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Celeste McMickle: Upstream Needs to Happen Simultaneously

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Communication is Celeste McMickle's specialty, especially when it comes to helping companies reinvent their approach to waste.

The current director of client solutions for the U.S. Green Building Council's TRUE Certification program began her career as a LEED consultant, assisting teams with integrating sustainability practices.

"It’s a great opportunity to have a tangible impact on supporting the zero waste movement and learning more about ways we can continue to grow and change the program to respond to market needs," McMickle says about her current role.

Following a role where she tracked construction waste management, the Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient moved to the Department of Sanitation in New York City and amplified community outreach for the city's curbside brown bag program. 

McMickle recently told Waste360 more about her current role, how the sustainability movement has evolved and why upstream thinking needs to happen.

Waste360: How was sustainability evolved since you first started working in the industry?

Celeste McMickle: A lot! I started my journey as an architecture student with an interest in green building. This was at a time when this was a very niche topic and not part of mainstream education or practice. I moved from New York to Portland, Ore. in 2006 specifically because there was more of an opportunity to work in green building there. I worked as a LEED consultant and really witnessed the rise of the green building and sustainability movement in the building industry. It was during this time I also become very interested and aware of composting and recycling.

I moved to NYC in 2012 where waste management is a very visible topic and wanted to get more involved with supporting recycling efforts. Similar to my experience with green building, the recycling/plastics/compost conversation had not really reached the “mainstream” but I was an early adopter/learner and this set me up to get a lot of good experience and have the inside scoop when zero waste and composting programs started rolling out. It has been really interesting watching the public interest and awareness reach topics like green building, plastics, recycling and waste. You see a lot of doubt and concern at first – mostly related to costs. I think we also see a lot of misinformation (I think this is particularly true of plastics and recycling). But it’s an exciting and interesting journey and I’ve been lucky to have been doing this for 15 plus years!

Waste360: What does your current role entail?

McMickle: I am the Director for TRUE zero waste certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. The USGBC is most widely known for their LEED certification program which really put green buildings on the map. I have been working side by side the organization for years and have been thrilled to see their programs evolve with the need to promote other facets of sustainability – such as zero waste. In my current role I help clients that have zero waste goals understand how the TRUE certification program can support their efforts and act as a road map to achieve their goals. I do a lot of business development work, and also what I can to support the voice of the zero waste movement by advocating through industry organizations and channels about zero waste, recycling, composting, and more.

Waste360: What key points did you learn in your work with construction waste?

McMickle: Construction waste is a big one. This is one of the places where I see the most opportunity for growth within our program and the market overall. Many times as a LEED consultant, we would run into the construction sites having road blocks with recycling their waste which is especially unfortunate because it is a huge segment of the market. We have just released a construction pathway for the TRUE program and are starting to see construction projects implement the rating system as a way to reduce waste on the job site. We focus on zero waste strategies such as reuse, reduction, and redesign, so there’s a huge opportunity.

Waste360: You performed community outreach for NYC’s curbside brownbag program. What did you learn about effective communication when it comes to sustainability?

McMickle: This was one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever had and continue to grapple with the solutions and opportunities here. Communication is HUGE but in a place like NYC there needs to be SIGNIFICANT investment and creativity in how to do this. Not only are we one of the most diverse places on the planet so language, culture, background, length of time (tourist, resident, etc) needs to be factored in but we are also one of my most wasteful and there is a culture associated with trash. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers here I just think there’s a LONG way to go with significant investment from the city needed for there to be a real sea change in terms of culture.

Waste360: What do you think is the key element companies seem to miss or discard most when it comes to materials management?

McMickle: I think the phrasing of the question is really key to the answer. I think many times the thing that gets missed or discarded is the understanding that materials are resources that need to be managed! More often than not used materials are seen as discards rather than valuable resources. We need a systems rethinking on this one. Also many companies look downstream only for their material tracking - how much did I recycle vs. throw away - and we need more companies to start looking at the upstream first - how do I prevent waste from being created in the first place - so that there are greater impacts made in the value chain.

Waste360: Where do you see the future of sustainability in the next five to ten years?

McMickle: We need all hands on deck -  policy, mandates, commitments, subsidies - everything from government mandates and policy on restricting single-use plastics and forever chemicals, corporate commitments and goals, individual action and appropriate subsidies. Let’s fund recycling systems and not virgin plastic. The future of sustainability is obviously a huge topic, I think for the recycling and zero waste world I am particularly keen on seeing some of the niche upstream reuse solutions becoming more mainstream. Bringing a coffee cup or a reusable bag or bottle shouldn’t be available to only the deep green consumer, we need scaled solutions that will make reusable options a standard practice for consumers and for product manufacturers, and there are a lot of exciting companies on the horizon here. Overall we need start envisioning our materials as resources, not waste. We also need a hard stop on ethylene cracker plants and big investments into solutions for recycling products - especially plastics - so that this can become the de facto manufacturing choice. Corporations are making big commitments to using recycled content; let’s find ways to get them those products. There’s also so much happening downstream with removing plastic from the ocean and supporting the informal waste picker economies. I will be very excited to see how these play out, but upstream needs to happen simultaneously or we are never going to get anywhere.

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