Developing a Recycling Curriculum with ISRI’s Robin Wiener

July 23, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good for a special edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have my friend on today, Robin Wiener. She’s the Executive Director of ISRI. You can learn more about ISRI at www.ISRI.org. Welcome to Green is Good, Robin. ROBIN WIENER: Thank you, John. I’m excited to join you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, it’s so nice to have you on, and I know how busy you are, so thank you for taking the time to do this interview today — and a little disclaimer for our listener out there: My company, Electronic Recyclers International, is a proud member of ISRI for over eight years. Robin’s a friend of mine. I get to work with her and she just does amazing work in so many areas with regards to the scrap and recycling industry, and this is truly an honor because today is your first turn on Green is Good. So, thank you, Robin, for being on the show. ROBIN WIENER: You’re welcome. Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get talking about what you do at ISRI and especially today about The Jason Project there, I want you to share your fascinating and important journey leading up to the Executive Director leadership position you have at ISRI and how you even got here, Robin. Share with our listeners a little bit about your story and your journey. ROBIN WIENER: Sure, I’d be happy to. I actually started in ISRI back in 1989. I have an engineering background and was working for an environmental consulting firm in DC and started going to law school at night and just simply needed to find a job closer to the law school on Capitol Hill and ISRI was working for someone to do environmental compliance work and so I joined ISRI. Didn’t know anything about the recycling industry, but came on board, thought I’d be there for just a couple of years and go on to a law firm, but I fell in love with it and ISRI is a great place to work. The industry is fascinating. The issues are fascinating and it’s just what I love and I’ve been here ever since. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great and you’ve done such a wonderful job leading the scrap and recycling industry and you’re seen around the world as truly one of the greatest leaders, both in thought and also in action, and so we’re just lucky to have you running ISRI and I’m so happy you’re there. Let’s talk a little bit about this very important project called The Jason Project. For our listeners out there, like I said at the top of the show, you can go to www.ISRI.org. You can click on the education button, which I’ve done. I’m on my iPad today and if you want to follow along, you can do the same and then what’s going to come up when you click on the education button is something called Jason Learning. Share a little bit about how this came about, Robin. What was your inspiration and epiphany leading up to the creation and partnership with Jason Learning and what is now called The Jason Project? ROBIN WIENER: Sure, I’d be happy to. Well, Jason is a joint effort of National Geographic Society and Sea Research Foundation. We found them about three years ago when, believe it or not, I was at a talk that was given by Doctor Robert Ballard, who is the oceanographer and the explorer who discovered The Titanic several years ago and he talked about how after he discovered The Titanic, he began receiving thousands of letter from middle school students asking to join his next expedition and that resulted, for him, in The Jason Project, which was named after the myth of the Argonauts, who were a group of adventurers who traveled with the hero, Jason, to explore the ancient world and it basically inspired him to start Jason and to help children in their adventure in learning about the sciences and math and technology and it’s from that that Jason resulted and I heard him talk about this and how excited he was and we, at the time, were thinking about developing curriculum for recycling and the truth is we’re not experts in curriculum development. Jason is and it seemed like the perfect group to partner with and so in 2012, we began the three year collaboration and the purpose is to develop primary and secondary school curriculums focused on recycling so the partnership is a great opportunity to educate the next generation about the important role that recycling plays in the global environment and in the economic life of the U.S. and the whole world and hopefully, it’s going to inspire students to think about careers also in recycling and give them the scientific and technical background that these jobs require. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about this curriculum development. Who was at the table when you actually started envisioning out what the curriculum should look like, how you should activate it, what topics should be covered, and then what specific activities are then set up to engage the students in, so can you just walk us through who was at the table after you and leadership from Jason put this amazing and important project together? ROBIN WIENER: Absolutely. Right after we began the partnership, we created a member task force to work with Jason to develop the curriculum and educational tools and the task force led by our then communications chair, Tom Kiniple with SA Recycling, and we brought together members representing a cross section of the industry so representing all the different segments of the industry, representing electronics recycling, plastics recycling, tires, metal, the full range, so that they could work with the curriculum development experts with Jason and provide the industry expertise and so over the course of the last two years working with Jason, we’ve been able to develop 25 different lesson plans that include activities and commodity readings on aluminum, ferrous metals, textiles, fluids, glass, precious metals, rubber, the full range of commodities, and we’re so excited about this program. Actually, right now, the 25 lesson plans are divided into three grade bands. There’s K through four, grade five through eight, and grades nine through 12, with each of those lesson plans including hands on activities as well as two- to four-page classroom lessons based on the life cycle of each commodity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and so now you’ve developed this curriculum. You have all these activities. Where is it being taught? Is it being taught in a couple of beta cities or is this now spread across the nation and beyond? ROBIN WIENER: Well, one of the reasons why we are so excited to be working with Jason is that Jason has a network of more than 2 million students throughout the country and actually, they have the ability to reach audiences of more than 6 million through the content that they distribute through their partner organizations such as National Geographic, a number of museums they work with, aquariums, and different government agencies. They also are in every state and they’re internationally in more than 150 different countries but more specifically, with regards to our program, what we’ve been able to do is actually pilot the program in two cities. We’ve piloted in Baltimore as well as in Kalamazoo, Michigan. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you rolled it out in Baltimore and in Kalamazoo, what then happens on a local level? Because big ideas happen where you said, in DC, and this partnership launches but then how important is local recycling in terms of the collaboration when you launch in specific cities? ROBIN WIENER: That’s a great question because it is very important for students to actually understand the practical side of the industry as well and to have contact with local recyclers so we actually work with our members in their local community so that the local recycler can be involved to provide tours of their yards and be there to be a resource to students in that community and we also made available through Jason a community outreach kit for members so they can have available to them sample letters and press releases and other resources so that they know how to actually push this program out into their local community. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there who have just joined us, we’ve got Robin Wiener on. She’s a friend of mine. She’s the Executive Director of ISRI. To learn more about the great things that ISRI is doing all the time, please go to www.ISRI.org. It’s the Institute of Scrap and Recycling and we’re talking about The Jason Project today. Robin, you know, I’m on the website and when you go on ISRI’s website and you click on education and I see here you have these scrap maps. What does the scrap map mean? And it says, ‘Scrap Map Interactive, Scrap Map One, Scrap Map Two’. Can you share how are these tools important to the socialization of the goals that you have with the Jason partnership? ROBIN WIENER: Thank you for pointing out about those scrap maps because they are a very valuable part of what we’re offering to teachers. Essentially, the scrap maps are posters that can be used by the teachers in their classrooms that depict the life cycle of the various commodities that are specifically handled in the recycling industry and as you pointed out, there’s interactive scrap map, which is an online tool that students can use on their computers, on their desktops, on their laptops that depicts the recycling chain for each commodity and shows how you can take something old and create a new and useful product so some examples that one can experience through the interactive scrap map or even see on the posters are how steel from an old car becomes a new bridge or scrap tires are recycled into road insulation or crash barriers and rubberized asphalt that’s used to make highways safer and quieter. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your interactive scrap map now. It is amazing. You’ve got tires, textiles, non-ferrous, plastics, glass, fiber, electronics. Everything’s covered so literally, students can dive in wherever their interests are, wherever they’re fascinated, and get a tremendous education right on their iPad or their tablet or some other type of interactive electronic tool. ROBIN WIENER: And, that was so important to us because, as I’m learning with my own children, I have two young girls who are five and ten, school is so different than when we were kids. When we were kids, we took home our textbook every night and our backpacks and now, they are so tied to their iPads and their laptops and we needed to make sure that we provided the tools that were useful to students today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great. Let’s talk a little bit about your Champions of Recycling. What does that mean with regards to the Jason partnership? And share with our listeners how that is important in terms of bringing great attention to all the important work that this partnership is trying to accomplish. ROBIN WIENER: Well, the Champions of Recycling was one of the most interesting aspects of Jason’s approach to education and it’s one of the reasons why I was so interested in working with them. What Jason does is they try to use profiles of scientists and engineers and other professionals within the curriculum to engage students because unfortunately, many students today look towards celebrities and athletes for their role models and so the hope is that by showing the diverse backgrounds and skills of professionals in our industry, that we can create role models for today’s students so what we’ve done working with Jason is develop a series called Champions of Recycling, which provides a library on recycling industry career models, again, with the hope that we’re creating role models for today’s students to educate the next generation about the recycling industry’s contributions and so for example, one of the Champions of Recycling is Tracy Blazek, who was a high school Honor Society leader. She got an engineering degree and when she was recruited for a job in the recycling industry, she said she was sucked right in and today she’s the Clients Director at Synergy Recycling in Atlanta, Georgia, which is part of the electronics recycling industry that’s seen growth from about $2 billion in size back in 2001 and it’s now well over $20 billion. It’s the fastest growing segment of the recycling industry today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. That is just incredible and you bring up a great point, Robin, with the example of Tracy. Recently, I had the honor and pleasure to come to your ISRI convention and the keynote speaker was Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton potentially is going to run for president and potentially be our next President of the United States, which doesn’t make us the first in having a woman president. We’re sort of catching up. We’ve typically been the leader with regards to democracy and the freedoms that reside within great democracies but we’ll definitely be overdue in an important milestone that we hit. Let’s take what’s happening with Tracy and then tie it together with Hillary Clinton and also you. You came into as a freshly minted lawyer, ISRI, which was historically a guy’s or a dude’s industry, and you broke through so many ceilings yourself and now your leadership and your role model mentoring has allowed other women to come into this great industry and become leaders and become owners themselves. How do you see this rolling out now and in the future? And look back a little bit and share some of that experience as a woman leader in what was historically an industry not led by women. ROBIN WIENER: Well, it’s interesting you raise that. I have to say, first and foremost, I’ve always felt very welcome in the industry, though you’re absolutely right. It’s very much a male dominated industry. I never encountered any issues and, if anything, it was, again, very welcoming and a very exciting industry to join but you’re right. It’s slow progress and there are definitely more women in the industry today than there were 23 years ago when I started but I’ve learned personally it’s important to have role models and mentors and I’ll tell a story. About 10 years ago, I was giving a presentation at a chapter meeting and I went into the restroom and there was a young woman there who was a trader for one of our member companies and she said to me how wonderful it was to see a woman as head of ISRI because it set a good example for her. Let’s put it that way and I hadn’t thought of it before, to be honest, and I think about that with my young girls and how important it is. My oldest is part of an accelerated math program at her elementary school and the teacher has talked to me about how important it is to encourage her because even today in elementary school, they’re seeing girls drop out of these math programs because they don’t have people encouraging them so it’s still an ongoing issue. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting but we’re so lucky to have you, Robin, because you really broke through so many of the glass ceilings and because of your leadership and your visibility, there’s people like Tracy Blazeks, who feel very comfortable coming into this growing industry and this growing opportunity so I just felt it was important to bring that up because you’ve done such a wonderful job and been such a great role model that it’s just we’re living in interesting times and I think women are going to continue to break through the final glass ceilings and take on more and more leadership roles in our industry and other industries, hopefully also with our country too. ROBIN WIENER: And, I have to give credit also to there are a number of other women in this industry who were there before me. I look at Shelly Padnos, for example, who was the first female Chair of ISRI’s board back around 2000 and she was a great role model for me and still is a mentor so there are a number of very strong women in this industry that I feel very fortunate to have worked with. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. We’re down to the last minute or so. Can you share your final thoughts on the Jason partnership and where your vision is, where you want it to go in future years? You’ve already had tremendous success. Where is it going to go and where do you want it to go in future years, Robin? ROBIN WIENER: Well, I just have to say that I am so very excited about the potential of this project to help change the image of our industry over the long term because, when you think about it, what better way is there to make sure that the next generation of Congressmen and State Legislators and journalists and law enforcement officers and businessmen and businesswomen, I should say, understand and appreciate our industry than to integrate recycling into the classroom experience? So, I have such hope for this program. Already Jason’s reached over 620,000 students with the recycling curriculum and we’re hoping to train more in the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, to learn more about The Jason Project and all the important and great work that Robin and her colleagues are doing at ISRI, go to www.ISRI.org. Click on the education button and it’s all there. Robin, you’re a great friend. You’re a great leader of our industry. Thank you. You’re a visionary sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good.