Kathy Richardson, solid waste division manager for the City of Lawrence, Kan., and Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, has helped implement a citywide standard cart system and residential curbside recycling system for the city.
Richardson began her career with the City of Lawrence in 2002 as a waste reduction and recycling specialist and has since moved up through the ranks to become a solid waste division manager for a municipal service that provides commercial and residential trash collection to a community comprised of more than 90,000 people.
In addition to her role with the city, Richardson is an active member of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). She is the vice president of SWANA’s Kansas Sunflower Chapter, and she has served on SWANA’s Kansas Sunflower Chapter Board of Directors since 2012. She is also a public sector affiliate of the National Waste and Recycling Association.
“By the age of 36, Kathy progressed to solid waste division manager through the ranks of a traditionally male-dominated field, with almost 100 people reporting to her,” says Richardson’s supervisor Tamara Bennett. “She has managed that group through some significant operational and cultural changes, including increased automation and implementation of curbside recycling. She also knows every employee and speaks to them on a personal level. She has true credibility, even with employees who have been with the division for more than 40 years and don’t really like much change. At the same time, she is a subject matter expert on all matters relating to solid waste in this community.”
Waste360 recently spoke with Richardson about what brought her to the waste and recycling industry, the City of Lawrence’s goals for 2017 and how she helped implement a successful citywide standard cart system and residential curbside recycling system for the city.
Waste360: What brought you to the waste and recycling industry?
Kathy Richardson: I was born and raised in Costa Rica, and I had the opportunity to come to the U.S. to attend the University of Kansas tuition free through a program called the Institute of International Education. While in college, I found my passion for science, and I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology.
When I graduated from college, I was looking for jobs and the one that really appealed to me was the waste reduction and recycling specialist position at the City of Lawrence. I ended up getting that role, which I began in August 2002.
The City of Lawrence has several waste reduction and recycling specialists who have particular areas that they focus on, but all of the specialists are cross-trained to every program. I focused on the household hazardous waste program and the business hazardous waste program while I was in that role, and I really enjoyed the hands-on components of that position. After a few years, I was promoted to waste reduction and recycling operations supervisor, where I did a lot of research to help implement the city’s citywide standard cart system, the residential curbside recycling system and other programs.
From that role, I was promoted to solid waste division manager, and I have been in this role now for three years. In this role, I oversee the waste and recycling programs as well as the residential and commercial trash collection systems. Even though I have more responsibilities, I still get to interact with the public and get to do some hands-on work, which I really enjoy.
Waste360: Tell us about the citywide standard cart system and the residential curbside recycling system that you helped implement for the City of Lawrence.
Kathy Richardson: The mayor of the City of Lawrence started a Solid Waste Task Force, which is comprised of appointed citizens who developed recommended long-term goals for solid waste and recycling. I participated as a staff member and attended all their meetings. Early on, the city received a lot of suggestions to create a residential curbside recycling system.
To get the residential curbside recycling system in place, I conducted a lot of research for the group and spoke to other communities about how they got their programs started. We began by communicating with our residents, who were either recycling via voluntary curbside recycling service with a private provider, the local Walmart recycling center or one of the city’s drop-off recycling bins. Then, we worked on figuring out the cost of a citywide program, which everyone would eventually pay into. The city sent out a request for proposal (RFP) to the private sector, and the city’s Solid Waste Division requested permission from the city commission to submit a “collection-only” proposal in response to the RFP.
After a lengthy process, the city’s Solid Waste Division ended up being selected as the residential curbside recycling collector and Hamm Inc. was selected as the materials recovery facility (MRF) operator. At the time, Hamm didn’t have a MRF, but it turned in a proposal to build one near Lawrence. Hamm had its facility up and running a few weeks before we started collecting the recyclables.
The process for the citywide standard cart system was a little different. Before we implemented the system, we collected all residential trash, whether the resident placed the bag on the ground, in their own trash can/cart or in a trash cart rented from the city. We also offered unlimited trash collection so those who had 25 bags of trash were paying the same amount as those who had one or two bags of trash. We had a lot of pushback about that system, which sparked the idea for the citywide standard cart system. In addition to that, we wanted to reduce the amount of heavy lifting that our workers were doing by automating our trucks.
We ended up implementing a variable rate pricing system, which includes a standard 65-gallon trash cart, a 95-gallon cart for $2 more a month and a 35-gallon cart for $1.50 less a month. This has been a success for our city, but the system isn’t perfect. We are a college town, and we have a lot of renters so there is a lot of garbage placed at the curb during the turnover of leases. We can’t identify whose trash is whose so that sometimes causes challenges with the system.
We also added automated side-load trucks to our fleet, which has helped us become more efficient at collecting trash. In addition to the new trucks, we changed our trash collection days of service. Before the new system rolled out, we were collecting yard waste on Mondays and trash on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We didn’t run routes on Fridays and used that day as a special cleanup day or for training purposes. When the new system launched, we changed the trash collection days to Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, kept yard waste collection on Mondays and added curbside recycling collection on the residents’ trash day at a frequency of every other week.
To help residents keep track of their collection service days, we created a digital notification system where we can send people text or email reminders if they opt into that program.
Waste360: What is the City of Lawrence currently working on for 2017?
Kathy Richardson: To close out this year, the Solid Waste Division is preparing for our holiday toy drive, an employee-led effort, which typically occurs the first two Mondays in December each year. When residents put out their yard waste, they can also leave a new toy for us to pick up and donate to the Police Department’s Blue Santa Program.
For 2017, we are working on two programs: a commercial single stream recycling program and an expansion to our yard waste program. We currently offer our commercial customers a corrugated cardboard recycling program, but we want to start providing them with a single stream recycling option as well.
In addition to that, we have a successful yard waste program, but we want to add organics collection to start diverting more food waste from landfill. We have an 8-acre compost facility to make that happen, and we just have to update the facility permit to allow us to collect and compost food waste.
Lastly, we just built a new hazardous waste facility so that will allow us to continue to operate and run the city’s household hazardous waste program more efficiently.
Waste360: How do you see waste and recycling changing in the future?
Kathy Richardson: Food waste is something that everyone in the industry is talking about, and we need to start taking action to help divert more food waste from landfill. Every community is different and has their own set of challenges, but we need to work together to find out what the most efficient solutions are.
Flexible plastic packaging and plastic bags are causing issues for MRFs. The Hamm MRF, for example, is one that can’t accept or process that material. I think that recycling systems will need to adjust and improve their processes to accommodate the changes happening with the packaging of products that are being produced and sold. Packaging has changed a lot over the years and will continue to change. The challenge for us in the industry is figuring out how to capture and recycle these items both now and in the future.
Waste360: What advice do you have for the future generation of industry workers?
Kathy Richardson: Keep an open mind! We often read articles about what’s happening in certain communities, and we think that automatically applies to our community as well. But after being in the industry for some time, I realized that all communities are different and all communities have different challenges. Something that works in the City of Lawrence, for example, may not work in New York City. As an industry, it’s important to figure out what processes work and don’t work for each individual community.
It’s critical to understand what your community is asking for in regards to solid waste services. Don’t rule out an idea because it may be a pricy idea. Residents and customers may be willing to pay more for a certain service if it’s more convenient for them or if they find value in that particular service. This was the case with the City of Lawrence residential curbside recycling collection service.