What does the future hold for waste? Innovators and up-and-coming leaders from this year’s Waste360 40 Under 40 list provided their perspectives about where the industry is heading in the panel discussion “Rising Leaders Talk Trash” at WasteExpo Together Online.
Speakers spanned multiple facets of the industry: Alexandria Coari, Capital & Innovation Director, ReFED; Josh Mann, Public Sector Solutions Manager, Waste Management; and Turner Wyatt, Co-Founder & CEO, Upcycled Food Association all gave insight.
Moderator Zach Martin, president of Big Truck Rental, first asked the panelists about their backgrounds and how they became involved in the waste industry.
Coari reflected on her journey to different countries and a recruiter who said she would have to choose between “making money” and “making an impact.”
She quickly rejected the notion as a misconception and described her role in combatting food waste at ReFED, “It’s a fantastic example of how you can make money, and I’m not talking about on a personal level but food waste is just good for business, it helps save money for consumers and it just has a great impact both on a social level and environmental level.”
Wyatt quickly corroborated her point, citing how Upcycled Food Association takes leftover bread and produces beer to sell to restaurants to raise money for the nonprofit.
“Anyone who works in food rescue will tell you there’s just a lot of things you can’t use or that you’ll have a total overabundance of,” he explained. “But just because you can’t redistribute it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.”
So how will the industry change in the next five to ten years with the efforts these rising stars are making, Martin asked directly.
One of the biggest and “most exciting changes” Coari has seen is the recognition that food waste is a major contributor to climate change.
“I think that has major implications to the commitments that food businesses are making, the actions that investors are taking, the policies that are being developed by our government and officials,” she said.
Mann discussed how food waste has impacted the public sector and Waste Management. He manages about 120,000 individual municipal accounts across three counties in California.
“It’s an exciting time,” he began. “California is typically the leader in waste and recycling efforts and the state is championing getting organics out of landfills and into much more productive uses. Certainly, if there is an opportunity to recover the food before it goes to waste, that is job number one.”
One of his current roles entails working with communities to strengthen ties to food banks, shelters and soup kitchen programs.
“It’s definitely a complex situation in the fact that the market is slowly responding. We have a lot more material than we have capacity for right now, but we’re finally starting to see the shift. I think you’re going to see some really amazing things come out of California in the next couple years with regards to curbing food waste,” he concluded.
Martin then asked the panelists about technology and its impact on the industry.
“I think early on, technology was really supplemental to the industry,” Mann responded. “It was how we managed our billing, our customer data to where we are today where it’s really the backbone of how most industry companies operate.”
No matter what segment of the industry, technology is at the forefront of business operations, Mann said.
“The big thing for [Waste Management] and that is rolling out industrywide is the use of GPS and cameras to capture every service that we provide every single day,” he continued. “Ultimately I think that is where the industry is going.”
Coari explained how ReFED is using technology to be a “one-stop data center” where problems surrounding food waste are identified and solved.
“More businesses are tracking and measuring their food waste, but there are some innovators in the space that are helping businesses do that,” she said.
The gears of the conversation then shifting to COVID. Martin asked about the pandemic’s impact and some best practices that can be taken away.
“I love thinking about it as a way of accelerating technology and accelerating our solutions,” Wyatt said. “It’s about bringing us into the future.”
And COVID brought the industry a whole decade into the future, he stated. Wyatt began fighting food waste as an 18 year old, riding his bike to grocery stores to collect unwanted items. That low barrier-to-entry no longer exists.
“The low-hanging fruit is no longer low-hanging,” he explained. “We’re going to have to reach a little higher if we’re going to come up with the next generation of solutions.”
Industry professionals need to be more creative and innovative when it comes to food waste and recognize the value in every piece and part.
Wyatt continued, “A trillion dollars, more or less, of food goes to waste every year. Let’s capitalize on that, frankly. Let’s capitalize on that for the sake of the food rescue organizations, for the people on their bikes and their volunteers’ cars picking up food to better fund those operations but then create a really strong financial incentive for businesses to reduce their byproducts by realizing the true value they’re in.”
A conversation about COVID could not be complete without speaking about the evolving role of safety in the industry. Mann discussed how Waste Management adjusted their safety measures to keep workers and those in the community free from novel coronavirus.
“COVID has really brought in this whole new layer, this invisible threat,” he said. “From that standpoint, remote working has become a very large component.”
For frontline workers, it’s about devising protocols and measures to protect themselves and their team members.
“It really has redefined what safety means in terms of the industry and I think that COVID has been a huge learning opportunity for everybody just to go back and think about their processes,” Mann said.
The key to excelling or succeeding through the pandemic, Coari added, is to be “nimble” in the current environment.
“It’s really important to understand your expertise, your skillset and where you can add the most value,” she said. “And to that extent you really have that capacity to adjust and adapt where needed.”
So where do opportunities lie for the waste industry?
“In order to scale food waste solutions, it’s going to take billions of dollars of financing across public, private and philanthropic capital resources,” Coari began. “We really need to be thinking about how we keep this space sexy, really demonstrate that there is value and returns to be had – not just economic, but social and environmental. I think besides that I think there is opportunity for competitive collaboration in this space.”
Wyatt added to Coari’s point, saying that the consumer, to whom he referred to as the “end of the supply chain,” is the biggest opportunity.
“Food waste is this magical place that everyone agrees is really important,” he said.
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