Mike. Have a good rest of the day and we'll chat soon.

[00:41:13] Mike: You too. Thanks, Liz. Thanks for having me on the show.

[00:41:17] Liz: Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast. If you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun, Nothing Wasted Podcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.

[music] 

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