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What a Recycling Firm Did to Become One of the Nation’s Top Workplaces

While the founders of Northstar Recycling were busy fostering a fun, team-driven, dog-friendly corporate culture, they simultaneously created one of the 100 Best Workplaces for Women.

The Massachusetts-based company’s superstar status became public last week when it was ranked No. 21 on Fortune’s inaugural list, shining alongside companies such as Texas Health Resources and Build-A-Bear Workshop, and besting national outfits such as The Container Store, Edward Jones, Hyatt Hotels and Quicken Loans.

Northstar was also the sole representative from the waste and recycling industry which got us thinking: How has this fast-growing company been able to become a standout in such a male-dominated industry?

Seth Goodman, CEO and co-owner of Northstar, and Emily Wilson, marketing manager, were more than happy to share with Waste360 the company’s guiding principles and the behind-the-scenes efforts Goodman credits with earning this recognition.

Waste360: How did you come to be involved with the Fortune magazine award?

Seth Goodman: Our marketing team here found out that Fortune puts out a survey for the best places to work. We decided that we would participate in it. About six months ago they surveyed all of our employees. They asked us a lot of different questions about our workplace, both from a culture point of view also to how our company operates on a day-to-day basis. Based on our responses, plus the survey responses they got, they were really impressed and we made the list.

Emily Wilson: It was by chance that one day I was looking through my news feed on the computer and saw Fortune's “Best Companies to Work For” ranking for the year. I thought, "That would be an interesting competition to participate in. I know our employees here have communicated frequently how we have great respect for our company culture." I looked into it a little bit further and we went through this lengthy process, which is handled by a third-party organization called Great Place to Work.

All of our employees had to take an anonymous survey. The results were then evaluated by Great Place to Work. Part of how we were chosen for this inaugural award, I guess, is that when they looked through our results, we were one of the top companies to have survey results from our female employees, especially, across the board, ranking us as a very welcoming environment for them to work and also, having equal opportunities for them across the board.

When we originally were participating in this, we didn't even know that they had a category for specifically looking at places focused for women. This came about this year. They released it as a surprise after we went through their survey process and they got back to us and said, "Congratulations, we think you would be a great fit for this."

Waste360: So you didn’t even technically apply for this distinction? Wow. What was your reaction when you found out?

Seth Goodman: We were very surprised, because, number one, we are a 32-person company. We did not think that Fortune was going to recognize us with the other thousands of companies that were competing. In addition, we're in an industry that had the reputation of being a male-dominated industry with lots of stereotypes about who works in the waste and recycling industry.

We're really excited because we look for the best people and it doesn't matter whether it's men or women or by race or ethnicity. We're not necessarily building a company that is focused on making it a great place to work for women. We're focused on building a great company that's a great place to work for everybody.

Waste360: According to the company profile created by Great Place to Work, 17 of your 32 employees are women and women make up 45 percent of your managerial team across Northstar’s five offices. Do you have any intentional hiring and human resources strategies targeted to attracting women?

Seth Goodman: The short answer is no. We've experienced some really rapid growth. In the beginning of 2012, we had 12 employees. Here we are three-and-a-half years later with 32 people. We've done a lot of hiring. We're looking for good people. It just so happens that the majority of the people that we were hiring have been women.

We've got a really good maternity and paternity policy, but it's the same policy for both women and men--eight weeks off and two of the eight weeks are fully paid. We want to try to give the equal benefits to everybody.

When my brother, Noah, and I started the company we founded the company on six core values. We said to ourselves, "We are only going to build our company with people that represent and that live the core values that are most important to us." We firmly believe that our success and our growth are directly correlated to our adherence to our core values. Every decision we make on a day to day basis ultimately comes back to ... "Does it violate any of our core values? Is it congruent with our core values?"

We have a very ethical environment where all six core values that we have are really based on integrity. When we're hiring, we're hiring for culture first and then aptitude second.

That, I think, is the foundation of our success. Everything is built from there.

Waste360: What are those core values?

Seth Goodman: One is that we like to have fun. We make it an atmosphere here where people enjoy being here. We have special events all the time. We have free lunches once a week for every employee at a local diner. We have a dog-friendly office. We have a kitchen that is overflowing with free beverages and free snacks. We have a masseuse come in once a month for massages for everybody. We do contests for fantasy football and college basketball. We have an on-site barber shop. We have a lounge with a TV. We have satellite radio for all the offices so everybody can pick what kind of music they want to listen to while they're working, a patio with a grill outside. Everybody gets company apparel.

My brother and I are family-based people. Our philosophy is that, if the people within our family and our company are happy and feel like they're valued, they're going to produce great results for us. We believe that that's the case. I'm a little biased, because I'm one of the owners, but I think the results of this survey that our employees feel the same way that my brother and I do, that this is a great place to work and that we've provided an environment where people can feel safe. They feel like their voice is heard. They feel like they can come to me or my brother or any other supervisors and they're heard and valued.

Waste360: Sounds like it really is a great place to work. You mentioned team-building earlier, can you give me some examples how that plays out in the workplace?

Seth Goodman: Every day at 11 a.m., we have an all-company, 15- to 20-minute meeting. Everybody in the company, all 32 of us, we go around and everybody talks about what their main priority is for the day. We talk about where we feel stuck. What's really great about that all-company meeting is that it focuses everyone's attention on what to be working on, what their main priority should be for the day.

The real value is that people are very comfortable talking about where they're stuck. That causes issues that, in other companies, tend to stay under the surface and don't get drawn out. They come out on a daily basis here and then we're able to deal with them and move on.

We have several different offices around the country. We bring everybody here every quarter for a half-day business meeting, followed by an evening of fun. We've done a scavenger hunt, painting party and we've had a professional square dance caller come in and run a square dance party.

In addition to that, we do an annual trip for everybody in the company. Everyone doesn't go on the same trip, but we have two trips a year and we split the company by department. This past year, one group went on a three-day white water rafting trip. The other group went to a spa resort in upstate New York. In the past we’ve gone to a dude ranch, taken a ski trip out to Jackson Hole and an R&R excursion down to South Beach. We try to do high-end trips that we do once a year that every employee gets to participate in.

Waste360: Any advice for other companies looking to improve their corporate culture and become more welcoming to women?

Seth Goodman: What my advice would be is start with culture first, strategy second. As Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." I refer to that a lot and I firmly believe it's true. If you have the right culture, the same strategy that you implement is going to be a lot easier because you're going to have buy-in from your people. My advice is create a culture where people feel safe, where they feel valued, where they feel heard and where they have fun.

U.S., Swiss Companies Partner on Plastics Recycling Sorting

U.S. and Swiss companies are partnering to offer plastics recyclers a solution for plastic bottle and flake sorting.

Nashville, Tenn.-based National Recovery Technologies (NRT) is entering a strategic agreement with Buhler Sortex, London, part of the Uzwil, Switzerland-based Buhler Group, to provide their technologies, engineering, customer and support networks, according to a news release.

The partnership between NRT and Buhler Sortex expands their efforts in the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sorting operations in both Europe and North America. It also strengthens their continuing expansion in the PET and HDPE sorting segment, across Europe and North America.  In addition, it strengthens their position as leading joint suppliers of combined plastic bottle and flake sorting solutions to the plastics recycling industry, with technologies such as In-Flight Sorting, PET Boost, Label Reduction Kit and Smart-Eject.

The partnership also will provide access to both companies’ range of capabilities, including system design, on-site management, installation and product training. In addition, the partnership will include close collaboration with key members of the technology value chain.

“We’re excited to bring the industry’s first complete offering to market that doesn’t require a plastics recycler to compromise on bottle or flake sorting performance and provides high-quality, local support,” said NRT President Matthias Erdmannsdoerfer. “We look forward to building a strong partnership with Buhler Sortex and our customers across Europe and North America.”

Adds Charith Gunawardena, head of Optical Sorting at Buhler Sortex, “This landmark agreement signifies our confidence in the future growth of recycling. It also strengthens our industry references and reinforces our leading role in optical sorting.”

Global plastics production has increased by 10 million metric tons to about 280 million metric tons in 2011, continuing a growth rate of 9 percent per annum. Europe and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) region comprise 41 percent of the world’s total plastic materials production, which has driven demand for integrated bottle and flake sorting solutions, as companies strive to meet government recycling targets and corporate social responsibility pledges.

Meanwhile, there is a recycling commodity glut in the world because of depressed worldwide prices, slower demand from China and lower oil prices impacting recycling plastics, Leone Young wrote in her most recent Business Insights, which summarized some of the major takeaways from the Waste360 Recycling Summit in September.

But deals continue. This month, Novolex has purchased Wisconsin Film & Bag (WFB), a plastic bag and film manufacturer and recycler. The Shawano, Wis.-based WFB operates a plastics recycling plant and converting facility near its headquarters. It makes custom polyethylene bags and films as well recycled and sustainable materials.

How Siemens Plans to Leverage Gas-to-Energy Technology

Through its acquisition of Dresser-Rand, Siemens, a global technology company that produces energy-efficient, resource-saving technologies, will now be commercializing Ener-Core’s gas-to-energy technology as part of its environmental solutions portfolio of products.  This is a significant development for Irvine, California-based Ener-Core Inc., which designs and manufactures systems that generate base load, clean power from waste gasses. 

During a special event held in September 2015, Dresser-Rand and Ener-Core demonstrated how this technology allows clients to now use waste gas as viable fuel to generate electricity.

Waste360 recently sat down with Alain Castro, CEO of Ener-Core, to discuss Ener-Core’s technology. 

Waste360: Describe Dresser-Rand and Ener-Core’s integrated gas turbine technology.

Alain Castro: Ener-Core’s technology replaces the combustor in Dresser-Rand’s gas turbine allowing for power generation from gases that traditionally are considered waste. The Ener-Core technology, the power oxidizer, is an alternative to traditional air abatement technologies that allows for a productive use of an otherwise burdensome waste stream.

The Power Oxidation technology which was originally termed “gradual oxidation” has been developed over a 10-year period. From 2011 to 2013, the technology was operated in a long-term trial funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2014, the technology was first made commercially available by Ener-Core.

 Waste360: How can Ener-Core prompt industries to become more sustainable?

Alain Castro: We believe that the best way to prompt industries to become more sustainable is to provide them with tools that make sustainable processes profitable. Ener-Core is providing a wide range of industries with an opportunity to profit from their greenhouse gas emissions, by using these emissions to generate power. The power generated from these waste gases can be sold or used on-site. Either way, this solution will have a direct effect on the financial bottom line of the underlying industrial facility.

One of our first customers, Pacific Ethanol, has already announced that it will reduce the operating costs at one of its plants by approximately $4 million a year. We expect for many other companies, across a wide range of industries, to be making similar announcements soon. This is not simply another technology that will enable industries to improve their air emissions. This is an opportunity for industries to lower their operating costs and become more competitive by monetizing their waste gases.

Waste360: How does it work?

Alain Castro: The gases are compressed, heated and mixed with air in the Power Oxidizer vessel. The contents of the vessel are typically maintained at approximately 95 percent air and 5 percent gas. The oxidizer vessel is a pressure vessel filled with ceramic materials.

  • At controlled high temperatures, the gas molecules have enough energy to react quickly when they meet with the air molecules. But this rapid reaction or oxidation is achieved without the chain reaction needed for ignition or combustion to take place.
  • During a long residence timeless than two secondsall the compounds collide with an oxygen molecule and the oxidation reaction occurs in the pressure vessel.
  • Energy is released from the oxidation reaction, heating the chamber and the gas in the chamber. Again, this is accomplished without ignition of the gas. 
  • Excess heat is carried out of the oxidization chamber with the gas that is then used to spin a turbine and generate power.

Waste360: How is the energy produced?

Alain Castro: The energy, which is already present in the waste gases, is converted through oxidation to thermal energy. Historically, the energy that is present in gases is released via ignition (combustion), but Ener-Core’s approach enables the generation of thermal energy without igniting the gases. The heat is then used to drive a turbine and spin the shaft of an electric generator to generate electrical energy.

There are three power sizes: 250 kilowatts, 333 kilowatts and 2 megawatts. And all are commercially available in the U.S.

Waste360: How is this different from other systems?

Alain Castro: Traditionally, a gas turbine results from integrating a gas combustion chamber with rotating equipment. However, many waste gases produced by industry are not fit for combustion, and hence the combustion chamber often prevents a turbine—or an enginefrom being capable of using many waste gases as an inlet fuel. Ener-Core’s systemthe power oxidizer—is a replacement of the combustion chamber within gas turbines.

The power oxidizer is different from a combustion chamber in that it does not ignite the gas, and it has significantly lower air emissions than any combustion-based device. The integrated power stations made by Ener-Core are the result of integrating the traditional rotating equipment from turbines with Ener-Core’s power oxidizers. The resulting turbines are different from traditional gas turbines, in that they can produce power from ultra-low quality gases, and while at the same time preventing the air emissions that are typically associated with turbines, engines and other combustion-based power systems.

Waste360: Which companies are planning on using it?

Alain Castro: The companies that stand to gain the most from this technology are typically within commodity industries that produce waste gases as an undesirable byproduct of their own manufacturing processes. Some example industries include oil and gas, food processing, distilleries, coal mining, wastewater treatment and even pharmaceuticals, to name a few.

The technology just became available commercially last year, and hence there are just a few early adopter companies thus far, which include Attero, a Dutch waste company, Pacific Ethanol, an ethanol production company, and the University of California at Irvine.  

Need to Know

Anxiety Rises Near Bridgeton Landfill as Emergency Plans Disclosed

As anxiety grows in neighborhoods near the Bridgeton Landfill, newly released emergency plans may be of little comfort.

Some say concern among residents and area officials has heightened since Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released reports last month that said an underground fire at the landfill was moving toward radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill.

Koster’s office also said some radioactive contamination was outside West Lake, a Superfund site overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The reports contradict landfill owner Republic Services’ assurances that the fire is under control and come as Koster’s office presses a lawsuit against Republic over the landfill.

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Need to Know

Garbage Truck Driver Killed in Pennsylvania

A 44-year-old garbage truck driver is dead after an early morning accident on Bucktail Road in St. Marys on Monday.

Police have identified the deceased as Jeffrey G. Lamb of St. Marys and the location of the accident as between Jackson and Benzinger Roads on Bucktail Road (Route 120) in the city.

Police said a 1997 Ford pick-up truck driven by Richard Sarginger, 51, of St. Marys, was traveling west when it hit Lamb, who was outside of his garbage truck collecting garbage from both sides of the roadway. The accident was reported around 6:40 a.m.

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Need to Know

Roanoke, Va., Launches Single-Stream Recycling

Antonio Johnson was recycling long before the city delivered his new, bright blue container, but he likes the new single-stream recycling program, and was happy to see it start.

I'm impressed with it," Johnson told WDBJ7 Monday morning. "I love the way they got it going. Everything goes in one trash can. It's better... than having to separate everything out."

City trucks will collect recyclables every other week, on the same day as normal trash collection.

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Need to Know

Federal Grant Aims to Bring Recycling to New Mexico Tribes

The New Mexico Recycling Coalition will be developing a training program and providing technical assistance to help Native American communities around the state with recycling programs.

The work is being funded with a $40,000 grant from the federal government. The funding was announced Monday.

As part of the program, 20 eligible tribes will benefit.

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Need to Know

Commissioners Making Progress on Odors from Florida Landfill

The Orange County Solid Waste Division told commissioners at Tuesday's meeting they are making progress on a smelly landfill. In the meeting, District Four Commissioner, Jennifer Thompson, said she has received complaints from Lake Nona, the airport, and as far as St. Cloud.

Neighbors within a five-mile radius of the Young Park Landfill have been complaining about the smell as of several months.

News 6 was there back in September when dozens of homeowners raised a stink of "rotten egg" odors.

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On Location

What We Learned from the Waste360 Recycling Summit

We attended the inaugural Waste360 Recycling Summit, which was held in Chicago Sept. 9-11. Here are our takeaways from the event, which featured a wealth of education sessions on the various issues facing the recycling business today. A substantial new Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) report also was unveiled at the summit, which we intend to review in more detail when the full report is available.

Recycling Issues In a Nutshell

The recycling business is currently pinched in a two-handed vise grip. On one hand, the output–recycled commodities–is plagued by depressed prices worldwide, with slower growth in demand from China impacting recycled paper, steel and aluminum, while lower oil prices impact recycled plastics. The world is awash in a commodity supply glut.

On the other hand, recycling’s input–the waste stream–is plagued by higher processing costs, due to China’s Green Fence and the rapid growth in single-stream recycling, both of which have brought contamination issues in the recycled waste stream to the forefront.

Both sides are impacted by the “lightweighting” of the waste stream. Commodity sale values are impacted by falling amounts of paper and metals, while the increase in the variety of plastic packaging also increases the processing costs. The summit’s education sessions highlighted advice and experiences from industry participants in how to cope with these various issues.

Education Key to Bringing Down Contamination Levels

A number of summit presenters addressed the education issue. Customers, particularly residential customers, are confused about what can and can’t be recycled, and when in doubt, just place items in the single-stream recycling bin. As a result, it was cited a number of times that contamination levels in the incoming stream had doubled since the advent and growing popularity of single-stream recycling.

In community outreach and signage efforts (key to education), summit presenters stressed that less information is better than more. In other words, highlight the three or four items most desirable to be recycled and placed in the bins, and also note only the three or four that are the most deleterious to the waste stream (i.e. plastic bags).

It was also noted that generally a minority of people really consciously want to recycle, while the majority will do so only when it’s shown to be beneficial to them, or punitive if they don’t. In light of that, stickers or tags on the recycling carts letting homeowners know cart contents were unacceptable have proven very effective. (Particularly when the hauler then does not pick up the cart!) Several municipal speakers noted that this had successfully brought contamination back down to levels acceptable to haulers.

Despite the increased contamination issues, single-stream recycling appears here to stay, and its use is expected to continue to grow given its convenience. That convenience generates higher volumes, which help municipalities meet their recycling targets.

What to do About Glass

Glass remains problematic for the recycling industry, given its high transport costs, low output value and its ability to degrade the finished recycling bale and damage the recycling equipment. However, the oft-cited solutions, presorting or more and better equipment, can be nonstarters as the economics of glass recycling often do not support the higher expenses or capital expenditures.

That said, municipalities are loathe to abandon glass recycling as its weight contributes considerably to hitting recycling targets. Ironically, there does seem to be ample demand for clean cullet, and glass pricing has been relatively stable–it can be effectively recycled. Regional independent Rumpke’s solution was to put up their own processing plant to feed local fiberglass producers in Ohio.

United Front on Contract Changes

As there is nothing the recycling industry can do to change worldwide commodity prices, the focus has obviously been on changing contract terms and structures and enforcing contamination limits. Acceptable contamination levels were often already specified in existing contracts but not actively enforced. That is now changing, primarily with the use of tags and stickers as previously mentioned.

Also, as mentioned in prior Business Insights, recycling industry participants are attempting to shift contracts from being commodity based to processing service fee based–then adding a risk/profit sharing agreement based on commodity price levels. Casella Waste has instituted a sustainability/recycling adjustment (SRA) fee, which floats roughly in line with the commodity markets, similar to a fuel recovery fee.

It appears that these contract changes, though they will take some time to institute fully, are being pursued largely across the board by haulers and recyclers, at least more so than in past down cycles.

Waste Management has been willing to shutter capacity when it can’t get the changes it needs to get the contracts sufficiently profitable. This uniformity is largely due to the growing belief that there is no relief, or at least not material upside, in the outlook for recycled commodity prices in the foreseeable future.

Commodity Price Outlook

Despite the issues, the mandates and recycling/diversion goals just keep coming. It was noted that the diversion mandates and recycling targets are another factor in keeping a lid on recycled commodity price recovery–they result in involuntary generation of supply, thus keeping a floor under the supply, and so the market does not react to clear inventory as quickly. As a result, recycled commodity prices remain mired in the lower quartile of the historical pricing band.

China is now expected to bring on less recycled paper capacity than in the past, while also recovering more of its own supply, which also serves as a depressant. Although the longer term outlook for old corrugated cardboard (OCC) remains brighter due to packaging demand, and old newspaper pricing (ONP) should remain stable due to decreasing supply, mixed paper is in danger of serious oversupply, according to Summit presenters.

Higher Diversion Rates Drive Higher Costs per Household–A Fact Not Always Recognized

Although the percentages varied to some extent, several summit participants noted that of the total waste stream, 30 percent to 40 percent is traditional recyclables, with adequate current infrastructure, another 20 percent to 30 percent is organics, with spotty, insufficient infrastructure, another 10 percent is not recyclable with current technology (i.e. off-spec plastics) and 20 percent is simply not recyclable at all.

Given that, it was questioned whether 70 percent to 75 percent diversion goals are realistic.

And though controversial, it was noted that mixed waste processing may be necessary to hit those high diversion goals, given the cost of source-separated collection, particularly of organics. The bigger question may be–do consumers and customers know and realize what those high mandates cost?

During a Q&A session after one of the sessions, an industry participant from the Midwest noted that to achieve a roughly 40 percent recycling rate in his area, it was costing $17-$18 per month per household. The question was asked what San Francisco’s per household cost was with its much higher diversion rate. Although not confirmed, it was estimated that it may be as high as $100 per household!

Leone Young is the Principal of LTY ERC, LLC, providing consulting and research services to, and conducting special projects for, the environmental services industry, primarily the solid waste sector. 

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Fortistar Buys Two Landfill Gas to Energy Units

Fortistar has purchased two landfill gas to energy projects, adding 11 megawatts of waste-to-energy power to the company.

The company added Pioneer Energy, located in Birdsboro, Pa., which is an 8-megawatt project. The other acquisition is the 3-megawatt Port Charlotte Energy project, located in Punta Gorda, Fla., according to a news release.

White Plains, N.Y.-based Fortistar acquired both operations from Green Gas Americas. It followed the closing of $150 million in financing for Fortistar’s landfill gas portfolio.

Pioneer Energy sells power to Constellation Energy under a long-term off-take agreement. Port Charlotte Energy sells power to the Orlando Utilities Commission under a long-term contract.

Fortistar will own and operate both projects.

“Fortistar has developed, invested in and manages an unparalleled portfolio of successful landfill gas to energy initiatives in the U.S. and Canada,” said Mark Comora, Fortistar president.

The $150 million in financing provides reserves along with an accordion facility to facilitate growth through acquisitions, development and internal investment, the company said.

“By refinancing our LFG (landfill gas) portfolio, we can continue to make smart investments and build on our substantial experience owning and operating these types of important projects,” said Jonathan Maurer, Fortistar managing director.

Recent landfill gas-to-energy projects include Randolph Farms Inc. and Hoosier Energy partnering on the construction of a landfill gas to energy facility at the Randolph Farms Landfill near Modoc, Ind. Bloomington, Ind.-based Hoosier Energy will build the Cabin Creek 4-megawatt landfill gas operation with the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Randolph Farms at its landfill in rural east-central Indiana.

The companies expect construction of the $12 million operation to begin in the fall of 2016, and power production to begin in early 2017.

Meanwhile, in August the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued two proposals to reduce methane gas emissions from municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.

Under the Washington-based agency’s new proposals, new, modified and existing landfills would begin collecting and controlling landfill gas at emission levels almost one-third lower than current requirements.

The EPA said the two proposals would cost an estimated $55 million in 2025.