International Aviation Recycling with Gregoire James

October 7, 2020

Gregoire has worked in the recycling industry for over ten years. It was during a career in corporate real estate that he noticed gaps in the commercial sector. He then went on to found GeneraCycle in 2009 to help clients become more aware of their recycling practices. Recently GeneraCycle was selected for a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funded project to lead global research on the topic of recycling in the airline industry. After completing the study, he went on to found the International Aviation Waste Management Association (IAWMA.org) to help address systemic issues around waste recovery in the aviation industry. The IAWMA aims to advance evidence-based circular economy knowledge and adoption in global aviation. In its secondary role as a non-profit, the IAWMA is working to create and develop standards for the harmonized procurement and collection of single-use items.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how trajectory is leaving the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian, and I am so honored to have my friend today, Gregoire James. He is the commercial director and founder of the International Aviation Waste Management Association. Welcome Gregoire.

Gregoire James: Thanks John. Thanks for having me. It is a real honor to be here.

John: Well, it is an honor to have you for many reasons. We have never covered the topic of aviation and circular economy before, you are an expert on that, but before we get talking about your very important organization, the IAWMA, I want you to share in your own words, your background and biography leading up to the founding.

Gregoire: Sure, I am happy to. Yes, I guess it goes back to maybe around 2008 or 2009 where I took an interest in the recycling industry. I was working as a commercial real estate broker in Toronto, Ontario. I found that there were gaps in waste and recycling in the commercial sector just in the real estate industry, and it really started when I had gone out for coffee as they say, that the starts always serendipitous. It really started me coming back from getting some coffee and just realizing that I was not wanting to throw the coffee cup that I had, so at the end of the week I had five cups, and of course I took them home in a plastic bag. About two or three weeks, I had about dozens of cups in my room and I realized at that point, it was not garbage. I was just curious just really about were the cups recyclable or where they not, it turns out that they are, and that there are certain fibers that can be with cups. It could be certain fibers that can be taken out, but it is all obviously not a perfect circular economy example like the aluminum can.

John: Right.

Gregoire: In 2009, I actually left my corporate real estate job and I started a company called GeneraCycle. Genera is the Latin word for sorting. GeneraCycle was a sorting cycle because I really found that there was not really a lot of source separation taking place, and I thought maybe that was a clue of where to start. Ultimately, I found trying to help real estate companies and brands and groups to try and build their recycling profile, and it just seemed that the industry was moving at a million miles an hour or. I started with a bicycle. I have actually just picking up compost waste in the city of Toronto and we did worm composting which is a mystery in it of itself. We will have to book another podcast for that.

John: Of course.

Gregoire: Yes, but it was not until 2015 or 16 that I started poking around the airline industry, and I have a couple of a mentors who had been executives in the airline industry. We started calling Airlines and airports to try and find out what they were doing and it turns out they were doing a lot. There is a lot of really great folks in the industry. They are doing a lot of really good things well-intentioned, good partnerships good collection. The challenge is that there are laws and regulations that would prevent recycling sometimes from international flights for example. There is also really … as much as a symbiotic relationship exists between airlines and airports, they share a lot of resources. A lot of the times as we know, waste and recycling just kind of takes a backseat. In 2017, we were selected for a global research project by the US Federal Aviation Administration, it was funded by them. They wanted us to look at policy regulations and practices on a global scale to see if there were any examples both in the policy as well as the regulatory framework to perhaps bring that knowledge into future policy development in the US.

It was really an interesting journey for two years. I would love to talk more about it perhaps will cover some of the things in our show, but really what I found from the research was that there was no one single group that was really aggregating the solutions and supporting the industry in a way that I thought was needed. That was kind of the development of the international Aviation Waste Management Association.

John: When you were growing up, where your mom and dad greenies or was their recycling going on in your house or in your community? Where was the … sometimes when I have all the wonderful guests that have appeared on the show over the last thirteen years, it is fascinating to learn the backstory from where they are from. Was some of your DNA or inspiration gathered from family friends colleagues, community. How did that really germinate?

Gregoire: That is a good question actually. My childhood was one of great interest like most probably, but I can only speak for myself in that. I was always curious, and often I would drag my feet on projects or I would drag my feet on actually getting things done, but I liked washing my dad’s car. I took it apart and cleaned all the pieces and at the end of the five-hour process, it was this brand-new car [inaudible] My dad was always fascinated about that. My dad was also an entrepreneur, and he was also a fixer. He like to fix things and do things in a way that adapted his own style, so I probably took a page out of that. The curiosity was really … I like to figure things out before I got into them. Inherently when I tried to figure things out on my own, I follow different paths that that perhaps would not lead you if you were instructed to do them that way.

John: Got it. So talk a little bit about the advent, where were you and where was the sort of epiphany that, I have got to do this. I got to stop planning it and I have got to do. That is really the moment that I am always interested with entrepreneurs and creators and makers. Where did you stop going from, “Hmm, this sounds interesting. I got some friends in the aviation industry and I really do want to make the world a better place, but I have got to stop thinking about it. I have got to actually start doing it.”

Gregoire: That is a really good question. It is funny because in 2010, when I started Genera Cycle, the goal was to try and just do everything. Our vision was a landfill free globe, and I think as a destination, that was a great place to go. A good friend of mine asked me, he said, “Greg you have this recycling idea, what do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I guess I just want to make someone landfill free.” He said well, “What about a landfill free city?” I said, “Well that is a big idea. I do not I do not think I could do that.” but of course, I started thinking about all the moving pieces, maybe if we get the municipality in the government’s to help and all these different stakeholders, the supply chains, the catering companies, the restaurants, maybe it would work, then once we actually ideated on that, and he said, “Well, what about a land feel free country?” I said, “Well listen, a landfill free city is one thing, but a landfill free country, that is just off the charts.”

You see where this story is going. I mean ultimately, we arrived at the landfill free globe, and it is crazy of a story is it was? I often always say if we all aligned ourselves today, at the end of the week, we could probably all get there if we just stopped what we were doing and focus on that, but of course we cannot do that, but it was after about two years of trying to sell this kind of landfill free globe, cool aid which resonated with some, but also alienated others, right? It was good. It excited people, but it also was somewhat alienating as well. I had to really look deep inside and dig deep really. That answer your question, I had to dig deep to say, either I am going to do something or I am going to not do something and make a fool out of myself. I secured a meeting with Derek Gray, he was the manager of sustainability at at the Pearson Airport in Toronto, and he loved what we are doing and he said, “Greg, I love your ideas, but unfortunately, none of them are going to work. We have we have long-term contracts here, our buildings are fully lease, there is nowhere for you to sort. We have programs here, but it is all complicated.”

So I went home kind of crushed and I just said, “You know what, I am just going to buy a bicycle, and I am just going to start collecting food waste in the city.” Which I did. I started collecting food waste on a bike. I cycled 10,000 miles over two years. I diverted about twenty thousand kilograms of combos on a bicycle. Greatest day [?] of my life John, it was the best place to be. It was great, it was really cool, but that was really where it all started. When I actually served and completed this FAA project, I almost had to reinvent myself, and it was not until I thought about that bike program where I was controlling the sales, the marketing, the program development, the outreach, the processing, we had a facility where we are processing and making soil. We were partnered with Bullfrog Power, which was a clean green energy source, we even had Vega, which is a plant-based protein supplement that was providing a sponsorship to make sure that we were plant-based.

John: I know Vega. Well, it is a great brand.

Gregoire: Totally.

John: Yes.

Gregoire: It was having a real awareness of all those pieces of the ecosystem in terms of delivering a successful program that I just adapted it to the IAWMA and we find that … again the stakeholders are not really working together as much as they could be or should be.

John: Awesome. I am on your website now, it is a great, great website. For our listeners out there that want to see Gregoire and his organizations wonderful work at the International Aviation Waste Management Association, please go to www.iawma.org. When did you launch this website and actually put it out there that you are doing, you are doing you are going to make the world a better place.

Gregoire: That is a good question. I was stuck in the woods as they say, for an entrepreneur. Sometimes you try and create something and then apply it to the industry or to the market in which you are focused on. I tried that for many years with GeneraCycle not getting a lot of attraction [?] I realized that I was the problem. I realized I needed to get out of the way because ultimately, I was not going to be the only person who was going to help this industry, it was the industry that was going to help itself, but I was in a meeting with a good contact of mine, one of the airline’s here in Canada. He is a director of government affairs, and he said to me, “I love what you are doing. Great that you did this research and you found all this data.” He is like, “What can we do for you?” I said, “I do not know. I said I just maybe help you with some of your recycling or your programs.” I was stalling and stuttering. I was not sure what to do John. He said, “Well, let us know.” And I said, “Well, I have this International Aviation Waste Management Association.” And he said, “What? International what? And I said, “Oh, International Aviation Waste Management Association.” He said, “Well, are we a member of that? How do we become a member?” And I thought … this was about a year and a half ago. It hit me and I said, “Well I created it like two days ago, the famous entrepreneurial story where you just thinking of things and thinking how to apply them and it was not until then that it kind of dawned on me that it just ended [?] of itself, it just really provided a common sense approach to some of the issues and challenges that each of the stakeholders have on their own. I guess just before August of 2019.

John: Awesome. That is what I love. You are just really, really the perfect entrepreneur that dream something up so void [?] in the marketplace wanted to make a difference and then you started doing. You know Greg, why so many young people that I know that are well-intentioned never get to the do, and least you started doing which I just love and that is why the second you contacted me and started showing me all this great work that you are up to, it was very, very attractive and it makes people lean in, and I believe it is going to be a massive success because of the void that you are filling. Can you share with our listeners who are the stakeholders that you are representing, that you are bringing together, that you are bringing together to collaborate, to effectuate change?

Gregoire: Yes. It is an interesting question because often, I think about that in my private thoughts at night before I go to sleep. As an entrepreneur, the visual of success of an entrepreneur is always predicated by all the 10,000 hours that proceeded. If we took food waste as an example, I mean food waste represents a tremendous loss of productivity, a lot of food waste that could be consumed and thrown away to cause a greenhouse gas, also methane which is twenty-one times more detrimental to the environment than carbon on its own. As landfills the food waste … in landfills actually have [?] but if we look at food waste as an example, there is really no national program. There are food banks and there are composters and there are laws in place, but all these activities and support mechanisms are very fragmented, so in my perfect world, I guess it would be great for an industry to press a button and have access to great composting, great food donation partners. One of the silos of food waste is that even the restaurants and the supply chains at airports themselves do not have access to sometimes great food waste programs. That is one of the gaps. There are other material gaps, plastics is a very interesting one.

It is interesting because consumers think that plastic is maybe not as good as it needs to be or should be. A lot of people are saying we should ban plastics. A lot of people are saying plastics are in the environment. While these ideas are rooted in perspective of where they come from, the reality is that plastic as a tool in our industry is very valuable. I mean, plastic even prevents food waste if you wrap your chicken or something in plastic, it is not going to go bad. It is going to have a longer shelf life, but the challenge with any of these waste streams is that there is not an echo system to support them. If we looked at our water for example, when we turn on the tap, there is a system in place that collects that water and cleans it, but there are not these systems in place for various waste streams. Plastics is so interesting because it actually saves so much fuel if we were going to use … for example reusable or metal forks and knives or metal cups, which would be more elegant perhaps, they would consume more fuel in the air, so a lot of error airlines rely on plastics.

Plastic collection program is another one that we are really looking at to both shape the narrative, to both show companies how to use it responsibly, and how to collect. We are exploring those avenues.

John: You are interested in both the airline’s, the airport’s themselves, the flight kitchens, and bringing them all together including the supply chains, the collection chains and really closing the circular economy in the aviation industry.

Gregoire: Yes. Actually, that was what we really found out from the research that we did. I was in Indonesia actually at the airport in Bali, this was going back about two and a half years ago. They incinerate a lot of their waste there. This is an archipelago of eighteen thousand islands in Indonesia, so you can imagine the waste infrastructure that is needed just to support that, but I went into this building and I knocked on this door, and I said, “I am Gregoire James, I am here to research your recycling programs.” And they said, “Where did you come from?” And I said ” [inaudible] just landed a couple days ago. I just thought I would knock on your door because I tried calling and emailing, and I never got anywhere.”

John: That is nice.

Gregoire: Yes. What is interesting is that the reason I share that story, is because when a plane lands in Bali and is catered to go back to wherever it is going, the airport is not really involved in that process. The plane offload their materials, the airport looks at it and says, “Well, I guess we should just incinerate this stuff. We do not know where it has come from, who it belongs to, what is in it. It is not categorized or identified or it is not sorted. Well, I guess we should just incinerate it.” We have this kind of rudimentary activity that is happening in different countries. I mean, if you go for example to San Francisco Airport, they have maybe more robust programs there, but again, there are flights coming from hundreds of destinations and no one knows what is really coming off these planes. The airport’s really need to kind of start working a little bit more on the sustainability side with airlines rather than each on their own working in their own silos.

John: Now you started, your getting traction, you have got some great leaders on your advisory board. What is the future? What are some of your key initiatives and goals in the months ahead? Science is going to win, COVID-19 is going to get under control fourth quarter of this year, first quarter of next year. What is your eyes on in terms of the future of the international Aviation Waste Management Association?

Gregoire: We aim to advance evidence-based circular economy knowledge and adoption in global aviation. And so, if we just took the evidence-based portion, we want to actually get the knowledge into the supply chain to ensure that at the time of collection the material can be identified. I guess in a perfect world, standards come to mind. If we had some standards in the industry. Listen, the airline industry is no stranger to standard. Every runway that you land on is the exact same in terms of the lighting, in terms of a marking. It is a standard. As a close and controlled echo system that the aviation industry represents, standardizing some of these consumables supply chains, these collection chains … if we created a platform where everyone can identify the same things, I mean in a perfect world, it sounds great, but there are hurdles to that, and so we hope to address those hurdles with some of our partners.

As an industry aggregator, we also look to add value to our member base. We have engineering groups, we have food waste partners, we have packaging waste partners. To try and give us a sense of what they think we should be doing. While I founded this association, I founded it on necessity. I did not find it to create a job or to use it as a lever to get me into more markets. It was just more out of necessity. Those are the two things. The partner development and the standardization which I think are directions that we would like to go.

John: You are really aggregating experts to help solve the issues that you have uncovered over the previous years.

Gregoire: Indeed.

John: What is it look like in the years ahead, and what is your outlook on us achieving zero waste, not only in the aviation industry which of course you are covering. As a society as a whole, is that an achievable goal when we all say zero waste. Gregoire, is that something that we should be really aiming for? Is that too lofty of a goal?

Gregoire: It is interesting because the economy leverages the environment to make sure that the economy can survive. I think that we should maybe leverage the economy to help the environment. What I mean by that is, is there really a reason that we have 14,000 different types of forks and knives? Can we can pick a polymer? Can we color them all one color? I speak of these of these examples not to try and dictate or say what we are doing is not right. I guess what I am really trying to say in essence is that, can we work together to create a system that can all help us rather than confuses us. Henry Ford came up with the assembly line, and did that help manufacturing? I think so. I am not an expert in this field, but I look at that, and the reason why the economy is thriving, is because each of us have great ideas, each of us have value that we can provide, so if we flip the narrative, if we use the economy as a tool for the environment, could we apply that great intellectual property to streamline things.

I like to think yes, so to answer your question, let’s try really hard to recycle items, and it is hard to collect items. They say that do not put your straw in the recycling bin because it ties up the morph [?] Why we do not just create a straw, color them all the same color and have … I am getting into idealism here, which probably is not going to help us get very far, but you see kind of where the ideation is rooted?

John: Right. What is, “How garbage saved my life”?

Gregoire: Yes. I alluded to you earlier about this bicycle program that I started. At one point, I think I had about a hundred and twenty pounds of coffee grinds in a backpack that I was able to transport in one go. It was a Friday night, I think October like five years ago. Just before the sun went down, I actually got hit by a car and it was a really tragic thing. I actually remember thinking that I was on a roller coaster ride because I had never moved that fast in my life before like one point to another. Just think about that. Of course someone call 911 and my bike was wrecked, and I was thrown. I jumped into the ambulance, they picked me up. All I remember the firefighter with two hands you have this backpack and he is like “What is in here? Like, “What is this?” The paramedics said had I not been wearing the backpack of a hundred twenty-five pounds of coffee grinds. She was like, she is like, she had never seen a bicycle in that shape and the person survived. It was a non-survival event, but it was interesting because I had this mountain backpack, you know those big ones?

John: Yes, of course.

Gregoire: It was those big ones with the ones with the waist harness that actually like a belt.

John: Oh my God.

Gregoire: It actually kept my spine erect and it absorb the entire impact even when I fell because it was so heavy. I felt on the back, so it actually saved my life here. Here I was saving it and it saved mine.

John: I love that. That is the beginning scene when Netflix does a documentary on you and how you created the circular economy behavior in the aviation industry. It all starts with the accident, with the backpack and the coffee grinds in there, and you living, and you go on to become this aviation circular economy hero. I love that story. Netflix should do that now.

Gregoire: That is awesome.

John: That is just great. Listen, before we have to sign off for today Gregoire, I would love you to share any final thoughts you have, because there are lots of young people that is coming up even younger than your generation that want to do what you are doing. They are inspired by the International Aviation Waste Management Association and your work, and they want to become the next Gregoire James and go make a difference. Any advice to the young entrepreneurs that might be sitting in Shanghai or Mumbai or Dubai or even in just Boise, Idaho that really want to make the world a better place?

Gregoire: Yes. It is a struggle for sure to try and get anything off the ground. Entrepreneurial folks have a certain idea and they try and find out how to fit that idea into the real world. The challenges is that, often their thoughts are rooted in in a world that does not exist. The challenge I think that entrepreneurs have or folks have when they are looking at entrepreneurship is that they are living in this world which is absolutely amazing. I mean just the idea of having a cell phone where hundreds of years ago, all the materials that were in that phone. We are buried somewhere. It was a mystery, right? The best way that you can relate to is … I look at entrepreneurship as making a sandwich, so if you want to make a sandwich very easy. You get all the components. The meat, the veggies, the bread. It is a wonderful thing, right? Starting something that has not been created before, before you even can get the bread, you have to actually go farming, you have to actually find out how bread is made, you got to perfect the process, and then by the time you make the bread, you got to figure out where you can get the veggies and the meat and the supply chain and how to look at making sure that the meat is in a supply chain that is refrigerated, so you almost have to create in order to create the sandwich using it as an example.

You have to kind of peel the layers back and do each of those on their own, and become an expert at those before you can even get to the bread or even get to the sandwich. I guess the best advice that I could give anybody is just look at the pieces that you have and then try and find out the pieces that you need. Really, it is just one step in front of the other. People always ask how have I gotten this far? The real answer is I just took the next most obvious step.

John: I love it. That is really perfect advice, and you are doing, I love it because you are not only your creator a maker and a founder, but you actually took it from your kitchen table and you actually started doing it. You know what? You are the reason truly, that I do this show. It is for great people like you to platform you, your organization your journey, that I started this show thirteen years ago and I continue to do it. I am committed to it because it is up to us to collaborate and to share these stories, your story which are really important because they inspire the next generation behind you, and you are much younger than me. For our listeners out there, to find Gregoire and his very, very important organization, aviation’s most trusted circular economy knowledge source. The international Aviation Waste Management Association, please go to www.iawma.org. Iawma.org. Gregoire, this has been a great day, I look forward to you coming back on and giving us further updates to the progress that you are making in aviation. You for sure are making an impact and the world a better place, and for that I am very grateful.

Gregoire: Thanks for having me John, and thanks so much for having the show. I really appreciate the work that you are doing and having a platform in which we can discuss these as something that you created many, many years ago. I am a huge fan of your show and truly an honor to be here. Thank you.