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Eyes Wide Open: Talking EREF, Rising Stars, Technology and More (Transcript)

[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.

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[00:00:25] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Ron McCracken who has served in many leadership positions over his 30-plus years in the industry, and he's a great friend of Waste360. Welcome, Ron, and big thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:40] Ron McCracken: Liz, happy to be here.

[00:00:42] Liz: Well, we're so excited to talk to you. To start, we usually go way back for people, Ron. Could you please tell us about your background? And how you found this wonderful industry and made it your home for so long?

[00:00:55] Ron: Sure. I got into the industry in 1988 in the non-mobile equipment manufacturing side of the industry. I had been trained as a lawyer and I often say that I ultimately did the only thing that lawyers can do without extra training, and that is build dumpsters. I began in 1980 to build non-mobile waste handling equipment and continued manufacturing through 2007.

Through that period of time, I was very active in our trade association, which at the time was the National Solid Waste Management Association, and helped in 1993 to form our foundation, the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, which I hope we'll get a chance to talk a little bit more about. I continued to be active in the industry, even after manufacturing as a consultant to the industry.

Over those years, I served in many volunteer leadership roles, starting off in membership. Along the way, the chairman of the equipment side of the industry's trade association served on the board of trustees of now the National Waste & Recycling Association on three different occasions. I've been the chairman of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation and just finished a decade-long stint as the volunteer director of development for the Environmental Research & Education Foundation. Enjoyed a lot of time in the industry.

[00:02:48] Liz: Definitely. You've seen a lot and I love that. Speaking of the EREF, really you were one of the founding fathers, sort of speak. Can you tell me more about EREF origin's story? Why it has such a special place in your heart?

[00:03:03] Ron: Sure. I think founding father might overstate my involvement. I was there at the beginning in a support capacity to a number of industry icons who had the desire to get back to the industry and have been enjoyed successful careers in the industry and wanted to do it in a meaningful and lasting way. The most prominent name in that group was Lonnie Poole, Lonnie was fond of saying that there was a huge disconnect in our industry between science and policy.

The Environmental Research & Education Foundation was founded by Lonnie and some of his peers in the service side of the industry to create an organization that would devote energy and money to marrying science with policy. I can't overstate how big of a disconnect there was then and continues to be in some ways with the regulatory scheme applied to our industry and the actual science that the industry now can deploy to deal with problems of air and water emission.

The EREF has done a huge job over time. But going back to the beginning, about a half a dozen iconic members of the industry, Bob Duncan's name comes to mind, Dwight [unintelligible 00:04:45], Lonnie Poole, could put in some money, other donations were made and the foundation was formed in 1992-1993. It took a new form in 1998 when we spun out of the then DIA, to become an independent 501(c)3, and has really taken off since then. I think of the 110 or so research grants that the EREF has granted over its lifetime, more than 80% has come after the organization became independent in 1998.

[00:05:34] Liz: It seems like a big part of their mission has been scholarships and really moving forward the young science and the young people in the industry. Have you seen that as well?

[00:05:50] Ron: Absolutely. The scholarship program really got off the ground several years after the foundation was up and running doing research with a grant from the Fiessinger Foundation. Francois Fiessinger was a member of our original board, he was a French scientist and executive from PETA, a large French infrastructure company, so waste and wastewater. Francois passed away tragically in a skiing accident, and his family and company, to honor his passion for science, provided us with a donation to permanently endow a doctoral or post-doctoral student who is working in the solid waste field.

That started us off, and the Fiessinger scholar is still awarded today. I can't tell you how many we've had, but it's probably been a dozen. It's not just a year when we take a Fiessinger scholar, like all our scholars, we commit to them for the length of their education.

A Fiessinger scholarship would be two or three years, a post-doctoral scholarship might be two or three years, a doctoral scholarship two or three years. But since inception our totals for scholarship had been almost two million dollars, there's been almost 90 scholars over that period of time.

It's been an extraordinary robust program that has expanded over time. If you dig into the EREF website and see who are making donations and naming these scholarships, it's a who's is who of the public and private companies in our industry, it's gotten a lot of traction and it's been a lot of good.

The agenda at the very beginning of the scholarship program was to provide the academia with people who were educated and knowledgeable about the solid waste and municipal solid waste systems and processes in the United States, so that the regulatory scheme would ultimately be driven by academically based science and sound practice. Essentially, trying to seed academia with people who were knowledgeable about our industry as opposed to people armed with a misapprehension about our industry and what our contribution is. What we want the people who know about it and it had been educated about it to be our regulators.

This has worked, the huge majority of the people that have been involved in the EREF scholarship program, and the data and intern program have gone on to work in the industry, academia or government. Slowly over time, we've created -or helped create- a group of scientists and regulators who know what we do, know the complexities of our solution for discards and understand the science and sound policy that we apply when we handle this societal issue. It's been really great.

[00:10:01] Liz: That's great and it's wonderful that is part of your legacy too. At WasteExpo, one of the highlights of the event is the EREF auction that supports this, their mission, and I know you must have one or two fun stories from the EREF auction over the years. You're willing to share? [laughs]

[00:10:22] Ron: Sure. Well, kudos to Fred Leach, who at the time was the family operator of the Leach Company, an iconic name in the industry. Fred was a member of the original Foundation Board of Directors, the only supplier member on the original board. Fred wanted to participate by donating a Leach body to the foundation and having the foundation monetize that.

We said, "Well, why not have an auction?". An auction was built around that first gift of a body and there were several other donations, were solicited, and I had a part in that. I had a donation in the very first auction in my company, which was then called Best Pack. But in any event, the auction got off the ground and continued to grow over the years to the point where we had to limit the number of items in the live auction and create a silent auction to allow for greater participation.

The auction has as a practical matter, funded all of the -I would say- overhead expenses of the foundation. All of the salaries and benefits, all of the rent and supplies, all of the travel and the general operational costs of the foundation, allowing any other money raised to go completely to scholarships and/or research. The auction has been a huge benefit to the foundation.

The participants in the auction fall into two great categories. One is the suppliers to the industry. The major suppliers to the industry donate equipment, which is auctioned off.

The other participants are the service providers in what we call CEO events -or what everybody calls CEO events- where the CEOs of the various public companies agree to donate some of their time to be auctioned off. Playing around the golf, going fishing, a dinner, there's all sorts of format. Don Slager, the CEO of Republic picks the winners of his package to the New York Stock Exchange for a tour and a dinner in New York City. Those CEO events have been very popular as well.

The participants in both donating and purchasing the items in the auction are [unintelligible 00:13:42] of the service providers, the manufacturers and the private companies in our industry. Although there's not often bargains at the auction, there is the opportunity to make a case by your donation or by your purchase that you're a significant participant in the industry, which is recognized and appreciated by the whole EREF's stakeholder community.

[00:14:16] Liz:  It really has become that, the best way to really support the industry. We see that every year and it's a beautiful thing.

[00:14:26] Ron: Yes, Liz, it really is. The participation in the Environment Research & Education Foundation is a great way to connect with the industry. Our industry is a very large industry but it is a smaller fraternity of key participants, that is the c-level staff of the major public and private companies, the upper management of the larger suppliers.

The principals of a lot of the private companies, which aren't so small, but are still family-run, they're all stakeholders in the industry. The same thing in the private supplier group, there's several hundred family-owned businesses that are focused on the waste industry from the supplier standpoint.

Many of them are active in the EREF, so it's a great way to connect to the industry, to interact with your peers and to interact with current or prospective customers. It makes business sense to be involved in the EREF foundation and it gives you the opportunity to participate in the future of the industry because, the EREF is on the cutting edge of the science and evaluating some of the technologies that are applied to the industry. If you're not involved in the EREF -and I know that many people who might hear this podcast are- but if you're not, it is an awesome way to connect to the industry, to become part of the industry leadership and be recognized for that by your peers, your customers and potential customers. Dig in a little bit, see how you fit and what stakeholder you can be, it doesn't have to be expensive, but you should look at it.

[00:16:50] Liz: That's great advice. Overall, Ron, you've seen so much in your 30-plus year career in this fabulous industry. What surprises you the most about the industry now compared to when you first started in 1988?

[00:17:06] Ron: Well, I don't know. I've had to go back in time to see what evidence to surprise, but when I first got into the industry a surprising number of the EEOs -and this may sound gruesome- but they did not have all the fingers on both hands. What I'm saying there is they worked their way up in the industry from the back of a truck.

That is the case now in a lot of the privately-held companies. The publicly held companies had become more managed by garbage men, but not by garbage men who started out throwing bags of trash into the back of the truck. That's a change, and it's a change for the better.

Again, not taking anything away from the traditional pathway up the back of the truck but, our industry has been able to grow by embracing knowledge and technology that comes from outside of the industry. When you get too insular, you slow down and you don't maybe grow as well as you should, intellectually technology-wise. As when you bring in people with experience from outside the industry they'll help you better understand how you can be better inside the industry. That was a huge change.

Another one that I really love to see is the embracing of technology. It hasn't been that long that the highest level of technology that we used in our industry was a review camera so the driver could see what was behind him. Now, the in-cab technology applied on a modern garbage truck is incredible in terms of what it's done for the safety of the industry, for the efficiency of the industry, for the productivity of the industry, for the productivity of the drivers and the safety of the drivers, and it's really incredible.

The software that was deployed that the company level might have included a routing program, and now our industry is embracing analytics to help them understand customer churn and we have technology that allows us visibility into what's in our containers win. There's an incredible amount of technology that is now, not only available, but being deployed in our industry. That is a big change and maybe 1988 observations would not have predicted that.

Even social media and web-based access to garbage services have got traction now in our industry. You can be a customer of some of the larger companies in our industry without ever talking to anybody, just through the web. We all know people who don't like to talk to people, they're happy to work through the web and that is now available to them.

Our industry is leading the technological challenges of the current economy and the current population, learning from them and folding them into our operations. It's pretty interesting, again, from the 1988 view of the industry, how technology now is part of what we do.

[00:21:23] Liz: It is, and it's just ingrained. Really, so much more to watch for AI, robotics, it's been really fun. Electrification of fleets, right? There's just so much happening, it's an exciting time.

[00:21:37] Ron: Absolutely, the idea of electric trucks has been around a long time. Probably in the early 2000s I took a prototype electric truck proposal, a group of people that it's been off in GM, introduce them to the industry and the industry was, “No, we're okay”. Went on to embrace CNG in a big way, which is a super positive thing, but now, again, if you follow Waste360's news lines, major west coast organizations had committed in all-electric fleets going forward. That's pretty interesting.

You also mentioned AI being deployed in our material handling facilities is -again- it's going to improve the safety and the productivity of those operations while, at the same time, improving the quality of the output, it's the perfect solution. We're not actually at the front end of that, but we're at the beginning in terms of how good and effective that will come over time. Pretty excited about that.

[00:23:03] Liz: It is, that's exciting. Also, Ron, you've been a valuable part of the 40 Under 40 process here at Waste360, thank you again for that. Now, speaking of innovations in the future, what impresses you most about the young professionals who are entering the industry now?

[00:23:21] Ron: Well, when you're a senior member of the industry, which I hope I'm not taking the liberty by identifying myself as that. One of the things that you should worry about is school takes your place. The 40 Under 40 exercise has helped me to understand that there is a bunch of people who are eager and capable with long runways, deep understandings of the industry and technical expertise that's just off the charts, that are already here, they're already in our industry, they're turning around. Some run their own companies, some are part of larger companies, but they're not out there to be found, they're in here working.

It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get a chance to see some of these people through their applications and meet them. The largest takeaway for me is that when we selected 40, we didn't select a whole lot more that were, maybe not equally, but just behind by an inch. This isn't a small crowd of people, this is a large crowd of people and I'm certainly excited about that

[00:25:00] Liz: Well, you're right. We always are amazed that we get nearly 300 or more nominations and then really it could be 80, it could be 120 because they're doing such interesting and innovative things. It is tough. Any advice you would have for people entering our industry?

[00:25:22] Ron: My advice for people entering the industry would be to have a very open perspective about what your contribution could be. Everybody has a job, you got to do that job and do it well. Obviously, focus a lot of time and energy on that, but entering the industry keep your eyes open for what's going on around you, that's happening both successfully and, maybe not so successfully, and be open to opportunities to suggest or develop improvements, or even [unintelligible 00:26:08] ideas to do something that's not been done before rather than just better something that's already happening.

Our industry is full of opportunities, not only in the existing career pathways, but in ones that we haven't really even thought of. Again, if you go back 10 or 15 years, look at what a waste company looks like and then you flash-forward to today, it's a dramatically different organization with a lot more technology and science being utilized.

I think that, again, that's the beginning of what is out there. Now, I see that partly from what EREF is looking at in terms of problems and solutions for the future, but also in the 40 Under 40 when the wide variety of approaches that are taken towards the discard stream, there's just an incredible amount of opportunity out there. Our society here in the US will change, not quickly and dramatically, but we will change what the discard stream looks like, and it is regionally variant. There is a ton of resources that still are not extracted from the waste stream as it passes through the disposal process and there's a lot of opportunity in that in my opinion.

My recommendation to people getting into the industry is, keep your eyes open, keep you're thinking cap on. Don't be afraid to bring an idea or pursue an idea that maybe sounds strange to some of your co-workers because, if it wasn't strange somebody else would already have thought of it, so go get them.

[00:28:21] Liz: I love that, that's great advice. Ron, anything else you think we should be paying attention to in the world of waste recycling and organics?

[00:28:33] Ron: Well, in general -and this is a thematic of my whole view of the industry- is that the discard stream has a lot of opportunity in it. Some of that opportunity is economically driven, the steel scrap guys and the ferrous and non-ferrous metal people has taken that out of the discard stream because it's valuable and they can make money at it. The tires and let acid battery people have taken that out of the waste stream because it's funded by disposal fees that are collected on the front end.

The organics are being primarily driven by political, I want to say political considerations, but I'll tweak that a little bit. They're not necessarily politics, but it's a governmental mandate that is pulling organics out of the waste stream because, right now, there is not an economic case for it. For separate collection, separate transportation, separate disposal and extraction of the value from organics through one of several different means. All net costs money, especially when compared to other disposal options, but it's being driven by government.

The point is that economics change and what's valuable to be extracted will expand, the regulatory scheme changes, what's required to be extracted will expand and these are all opportunities. We as an industry have embraced them, we need to continue to embrace them, gobble them up, fight them where appropriate, but when it's clear that something's going to happen then lets us be the ones to do that.

We need to handle all of our customer's needs, not allow a different organization to come in and get involved with our customer's discard stream. My view of the changing nature of the discard stream is it represents both an opportunity to grow your business and a danger that someone else may come in and get in between you and your customer. I would be on the lookout for that and try to be on the forefront of the changing discard stream.

[00:31:32] Liz: That's a great perspective. Ron, what are you up to now?

[00:31:36] Ron: Well, I am getting comfortable with the R word, retirement. In my generation, you defer gratification because you're going to retire and do something great, after you've worked really hard, save money and whatever.

My wife and I, who- Sue is in public accounting for her career, have decided that now is our time. We are unbundling that deferred gratification, we're living in our wonderful home in North Carolina, we're traveling, we're spending time with relatives, grandnieces, nephews, grandchildren, lots of involvement with industry friends. We're in the R part of our life right now, enjoying it.

[00:32:29] Liz: Good for you. I know you have a lot of travel coming up, I wish you both the best, you deserve that. Enjoy every minute of it with your- you say retirement, but you still have the wide-eyed curiosity of a child, what a great time to enjoy that. That's awesome, Ron.

[00:32:46] Ron: Thank You, Liz. Thank you for letting me participate in your podcast.

[00:32:50] Liz: It's been so fun. Before we go, do you have any last words about the EREF auction, that's coming up at WasteExpo in May?

[00:32:59] Ron: Well, I want to encourage. If you've been involved in the auction thank you so much, it's been great in terms of the value that's brought to the industry and hopefully, it's brought you value; if you've not been involved in the option reach out to the EREF, go into their website, look at their contact possibilities and explore how you can become a stakeholder. There are no dues to be a stakeholder at EREF, if you get involved you're a stakeholder.

You can get involved in a number of ways, there's committee activity, there is the silent auction at WasteExpo, there is the live auction at WasteExpo. Those are really great ways to connect. Again, if you drill down on their website and talk to the EREF people, you'll find that they're friendly and open to engaging you, involving you in their development efforts, in their policy setting efforts, and in their research effort.

Please, take a good hard look at that and if you do nothing else attend the auction, there are complimentary adult beverages, which might be enough to draw some people, there is usually a raffle that you can get involved in, you certainly can participate in the auction process.

This is Wednesday at WasteExpo in New Orleans, it's a not to miss the event and give Liz thank you for letting me talk a little bit about the foundation and thank you for having me as a guest.

[00:34:50] Liz: Thank you, Ron. It's been so fun as usual, have the best trip and we hope to connect when you're back.

[00:34:57] Ron: Thank you.

[00:34:58] Liz: Thanks, Ron.

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