Lydia Gibson Makes Waves in Recycling with Ripple Glass

From local communities to professional sports teams, Lydia Elizabeth Gibson, director of corporate development at Ripple Glass, has been driving composting and diversion rates since her days on her family's farm. The Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient has been an "integral part" of the Ripple Glass team over the past five years, leading sourcing efforts to expand glass recycling opportunities across Kansas City, Mo.

Stefanie Valentic, Editorial Director

July 22, 2022

7 Min Read

From local communities to professional sports teams, Lydia Elizabeth Gibson, director of corporate development at Ripple Glass, has been driving composting and diversion rates since her days playing on her family's farm.

The Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient has been an "integral part" of the Ripple Glass team over the past five years, leading sourcing efforts to expand glass recycling opportunities across Kansas City, Mo. Gibson spearheaded the development and implementation of a commercial glass collection program, expanding Ripple’s Kansas City Metro drop-off program as well as growing regional collection in the nine states that Ripple serves.

According to coworkers, her continued success and management of these programs have assisted in the diversion of more than 45,000 tons of glass from the landfill annually.

Gibson recently told Waste360 about how her childhood shaped her perception of waste as well as what it takes to drive favorable and sustainable composting and recycling rates.

Waste360: Why and how did you become interested in the waste and recycling industry? 

Gibson: Growing up, my grandparents lived on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas. One of my favorite things to do was play in the creek that ran through the property. Along the way, we’d always pass the dump pit which had remnants from every family that had lived there decades past. We’re talking Model T cars, toilets, old mattresses, cans, just everything that would not readily decompose. This left a lasting impression on me, and I’ve been fascinated by waste and recycling ever since.

There are places in the world where there's somebody that doesn't come and pick up your trash and so you have to manage everything in place. Or if it's something that's a durable good - like a car or a mattress boxspring - it just doesn't go away. It has always kind of interested me, and I got into environmental studies as one of my majors in college. I feel like people have got different flavors of environmentalism. Some people love water; some people love energy. Some people go into transportation, but for me, it was always waste and recycling, I always thought it was very interesting what you can learn about a person or an organization by looking through the lens of their trash, what they value and what they don't value.

Waste360:  How have you seen the industry evolve through your experience?

Gibson: I've really I've been engaged for about 10 years now. Markets have gone up and down throughout that time period. There's been an increasing interest in organics management over that time. I think the industry continues to expand and mature from when I started. I always tell folks that are in college now or starting their careers to go for a really kind of diverse background and skill set because it's highly likely that the job that you're going to have in ten years doesn't exist right now. In a lot of ways that's true. Even just Ripple Glass, my current employer who started in 2009, over the last 11 years has expanded a lot. There were things that didn't exist at the start, and new jobs were created. So, I think it's really it's exciting to see how much more opportunities and different ways people can engage in the industry with different skill sets.

Waste360: What drives your passion for composting and green events?

Gibson: I find my passion for composting through my love of good homegrown food. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables always leads to some leftover scraps, peels and cores. Composting is a way to take care of that food until the last moment and give back to the soil that provided the great produce.

I’ve always been passionate about trash and recycling, but the organics management aspect of the waste stream really came to the forefront when I started growing my own garden and after a really impactful waste audit. A local brewery was attempting to go zero waste and the student chapter of the A&WMA I founded at my university was invited to perform a waste audit. We found that a full two-thirds of the waste stream was compostable and mostly from events being held in their event spaces. I realized how much waste was generated by catering and food service at these gatherings and how critical it is to tackle the organics piece of the pie to get to zero waste. 

Another aspect of composting, and glass recycling, that really appeals to me is how local or regional these industries are. Because both materials are heavy with limited economic value, they have to be managed very close to where the waste is generated. This has enormous opportunity for economic development and job creation in our communities.

Waste360: Where do you see the interaction of efforts to drive organics/composting and other green efforts in order to fight food insecurity?

Gibson: There's always an aspect of waste in food production. There's always going to be the tomato that goes splat or something that goes rotten. The best way to honor that food, I think, is to manage it properly. In my little description of my experiences, you know, discovering how big of a portion of the waste stream is food, or things that are organic or compostable - realizing a lot of these goals that we were putting out even a decade ago, about the amount of diversion or reduction were just impossible to achieve without addressing organics. 

At the same time, it's very evident that not everybody has enough to eat. There's a mismatch there. I think acknowledging the potential to feed more people as we pay more attention to what happens to food at the end of its life, it's a natural progression –  the more you pay attention to what's being thrown away, the more you gain an awareness of what's being wasted. Then you can start to develop solutions to keep more of that food out of that trash and into the mouths of people or even animals.

Waste360: What are three takeaways you would say are important for the introduction of composting and other programs to drive zero waste?

Gibson: 1. Planning is critical.  It is very difficult to try and manage diverse waste streams on the fly; so, planning should begin well ahead of an event. Creating a successful program means making sure everything has a home and eliminating those items that don’t have a sustainable management strategy. This means planning for compostable food service items and eliminating excess packaging from the start.

2. We’re all really in the people business and it’s critical to keep people at the center of the programs and strategies we develop. At events and venues, I like to think about what attendees and participants will be doing and how they’ll be interacting with the space. I think it’s critical to curate the physical recycling environment to make it convenient for the people whose behavior we’re trying to positively influence.

3. Consider what I think of as the “middle mile” in waste management. This means how and who will get the bag or can the consumer used to dispose of an item to the dumpster, compactor or final disposal location. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a beautifully sorted bag of compost or recycling hit the trash dumpster because of lack of communication or buy-in from the folks actually moving the waste. We can plan for all the right containers and have a great user experience, but if we don’t also think about the people bringing that waste to the right place, we won’t get the desired outcome.

Waste360: What trends and obstacles are you currently seeing in glass recycling, composting and zero waste?

Gibson: [As far as trends] there is an increased focus on local impact and conversations about circularity and brands with sustainability goals and budgets to back them.

While I’m sensing a lot of excitement about recycling and increased confidence in our recycling infrastructure, I’m also picking up on fatigue. The last couple years have been hard for people, and a lot of us ended up handling a lot more of our waste at home, and it’s a lot of work! The pandemic had a lot of us spending all our time at home and generating all of our waste at home. This was an amazing opportunity for us to see everything we generate all consolidated into one place instead of distributed between the office, the gym, restaurants and so on. But it was also something that took extra effort and time and as we shift back into our new normal lives. We’ve all got a lot on our plate and might not have the bandwidth to engage in the increasingly complex nuances of packing and recycling right.

About the Author(s)

Stefanie Valentic

Editorial Director, Waste360

Stefanie Valentic is the editorial director of Waste360. She can be reached at [email protected].


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