The Voice of the Recycling Industry with Robin Wiener

October 14, 2020

Robin K. Wiener joined the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI), in 1989 to direct the association’s environmental compliance activities. On June 2, 1997, she was appointed ISRI executive director, after serving as association assistant counsel and director of environmental compliance. In March 2000, ISRI’s board conferred on her the title of president. As president of ISRI, Robin manages the day to day operations of the 1,300 member companies operating in nearly 4,000 locations in the U.S. and 34 countries worldwide that process, broker, and consume scrap commodities including metals, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, rubber, and electronics; provides strategic direction for the association, and oversees 42 staff members. The Washington, DC-based office publishes an award-winning bimonthly magazine, manages an active federal and state lobbying program, provides environmental, health and safety guidance and training, tracks commodities markets, and provides a variety of other services to the associations member companies.

John Shegerian: This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian, and I am so honored and excited today to have with me my good friend, Robin Wiener. She is the president of ISRI. We are going to learn all about ISRI today. But before we welcome Robin in, Robin, I just want to say thank you for being here during this crazy time in this world. Thank you for taking the time to join us today.

Robin Wiener: It is my pleasure and it is just great to talk to an old friend. Thank you, John.

John: I feel the same. I just wish we could be together under other circumstances. We will be in the future. Science will win and I know you and I are big science people. I know science will win and there will one day be a vaccine and we will get on to a new better and we will be together again. Before we get talking about all the great work that you are doing with your colleagues at ISRI, and for our listeners out there that would like to go to ISRI’s website, please feel free to go to www.isri.org. I am on their website now. It is literally one of the most fact-filled websites you will ever see with tons of information. If you are interested in any of the topics we are going to be talking about today that Robin is going to share with you and beyond. Robin, can you share your backstory? Because you have a great backstory leading up to joining ISRI and eventually becoming from Executive Director to the President and leader that you have been doing such an amazing job at for all the years that I have known you. Please share your backstory and bio with our listeners who have not met you yet.

Robin: Sure, and thank you for that lead-up, John. I really appreciate it. I have been with ISRI, actually, since 1989. I was twelve when I started.

John: A child prodigy. Why not?

Robin: Yes, right. I graduated from college with a Chemical Engineering degree, did some environmental consulting with one of the big call the Beltway bandits for a couple of years, and then decided to go to law school. Went to law school at night and just as I am starting law school at night and realized that I needed to be in a job that was closer to the law school whereas going to Georgetown. I started looking around and ISRI was hiring, looking for an environmental compliance person so I have no idea what the recycling industry was, what ISRI was, or [inaudible], but I decided to try it out. Figured I would be there for a couple of years and then after law school, ended up with a law firm, but I just fell in love with the industry. The people are great. The issues are never-ending. It really gets in your blood, to use a cliché, and I have been with ISRI ever since. Then I became President of ISRI back in ’97 and had witnessed so many transformations in this industry. It is never boring and I just love working with the industry and for the great people that are part of it.

John: Now, I have only known you as the president and you have done a brilliant job because organizations do not just morph. It is because of great leadership and leadership matters to evolve with the times. I want to get into that in a little bit, but before we do, lay the basis out for the mission of ISRI. For our listeners out there that are not familiar with ISRI, I want you to share what the mission and organization are all about.

Robin: Sure. Thank you for asking. ISRI is the voice of the recycling industry, promoting safe, economically sustainable, and environmentally responsible recycling through a combination of networking, advocacy, and education. That mission statement is written the way it is for a number of reasons. First of all, we represent those in the private recycling industry or the for-profit, I should say, the recycling industry. The companies that are involved in processing, brokering, and consuming the range of traditional scrap commodities, metals, papers, plastics, glass, textiles, [inaudible], and electronics. What is extremely important to us is to promote responsible recycling. A lot of what we do is around the issue of safety, workplace safety, and environmental compliance and really running operations in a way that is sustainable, that is connected to the local community, and is in conformance with all applicable environmental safety and other laws and regulations that might apply to these operations. We are afraid economically sustainable, adopt the very critical and those to what we do which is that there is a lot of talks out there by brands and others about making products recyclable. One of our main missions is to understand what does it mean for something to be recyclable. [inaudible] have to be technologically feasible to recycle but also economically sustainable. In order to label something as recyclable, or to promote its recyclability, we really need to make sure it makes it to a home system, the whole infrastructure. That is a big focus of what we are doing lately as well. Then certainly another big part of it is to just make sure we are there for all of the stakeholders in recycling to provide those networking opportunities to learn from each other, to grow businesses, and to promote
recycling generally.

John: You have over thirteen hundred or so member companies and 4,000 locations. That is a lot of constituents. Besides, I see just the people of the United States as your constituent because I believe, in my heart, Robin, as I have gone to know you and your great organization over the last 15 years and many other wonderful people as well, you are probably one of the top three or four most important people when it comes to the state sustainability revolution and recycling in the United States. But given that, why when you and I and other colleagues that we have traveled to Japan or South Korea or to Europe, Germany or other great countries, why are they so ahead of us in terms of their cultural DNA and activity around sustainability, circular economy, and recycling and why have we sort of lagged behind?

Robin: It is a really interesting question. First of all, thank you very much for the lead. That is that. It is really itchy question. I think that there are a number of factors. Started because of the market-based approach that we all are in the states that are really core to our economy. Whereas if you look at the EU, for example, they are not beyond or above, I should say, approaching some of these challenges with the willingness to subsidize and to add government funds to address some of the issues and challenges. That is not part of our efforts here in the United States. I think that is part of the issue. The role of government is very [inaudible]. I do not want to get into politics or play any names but [inaudible] at the beginning with regard to our beliefs in Science and you and I are very similar and believe very strongly, I think, in the role of Science. But that is not perhaps the universal ethic here. Ethics may be the wrong word. But the universal belief, unfortunately, [inaudible]. That may go back with our progress.

John: That is so interesting.

Robin: I would love to hear your thoughts about that, actually.

John: Yeah. Well, I think you are right. I think it is part cultural, I think it is part political, I think it is part business-oriented. It is shocking to me, Robin. You correct me if I am wrong, in 2020, we only have somewhat like what 11 bottle bills in America? Why is not every state covered by a bottle bill or some sort of regulated, mandated RF system or manufacturer responsibility system when it comes to just bottles and cans? I mean just something as simple as that?

Robin: Well, it is interesting you mentioned that because when it comes to the bottle bill, there is not even consensus with industry and the recycling industry about [inaudible].

John: Okay.

Robin: I am not going to say whether or not that is the answer or not but it looks like that there is one of the challenges [inaudible] is a frustration for me as well is that we do not have a national approach for some of these issues. That goes to just our State-based system and there are very good reasons why some of these situations and some of our challenges need to be State-based in terms of solution. But others do need more of a national approach. I mean, this is one of the reasons why we are having such challenges when it comes to our residential recycling infrastructure which is a whole obvious truth you spend hours, probably, on. But you think about all the different standards that are out there and with regard to every municipality in terms of what they will take in and what they would not. They had that lead to such confusion on the part of residence including myself> There are times all stares at something in my kitchen going, “Should this go in the bin or not?” which is just hysterical if you think about it. There is a lot of confusion out there.

John: You asked me what my thoughts are. I like in it and we are going to get into this a little bit more with regards to all the efforts you are making and the great leadership you have shown during this pandemic, but tying it back to the COVID-19 tragedy that we are all living through, sustainability and recycling, I see analogous, parallels between them both. That when you look at the success of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam in getting through this crisis, the government comes out and says, “You are going to wear masks,” people going to wear masks. The government says, “We are going to do contact tracing and massive testing,” that is what happens and then these are social pressure. When you are tested and have COVID in South Korea, your neighbors are alerted via text and they know you have to stay in your house for whatever period the government says so. Of course, we have not done that here in America. We have what we pride ourselves on is the individualism, innovation, and success. Individualism is tied up into that innovation and success that comes out of Silicon Valley or other great parts of innovation that this country is shown. Then we are at cross-cultural channels with regards to knowing which way we are going to go and not everyone wants to do the same thing and we do not have a government, never did really, that says, “It is going to be one way or the highway like they have in those other countries,” and therefore there is a problem with compliance. I think a lot of that can be seen in sustainability and recycling as we have seen with COVID-19, is that a fair approach or is that a fair analogy I have drawn?

Robin: I think it is. One of the other, actually, similarities has to do with the increased misinformation that is out there whether it is on the fact for example of [crosstalk] which is ridiculous. But there are those all the headlines we have been over the years about the collapse of recycling and recycling is dead or recycling is in crisis when that is not true.

John: Yes, this is so interesting. I think you are right.

Robin: [inaudible] a lot of bad. I have had people in my neighborhood say to me., “Oh, no, I am not going to recycle it,” it does not really get recycled. Yes, it does. Just amazing and that is inhibiting a lot of what we are doing in recycling and trying o get people to understand that recycling does work and it is important. All the reasons why it is important, certainly there are all the environmental reasons, and with [inaudible] because there is also the economic and just manufactured recycled material. As a matter of fact, one of the interesting projects we worked on earlier this year with EPA was on a video that we got out working with the administrator, actually, on the importance of getting OCC — the corrugated cardboard — into the recycling bin. That that material was needed during the food crisis in order to produce the toilet paper and all the other material, all the other food packaging, etcetera, that is needed in today’s society, but people were scared to put it in the bin or just did not realize it was getting recycled, but it would not be. That would be increased and we need to get it through so many different channels right now.

John: For our listeners who have just joined us. We have got Robin Weiner. She is a friend of mine, a good friend of mine, for the last 15 years. She is the President of ISRI, you could find ISRi and all of Robin and her colleagues’ great work at www.isri.org. Robin, let us talk about this very difficult period that we are going through. I am a sports guy. Most people follow some sports in one way or another and leadership matters. Leadership matters when you see winning teams over and over again and also losing teams and franchises over and over again. Look at Bill Belichick. Look at Phil Jackson. You can look at any sport and see how leadership matters. The same thing goes for organizations. It is already hard enough under normal circumstances with thirteen hundred or so member companies across America in every zip code, over 4,000 locations to manage what you manage. In many ways, if it was a for-profit organization, a huge corporation, and a huge [inaudible] that you manage with all those types of constituencies from different backgrounds and different areas. During this crisis, talk a little bit about the evolution of your leadership and how you had to pivot and what is working and what is not in terms of your leadership of ISRI getting it through this crisis to the other side safely.

Robin: Sure, we went through what I think most organizations that day on March 13th, when all of a sudden the world changed. We all moved into our home or attic, whatever you do to do our work. I have to say also I am incredibly grateful for our staff. They have been founded with such energy and determination because it changed everything. It changed not only how we work but how we communicate, how the issues we were dealing with and actually just a month earlier, we have had our board of directors meeting where we passed our legislative agenda for the year and no more on that agenda to mention talking to the Department of Homeland Security about recycling being essential or going after stimulus clubs or any of those issues. But our group understood the importance of being there for the industry and pivoting. It did change a lot of things and we have to be flexible. I think we all did in any industry we are signed in. Our first priority was making sure that the industry was recognized as essential in order to stay open during this critical time. We immediately reached out to contact what we had at the White House, within the administration, on Capitol Hill, and in the state to get that designation. It was really wonderful to see the Department of Homeland Security respond so quickly and include us as essential to the manufacturing supply chain. We had that through the Department of Homeland Security. We then work the state, we were able to get that and communicate all of this to our members so they can stay open. Certainly, our members in the recycling operation that have had public-facing retail operations. A lot of those closed due to health and safety concerns. We also have, for that case, all the safety issues. How do you operate a recycling operation safely during this time? Everything from how to do you distance employees within the operation. There was a lot of uncertainty as to how long COVID actually stayed on surfaces. Therefore the touching of the scrap and the moving of the scrap. Our safety team –I am really proud of them — they quickly done the research, shared the information, shared best practices. We got the information out there. One of the first lessons I learned very early on which is still an aha moment for me was about the importance of communications which sounds really naive. But up until March 13th, the message I kept on hearing from members and other stakeholders was, “Stop all these emails. We are getting too much information from you.” We did a hundred and eighty degrees turn after March 13th, and it took us a couple of weeks to realize it, and then we realized we start hearing members were so grateful to have these Zoom webinars. A Zoom [inaudible] they get to see other people. “I do not see people. I miss my friends. I want to hear from you more.” I need as many communications as possible. You cannot over-communicate. That was a pivot with us and we are still doing it. We are still pivoting. The other thing that was fascinating, a positive, if you are saying, was that we started seeing spaces on the Zoom calls that we have never seen before. We were able to reach deeper into the member companies and all of a sudden [inaudible] showed up for one of our committee meetings or to access some of our training. They did not have to get on a plane, spend money on a hotel or whatever, [inaudible] style it. Then we realized we had to start mining that data, mining those contact. That was a lot of what we started doing as well. I was, to be very honest, worried about our revenue stream whether we could sustain what we are doing. What has been shocking is we got more and more requests for membership. I am not saying membership is booming, but it is doing very well. We are getting lots of inquiries that people are seeing we become more visible through social media and all the various communications forums that we are utilizing. We spend a lot of time getting relevant information out, honing in on. People wanted to be members and everyone is liking and she wanted to know that it kept up to date on all the changes in the state. What is open, what is not, what do they have to do with regard to best practices within their operations? How do they access stimulus funds? All the changing rules with regard to that became very important. Then it is interesting. We experienced another shift, the homestay around June. When the company started getting settled into operating this way. In operating under this environment some have a very quick start shifting back to the other issue, the day-to-day issues that became very important to get all the work [inaudible] transportation board on dealing with customer service issues with the rails. We have some real successes in that area that I was thrilled about what was some work that Billy Johnson was doing in our [inaudible] division, in our paper division in those areas. We were able to pivot those issues again. We were working on the recyclability protocol and we just got authorization in February. A lot of recyclability protocol and so we are able to jump back into that and we are working on a recyclability protocol for paper-based packaging as brands are moving more away from plastics into paper-based packaging and looking for what are the standards. How do you determine is that package is going to make its way through the [inaudible] and into the mill? We are in the process of working with stakeholders throughout the chain developing that protocol right now and should launch by the end of the year. We are still in COVID but we are also pivoting back to pre-COVID issues and soon as of hopefully post-COVID. [inaudible] and it is being able to be flexible and always keeping your ear on the ground to see what our members want.

John: You and I are typically positive people. Let us say we are getting past COVID, at some point science is going to win and we are going to go back to a new better. Do you see that as everybody back in the office? This not only goes for you but also for your members. What are you hearing? Is the world going to go back to a hundred percent back in the office or is it going to be 50% at home, 50% at the office? How does that look to you? Not only look to you as the leader of ISRI with all your members but also as the leader of ISRI with the team that you have in your DC office, how do you feel about that? Because when you read Reed Hastings’ view on it is very different than Tim Cook’s view on it, which is very different than another. Leaders have different viewpoints on that. Love to hear your viewpoint on that issue.

Robin: Sure. The truth is I do not think any of us can say definitively what it is going to look like but it is definitely not going to be what it was before or it is not going to be a hundred the office and I say that actually and it is a good thing. It is a good thing for a number of reasons. I will admit that I was old-fashioned before my church and I was kind of skeptical of people who have to work from home. I admit that I have some hires that had to be made and I do not really get hired working at that was not PC-based and I thought, “No, they need to be interacting with everyone in the office,” and I turned away from that person. Now they have done what I [inaudible] are able to accomplish working from home. It is possible. It can be done and I know that ISRI is going to be more flexible with our own workers. Certainly, the contact is needed, and being in person at least on an occasional basis is very important for that developing the trust between people who work together at sharing information, but you can divide it, you can do it in a hybrid manner. I see more of a hybrid approach and the only thing that is going to be different is our offices and this is probably one of the hardest things for me to look at because three years ago, we moved into a new office space that I could not be prouder of. In the past, we were in office space that looks like anyone else’s office space, but when we went into our new office space two years ago, I wanted the office space to say recycling. I wanted you to be able to walk in there and whether it was an employee of ISRI, I wanted them to know who they were working for or if it was someone, a stakeholder, or someone who knew nothing about recycling. They quickly understand what recycling is all about because recycling is something that is so easily misunderstood. We actually have a little museum area and education center. Everything in the office is made out of recycled material and we talked about it. I do not think you have ever been to our new space. I would love you to see it and now it is empty. It is not inexpensive. We have to think about, “Okay, what does this mean for us then how do we reduce our costs, and perhaps with this hybrid approach, what do we do with this space?” Those are all things I am trying to figure out and I think everyone else to have space in the city is trying to figure out right now in an urban area. Just tell you a quick story, I went into the office about two weeks ago and at one point I took a walk around the corner to the local CVS and I asked the CVS manager how shoppings were and the store manager looked at me, he said, “At March 14th or 15th, the business was down 90%. It is now only down 83%.” The downtowns are just those towns. I do not really know what is going to be two or three years from now.

John: Yeah. It has definitely affected people. Talk a little bit about the shift in the industry. Your message is great because I see you every day on LinkedIn which I love. I love your messages on LinkedIn and I have seen it more than ever in the last 15 years, in the last 90 days. It is wonderful. I think the messaging that ISRI is putting out, that you are putting out specifically is just great and I could see why your membership interest level is rising because the value was always there, but now the perceived value is being shown to others who now get more interested, but they never took the time to learn about you earlier. I could definitely see what you are saying. It is just fascinating. But talk about the shift from just on the office issue that your that we are talking about or the CVS issue. Because now so many of us are working from our home and our children are home also studying and
going to school at home. Has the waste stream changed from commercial entities and downtown core urban areas and been dispersed now more to the exterior parts of the cities where there are homeowners and stuff? How does that affect the waste and recycling industry and your work in your messaging?

Robin: Well, it is a great question. First of all, [inaudible] as you know, what our primary message is [inaudible] so we are not back by the way stream here, we are talking about the recycling stream.

John: Correct.

Robin: With regard to that stream there have definitely been huge shifts in the supply chain. As a result of the shift from commercial operations to residential development with toilet paper and paper towels, etcetera. There has definitely been a huge shift in the supply. There has also been a shift in demand. I mean when you look at and it varies by commodity, I saw a really interesting chart last week. I think it was “We had our commodity spotlight” series. There was a speaker who shows a chart showing commodity prices and how they have evolved over the last seven months and he could pinpoint and I think he divided the seven months or so eight months into that six different sectors where different things were happening in terms of supply and demand. For example, you look at the period around March-April when you have the [inaudible] for shut down and a lot of manufacturing shut down. The demand collapsed. But then demand started coming up and conditions are improving but that all come that supply chain is slow to restart. We are trying to get the jump on that supply chain again. Certainly because of the shift of everyone within the home and needing distance learning and sections [inaudible], etcetera. The supply of used electronics, something you are very familiar with, there was a [inaudible] up at the electronic [inaudible]. You have a supply disruption there that is causing issues for the electronics recycling segments to get their huge [inaudible] disruptions throughout the change and shift their current. Although again, it is improving. We are getting closer to more balance, probably we are not quite there yet.

John: Got it. Robin, this period of course, there are no books that you and I could read from HBR or Stanford or anywhere on how to navigate a pandemic. It still does not exist. You as the leader of ISRI, myself as a leader of a business, and all your members are sort of doing it, we are learning it on the fly. Talk a little bit about your vision for the future. We are going to get past this. I know that you know that. What is your vision for ISRI post-pandemic post-COVID? Where are you going to take the organization next? Because again leadership matters and you have done a brilliant job since ’97 and that is why ISRI is stronger than ever, bigger than ever, has a huge voice in the importance of all the organizations that you represent and what you do is bigger than ever in America. Because we cannot continue. to burn California down. We cannot continue to have floods and typhoons and all these other climate change issues on a more regular basis than ever before. What is the future and how do we continue to evolve sustainability and good recycling practices faster than ever before?

Robin: It is an interesting question. I am a big believer in collaboration before, during, and after coach COVID. I think one of the challenges and I should have mentioned earlier at why sustainability– the messages are not– we are not making as much progress here. One of the things that shocked me three years ago or so when the whole issue of the residential recycling system was coming up and all the problems in the residential system, in part, triggered by what happened with China with a number of people who were claiming to be experts in the field and who were stakeholders and recycling, who were sending out messages and the messages were so all over the place. They were mixed. There was no common message. How could we fault consumers for not knowing what goes in the bin? Or even a policymaker for not understanding how to help fix the system if they are getting 20 different messages from 20 different [inaudible]. One of the things that I try to do early on was to collaborate about organizations. Any credible organization that was working in the space, try to reach out to them and work together to develop solutions. I hope that after this, that continues and gets stronger, and I [inaudible] a very big part of it. I mean you mentioned at the very beginning before we get started [inaudible] interview with that. How one moment can keep America beautiful? I sit on their board and it is a great example of, again, collaboration. I also work with the national recycling coalition. We are now involved with the recycling partnership. We do a lot of work with US EPA. There are so many [inaudible]. There are so many organizations out there, especially in the residential space, which is a small portion of the overall recycling infrastructure, but it is the one that everyone is aware of that everyone talks about. But it is an example, what I see in the future is that hopefully, they will be more of melding the messages. that when hopefully all get towards and everyone will be on the same page. But at least we will all collaborate even more so that we can help finally address some of these long-term issues or recycling and for sustainability. Certainly, ISRI wants to be and will continue to be a big part of that both in terms of finding solutions and all also educating and raising awareness about recycling. Not just on residential but commercial and industrial which are a significant and the larger part, really, of the streams. We are going to continue with our recyclability protocol. We are going to continue with something you and I talked about 10 years ago. Or maybe five years ago about the work we are doing on these outreaches and helping you raise awareness about recycling with in K through 12 with our curriculum as we do in partnership with JASON learning and other organizations [inaudible].

John: Great organization, [inaudible]. You do great work there with [inaudible] areas. That is all thanks to you. Amazing.

Robin: I am sure you feel this too [inaudible] your granddaughter, it is so important to make sure that we are giving a healthy planet to the next generation through all of these activities. Then also work force development. That is an area we are moving in to and I see it becoming a larger part of what we are going to be doing post-COVID. Because the workforce is getting smaller and finding eligible workers is getting harder. We are doing some partnerships with community colleges to try to develop a more recycling curriculum beyond K to 12, but for the community colleges, etcetera, again, encourage more people to come into the industry as well.

John: That is awesome. Well, Robin, you are always invited back here. For our listeners out who want to find or join ISRI please go to www.isri.org or go to LinkedIn or other social media, Linkedln ISRI, or even LinkedIn Robin weiner her messaging on a regular basis is wonderful. We are so lucky and grateful in the United States to have you, Robin, to lead the recycling charge. I am just grateful to have you as a friend and I am thankful for your
time today ain Impact. You are truly making the world a better place.

Robin: Thank you, so are you, John. I am so grateful for your friendship and all the work you are doing. Thank you for bringing me back to talk to you. I appreciate that.