Universal Waste Systems' Finn Delivers Results

Sean Finn, sustainability manager at Universal Waste Systems, speaks with us about growing up in the industry and his extensive work with recycLA and the L.A. Unified School District.

Cristina Commendatore, Former Senior Editor

September 7, 2018

11 Min Read
Universal Waste Systems' Finn Delivers Results

For the people who have worked closest to Sean Finn, he is known for delivering results—even under what might be considered challenging circumstances.

Finn, 33, is the sustainability manager at Universal Waste Systems. There, he has been instrumental in getting the company’s largest contract, recycLA, off the ground. He manages a team of 15 and was responsible for onboarding 6,300 customers who weren’t exactly thrilled about the program.

Before Universal Waste, Finn was the community relations manager for Republic Services, and he was heavily involved with the company’s Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) contract. There, he worked with one of Waste360’s 2016 40 Under 40 award recipients, Travon Grant, to implement and create a comprehensive program that improved the district’s recycling rate by 112 percent within the first year.

“Sean brings the old-school trash behavior into a new era form of sustainability that gets results,” says Grant, who works with Finn at Universal Waste. “He has the ability to convey complicated messaging that allows customers to believe in something they might not have believed in before. Having the ability to forecast events prior to them happening has served him well, along with his teammates.” 

This year’s Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient recently discussed with us his upbringing in the industry, as well as some of his proudest moments in his career thus far.

Waste360: How did you get your start in the industry?

Sean Finn: I was born into this industry. My dad worked for a handful of different trash companies—Waste Management, IESI, Allied Waste, Republic Services—so I’ve always been around trash for the most part. As a youth, I would spend weekends running around the yard, helping him with shredding, paperwork and other random tasks. When I turned 18, right after graduating high school, he sent me to work at one of the materials recovery facilities (MRF) in Chicago. So, when I was on break from college during the summers and the winters, I was always helping at the MRFs.

Waste360: What does your role as sustainability manager at Universal Waste Systems entail?

Sean Finn: As the sustainability manager for Universal Waste, our big contract right now is recycLA. What I do here is manage a team of 15 zero waste employees. What we have done since the start of recycLA is nothing short of amazing. We had to basically go out and onboard 6,300 customers. So, that’s 6,300 unique accounts, spanning from smaller grocery stores all the way up to Dodger Stadium and hospitals. Our jobs were to go out and inform our new customers, “Universal Waste is now your trash and recycling (recycLA) service provider. This is the program, this is why the city of L.A. has gone franchised, these are the environmental goals, these are the new rates and here are your rights and responsibilities.”

A majority of these new customers obviously weren’t very happy by being told they couldn’t have their old hauler and that they had to pay different rates. But the benefits of this program, both environmentally and socially, really helped explain recycLA.

What we had to do was go out and create a way to tell all these customers, “We’re your new service provider,” but also that this program isn’t just about city government trying to get involved and there are a lot of benefits in it. So, I helped create an iPad app that really captures all the data that we’re looking for, as well as help to establish a waste characterization assessment to help customers understand what materials are now going to go into the recycling bin. Before recycLA, the cost of trash was bundled with the cost of recycling, so we had to get customers to understand that the way to lower their rate—since the biggest pushback here was on rates—is recycling.

We go out and look through people’s trash cans these days. That’s what we have our reps doing right now, going out and trying to be proactive regarding contamination. China’s ban on a lot of materials has really kind of put the grips on what facilities are accepting, and we’re trying to make the materials as clean as possible.

Waste360: Since you were at the forefront of the city of Los Angeles's rollout of recycLA, can you tell us more about the program and your involvement with it?

Sean Finn: The recycLA program is great. It’s really changing the culture of disposal, which is the hardest thing I’ve come across, and that’s what I continue to tell our reps. Besides the environmental impact, there is less wear and tear on the city’s infrastructure. We have optimized our fleet as well, so trucks are not driving around the city of Los Angeles to different locations. That cuts down on the wear and tear on the streets. Also, in Los Angeles, all our vehicles run on compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), so there’s less air pollution compared to the old diesel vehicles.

It’s just pretty much changing the culture by communicating to our new customers what materials are currently accepted in the recycling bin and trying to get a handle on “wishcycling.” Wishcycling is where people wish they can recycle something, so it ends up in the recycle bin when, in reality, it’s not acceptable. Hoping and trying our hardest to get in front of customers to give them the proper recycling education is something that I’m pushing our team to do.

We try to do that through face-to-face interaction, which is what I hope for. I don’t really like the idea of just showing up one day, leaving a poster or a flyer and saying, “Hey, this is recycling,” then showing up a year later and saying, “What’s the matter, you guys aren’t really recycling. I gave you a poster.”

We want to be in front of the customer to develop those relationships and really help guide them to success in this program. Success to me is a higher diversion rate, but success for a lot of customers is a lower trash bill, and they go hand-in-hand. As I said, the cost of trash and recycling is bundled together, so the more you recycle, the cheaper your rates are going to be. That’s the best way I found to navigate through this, and it’s win-win for both of us. 

Waste360: During your time as community relations manager with Republic Services, you were heavily involved with the company’s LAUSD contract. Tell us about some of your achievements working with LAUSD.

Sean Finn: One of the things that was the most gratifying to me was we started LAUSD’s first organics program. At the time, it was a pilot that really took off. We also increased the amount of recycling containers by 112 percent. The most fun for me was that I was responsible for going to the schools and doing recycling presentations. I had this robot called MRFy, and I would go every couple days through the schools and give this recycling presentation for the students.

Children are the next wave of recyclers and being able to positively influence a whole generation of L.A. Unified students was the best for me because those kids take it home and hopefully police their parents on what’s recyclable. Pushing that communication to the youth was probably the most gratifying thing for me.

Waste360: OK, you have to tell us more about MRFy.

Sean Finn: I haven’t made this speech in two years! MRFy is a recycling robot made from 100 percent reused and recycled materials. MRFy and I would go to the schools and show a video of what happens to your recycling when it gets picked up; it would show what happens at the MRFs. It would also dance and rap. I would pull kids up on stage and MRFy would identify recyclable materials. We would have these cutouts of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard and paper, and MRFy would identify the materials and the kids would get a big laugh.

Sean Finn with MRFy.jpg

For another part of the presentation, I would take MRFy’s arm off and have the students come back and put his arm on. So, it was a fully interactive program. It was really a lot of fun for me at the time.

Last I heard, that robot was on his way to Las Vegas. MRFy and I would go to mixers and cocktail hours at events like WasteExpo and WASTECON and would kind of have fun with the adults, too. It’s really a great marketing tool on top of being a great educational tool.

Waste360: What are some other accomplishments that you are most proud of thus far?

Sean Finn: Besides my time at Republic, I think being able to influence the Northeast section of Los Angeles as far as the recycling and sustainability goes is my current biggest accomplishment. Every month, I look at recycling diversion reporting and it’s constantly ticking up. I’m really proud of our operations team here. The rollout of recycLA was difficult for all the haulers—not just Universal Waste—but I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to get in front of a lot of the service issues initially. I had to go to a lot of community meetings and a lot of neighborhood council meetings and take a lot of heat from a lot of people. But through persistence as well as caring, I’m really proud of where Universal Waste and the recycLA program stands right now.

Obviously, the program is under a microscope. A lot of other major cities, from my understanding, are looking at Los Angeles—New York City specifically—to see what we did well and what we could have improved on. So, I really want to kind of hang my hat onto this program. I put a lot of effort into training our staff as well as following up directly with a lot of different issues. We have major customers like the baseball stadium as well as hospitals. Building those relationships and really helping to encourage food rescue, food reuse and recycling are all things I’m really proud of, but I’m still excited to encourage that moving forward.

And, of course, winning the 40 Under 40 award. That was one of my goals when I left Republic to come Universal Waste. I was like, “I’ve got to get the award. If I don’t get it in two years, I’ve got to reevaluate everything.” Lucky for me, I had a handful of people nominate me, and here we are today. So, that’s one of my biggest achievements so far.

Waste360: What keeps you motivated in your everyday work?

Sean Finn: It’s the changing of the culture. It’s really working with people to change how they dispose of their materials. I see it every single day. I even audit my friends at their homes and say, “These things aren’t recyclable.” Change must come from us, and we have to be the catalyst of change. Being around this industry my entire life, I’ve seen the amount of waste, and more specifically food waste, that happens in the schools and personally see all the materials that can be captured, recycled and kept out of the landfill. Knowing that we’re making steps in the right direction, but ultimately knowing we still need to keep focused and keep working toward that ultimate goal of creating the least amount of materials in the landfill as possible, is what keeps me going.

And helping to influence also keeps me motivated. Like I said, with L.A. Unified, I saw thousands of kids a month and that spread out through all parts of Los Angeles—from the affluent sections to maybe the less affluent parts of the communities. Even here now in Northeast L.A., where Universal Waste is franchised, it’s the same thing. Being able to be that catalyst for change and being able to influence a whole portion of the city is what keeps me going.

Waste360: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career in this industry?

Sean Finn: It’s a dirty job and it’s a stinky job, but people will always generate trash. Disposing of waste and recycling is a necessity, and it’s always going to happen no matter how much of a sustainable future we strive for. We’re always looking to hire drivers. Don’t look down on an operations gig! There’s always going to be dirty diapers, used coffee cups and a ton of other materials that can’t be recycled. It’s a career that can be very gratifying; it’s a lot of hard work, but at the same time, it’s a career that won’t go away in the near future.

And it’s fun. We did a waste characterization the other day and we had my entire team digging through trash and getting down to the nitty-gritty of what is recyclable. Seeing the smiles on our customers’ faces when we were able to go back with site-specific outreach materials was great. We were working with a hospital and were able to go back to them and say, “Hey, you know these specific materials are recyclable and these are not.” We made a poster and posted it at every disposal location to help get them to a higher diversion rate. So, helping people is really what I like most.

About the Author(s)

Cristina Commendatore

Former Senior Editor, Waste360

Cristina Commendatore is the former Senior Editor for Waste360. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Connecticut. Before joining the Waste360 team, Cristina spent several years covering the trucking and transportation industry.

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