Advancing Sustainability Commitments with Pete Keller

February 4, 2021

Pete is responsible for defining and implementing the strategic direction of the recycling and sustainability platform for Republic Services.

Pete has an extensive background in operations and compliance, having served in prior roles as Region Engineer, General Manager, and Area President. Prior to his employment with the Company, Pete practiced as a Professional Engineer with a national environmental consulting firm and has over 30 years of environmental services experience.

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, and 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 For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.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 so honored and excited to have my friend Pete Keller with us today. He is the VP of Recycling and Sustainability at the great company of Republic Services. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Pete Keller.

Pete Keller: John, thanks for having me. I am excited to be here. I would like to talk a little bit about myself. I am Pete Keller, as John just said, the VP of Recycling and Sustainability at Republic Services. I actually grew up in the state of Maine, which you do not hear of very often, but as a kid from Maine, I was always interested in the environment. I got a Civil Engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts with an emphasis in Environmental Studies. I actually worked my way through college in wastewater treatment. My first job was as an environmental consultant in Southern California and that was in the early 90’s before a lot of the modern landfill regulation was passed or promulgated in the US. I did a lot of cleanup work and a lot of environmental remediation work. Then, I moved to Phoenix in the early 90’s. In the mid-90’s, a little company called Allied Waste moved to Phoenix and became a client of mine. I was fortunate enough to join Allied Waste in 1998 as an engineer and back in those days, John, we were growing rapidly through acquisition and soon moved in operation. I was fortunate enough to work for the company as a general and district manager. After we were acquired or merged with Republic Services in 2008, I was an area president up in the Pacific Northwest. This was back in the day when sustainability was still an emerging science and certainly, these were in the days before anybody was really even talking about ESG. For your audience, ESG stands for Environmental Social Governance, which has all the rage today in the investment community. In the Pacific Northwest, we were ahead of the curve, if you will, as it relates to recycling and sustainability and some of the diversion programs. The company looked to create a role that was heavily focused on recycling and sustainability and I was the guy that happened to be in the right place and at the right time. I had a great team in the Pacific Northwest and I also had a lot of great customers that were willing to support those types of programs. I have been very fortunate over the course of almost the last decade to have the opportunity in shaping and influencing the strategy of the company as a [inaudible] such as how we go to market in the recycling business and more recently, in helping to inform and influence our sustainability strategy. I have been very fortunate over that time.

John: Over the last thirteen or fourteen years or so, I have had lots of folks like you that lead sustainability programs at great brands and are also chief sustainability officers but I cannot remember– although that does not mean it did not happen– any of them being engineers. How did your engineering education inform your sustainability leadership skill set?

Pete: I do not know anybody who has ever asked me that question before, but obviously with most engineers, we are a little bit more methodical and maybe a little bit more risk-averse. I think it gives me an affinity for some of the technical and scientific aspects of sustainability and certainly has the role [inaudible]. We are doing a lot of work with [inaudible] and their alternative fuels, electrification, and things like that. I think it has really helped me, John, with understanding the math and sciences behind those types of things. From a recycling standpoint, I call it the manufacturing, but it is largely manufacturing process and there are a lot of equipment that has become sophisticated and more technical in nature lately. We are using a lot of optical scanners and starting to use robots as well. Those are the things that have helped kick-start us as well. We, as a company, are one of the largest recyclers in the world; we touch about six and a half million tons of recyclables per year so we have an obligation to help manufacturers with their technology and innovation. We have some equipment manufacturers that are really close partners of ours so we work with them closely over the years to make sure that the equipment is getting better over time. That has been a lot of fun as well.

John: That makes so much sense and for our listeners out there, to find Pete Keller’s great company called Republic Services and the great work him and his colleagues are doing, you could go to www.republicservices.com and we are also going to talk about your other website in a little bit recyclingsimplified.com. That is also a great and very informational website as well. Pete, go back to what you just said; what most people do not understand is that you are one of the biggest waste companies in the world, classically speaking waste company, but you are also one of the largest recyclers in the world, which also then gives you a tremendous amount of green sustainability, ESG circular economy, whatever you want to call it, whatever it is being called now in the media and whatever the hot topic that the bankers are using like acronyms et cetera. You are truly one of the largest recyclers in the world. Can you share a little bit about how that really is and how you and your colleagues manage that part of your business?

Pete: Yes, absolutely. So, today John, we have got seventy-nine recycling facilities in the US. We operate in forty-three States and we have fourteen million customers. We have contracts with about 2500 municipalities in the US. So obviously, we touch a lot of communities. You just mentioned recycling simplified; that is our educational and outreach material, but we have done a lot of customer insights work. I might imagine that most your audience have access to curbside recycling programs and that is just part of the service that folks receive. Most of our customers want to recycle and most of them demand recycling services. Again, when you when you think about our size and scope, there are a very few companies worldwide that touch more materials than we do. We play an important part in value chain, you just mentioned a whole bunch of different terms of the day, so whether you want to call it circularity or ESG or anything else. So yes, we play an important role there.

John: Well, you people are humble and what I have learned over the years is that folks like you that lead these kinds of efforts at iconic and great brands that are this large like Republic Services, when you guys make a move, it truly moves the needle. It is not to say the small companies and entrepreneur and innovation that goes on in this country and around the world is not important, but when you guys make a move, it truly does move the needle in sustainability and circular economy behavior and that is so important. You mentioned a little bit about the use of robots, optical scanners and potentially even AI, can you share a little bit how you are starting to use some of those new technologies to help even better your recycling facilities and sustainability efforts.

Pete: Yes, so I mentioned, kind of the manufacturing. Years ago, when recycling programs are just getting started, it was pretty common to have multi-stream or dual stream collection system; so folks would separate their materials at home into multiple bins. It is industry terminology, but in today’s marketplace, quality really matters so we have to spend a lot of time and energy making sure that we are producing high quality materials. One of the ways we do that is through technology; optical scanners, high speed and high precision can separate materials pneumatically. It is basically using little puffs of air in milliseconds. Most optical scanners — I do not want to get too technical, but work in the near-infrared spectrum, and we actually shine light on materials, predominantly plastics and we can measure the way that that light reflects off different types of materials and then we can identify different types of plastic by resin and then separate them pneumatically with equipment that really does not require a lot of maintenance. The robots are probably pretty simple to visualize; it is just an arm with a little suction cup on the end and again, it is a high-speed computer that can recognize different types of material and we can program those robots to grab an aluminum can or a plastic water bottle or maybe grab something that should not be there for [inaudible] contamination. So that is emerging technology and is relatively new to the marketplace but exciting nonetheless and really cool to sit there and watch it work.

John: Go back to the plastic waste thing, that seems, Pete, to have gotten so much media over the last fifteen or twenty years and it is still ongoing; is this attention really needed or warranted or are we misplacing our attention and should be focusing on other items as well as the plastics?

Pete: Yes, plastics are getting more attention in the media today, John, than ever before and I think there are a few things going on. So, there is growing concern over plastics in the environment, whether it is litter, ocean debris plastics on beaches or plastic in developing countries. So that is a concern and plastics in the environments are very real issue. I think the only reason there is so much attention is because there are more and more products being sold in plastic packaging than ever before, whether it is a can of tuna fish that is now in a stand-up pouch… you and I can remember when mayonnaise and ketchup was in glass and now that is all in plastic.

John: A hundred percent. You are right.

Pete: Yes, so there is more focus on that type of packaging simply because there is more of it in the marketplace. So solving that circularity on plastic can be done by doing educational campaigns. We recently announced that we are no longer exporting plastic. I do not know if that is public policy. I do not know if that is just corporate leadership, but just kind of thinking about what happens to materials throughout their entire life is important as well. We do not see a world without plastic. We do not see those materials going away. Again, from the [inaudible] perspective, when you think about the energy inputs and the feedstocks for some of these types of packaging, a plastic actually has a pretty low impact relative to other forms of packaging, so it is a complex issue. It is a difficult issue and it is a problem that a lot of folks are trying to solve.

John: Pete, the [inaudible] of where you sit and also because of your engineering background, you get to see every sort of new innovation that comes up and gets sent over to you and people are pitching you all the time. Do you feel hopeful that in the years to come there will be good domestic opportunities to recycle post-consumer plastic, which like you said, you are just handling it, you are not the manufacturers making it but as you very well shared about mayonnaise, ketchup and so many other products that used to be in glass, they are now gone to plastic and you are sort of forced to handle more and more this stuff, is there going to be good beneficial reuses that are innovated now and in the years to come that you are starting to see because of where you sit, which is a very unique position in this country?

Pete: Yes, we do and a couple of things make us believe that. The most major brands whether it is in the US or in the world, have some sustainability goals relative to their packaging and a common goal is percent of post-consumer content or recycled content. So, when we look at when we look at really big brands, and I do not want to name names, most of their goals are coming online 2025 or 2030 with significant percentages of post-consumer content; so we are encouraged by that. The other thing that we have seen recently and this is very recent, State of California just passed legislation a few months ago that will require 15% recycled content in single-use beverage containers by 2022 and then 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. So if we start to see more public policy like that, in other states then obviously that that will bode well for demand in the marketplace and ultimately that circularity that we talked about.

John: Got it. For our listeners who just joined us, we have got Pete Keller today. He is the VP of recycling and sustainability. He is also my friend and he is at Republic Services. To find Republic Services and all the great work Pete and his colleagues are doing, please go to www.republicservices.com. Pete, a lot of people now are tired of hearing about what is going on in the world. We know that our new administration is going to go back and re-sign the Paris Accord and a lot of things are coming online. There is a green deal that is out there that people are talking about but just the man, the woman and the young millennial on the street wants to know about actions, how they could actually now become part of the solution instead of either just complaining about it or saying that they want to do something but not doing anything about it. You are, again, in such a fascinating and unique position, what are some of your better recommendations for people who really want to be part of the solution and take action now in terms of recycling and being part of the new green economy?

Pete: Yes and relative to that interface with our customers, we try to give them simple things to remember; just ways to be better recyclers and the ways to contribute to a cleaner environment. Unfortunately, in America, all recycling programs are not designed the same, right? So you go from community or [inaudible], things that are acceptable maybe a little bit different. So one of the things we tell our customers is know what to throw and all we mean by that is become familiar with what is acceptable on recycling programs in your municipality or your city. The other thing we like to say, John, and this is our version of stop, drop and roll but we like to say, “empty, clean and dry”. So make sure that your recycling materials are empty, clean and dry. All our customers will say that is kind of difficult or you are not making it easy on us. We are not asking folks to run their recyclables through the dishwasher or anything like that. [inaudible] and shake them out but it is important. So if we get a half a jar of mayonnaise or a quarter jar of ketchup, then that can actually contaminate perfectly good cardboard or paper and render those other materials as unmarketable. So it is really important that folks remember that “empty, clean and dry”. Then, this last thing, John, surprises a lot of people but we tell our customers: Do not bag it. We actually receive a lot of recyclable materials in bags. So I think people probably do that under their kitchen sinks or for convenience purposes but when we receive a bag in our recycling centers, we do not recycle that material. We do not have the time to stop the machines and tear those bags open. We have also found that can be a safety concern because we do not always know what is in those bags. So that is something that we also tell our customers just to ensure that they are being better recycler. So hopefully that is all helpful to the audience.

John: Pete, I am on your website now, recyclingsimplified.com and I have spent a couple hours on it, leading up to today’s interview. It is such a great website, but I do not want to give it away. I want you to share: why did you guys develop it and what is its main purpose?

Pete: Well, we developed it because education and outreach foundations, the cornerstones of successful recycling programs in the US so that the communities that have invested in educational longest have the most participation and the cleanest materials. Again, we are focused on simple messaging so, I do not do not want to be over-technical and the website contains a variety of different types of materials. We have collateral there that can be downloaded. You do not have to be a customer of Republic Services to pull this information down. So, things like brochures, three folds, things you could tack up on your refrigerator – there is a number of different, we call them kind of expert tip videos. There is actually K through 12 curriculum on there that educators can download and that is segmented for different age groups. So there is some really useful materials and simple messaging available to the public at large. You can download and edit the collateral as you see fit. The more people that we can help become better educated then ultimately, we can help improve recycling programs across the country.

John: When did you launch that site, Pete?

Pete: 2018.

John: How is it going? How has been the journey since?

Pete: It is great. We have had a lot of things happen in the marketplace since we launched; obviously the pandemic this year and China continues to ratchet down acceptable recyclables in their country. For the audience, in 2017, China represented the largest market for recovered materials in the world and starting January 1st, just few days from now, they are going to exit that market altogether. So there have been pretty big shifts in the flow of recyclable materials over the last three years, but to answer your question on recycling simplified. We have had a lot of great feedback on that campaign and the materials that are available there.

John: Pete, you just mentioned that we are having this conversation in 2020 and the Covid tragedy or pandemic is still ongoing, hopefully we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning as science seems to be winning this real tragic period in world history. I have the unique opportunity over the last sixteen or seventeen years to get to know your leadership team at Republic Services and I have learned more from them including you and your colleagues about Waste and Recycling and Leadership than any company that I have ever interacted with; share a little bit about how your team has reacted to the Covid pandemic and how you have navigated maintaining your great services across the nation and servicing your municipalities, as you said is that over 2,500, keeping your recycling centers open and also serving the great people of the United States of America.

Pete: Well, it has been absolutely remarkable what our team has been able to do. It is inspiring and humbling to be part of the entire experience. As most of the country, John, we kind of shut down for forty-eight hours. When I say shut down, shutdown the home office, but to your point, we never shut down. Obviously, the work that we do is considered essential. It has been considered essential during the entire pandemic. In the early days, our focus was on our employees and if you cannot keep your employees safe and healthy, you cannot continue to work. Fortunately, or unfortunately, business continuity is actually a function for our company and it has been a [inaudible] for a long time. We are really good at responding to things like tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. So when the pandemic hit, we had that team and we had those protocols in place, so we were able to respond pretty quickly in those early days of pandemic. When you think about some of the personal protective equipment like masks and shields, we were fortunate in the sense that the company always purchase those supplies. So those supply changes were already set up and we already had that type of material in inventory so we did not skip a beat there. But when you think about our business, most of our people start at the same time. They all come in and hit the time clocks, usually we have safety [inaudible] every day and so we had to modify the way that we go to work. We had to modify how we work and then in recycling facilities, it is pretty common to have a lot of people working in close proximity; so where we could not create social distancing, we had to create physical barriers like a lot of what everybody has now seen, that is the plexiglass separation.

Pete: In the very early days when we could not get plexiglass, we were hanging things like shower curtains or whatever we can get our hands on. So those are some of the things we did and continue to do. We also created a program that we call ‘committed to serve’ and these was gift cards we gave to our frontline workers for several months and we encourage them to spend those gift cards at local businesses. So it is helping our employees but also helping our communities at the same time and that was a pretty significant investment. So those are some of the things that we have done and I am proud to say that we have been able to operate at all locations during this entire terrible time.

John: That is incredible. Pete, we mentioned earlier about ESG, circular economy, sustainability and things of that such; when you joined Republic, it was an interesting time in terms of what I have seen, you come on and you are making the company greener and more sustainable and that is great for constituents and your user base out there, but has the world even ratcheted up to the point where now all of the ESG and recycling and sustainability behavior your company is engaging in and leaving in, frankly speaking, is now also something that is very attractive and important to the analysts and to Wall Street and the investor base [inaudible] and even the young kids out there on the street, on their Robin Hood apps investing in companies that are making the world a better place, has your role become a more of duality than singular over the years? Is that something that you have seen or am I off base a little bit on that?

Pete: Well, the role has certainly evolved, John and a lot more attention for [inaudible]. Anybody can look at ESG investing over the course of the last few years and just [inaudible] exponential growth in that space. I guess I spend more time with our investor relations group these days than certainly I did ten years ago. Again, I cannot speak intelligently about what the Robin Hood investors are doing, but we believe that it has created a lot of value. In our sustainability work, we also think it helps us attract and retain the best employees, right? You mentioned millennials and they are very interested in what companies are doing in terms of sustainability. So it is a big part for us and we believe of our employee engagement. It is important for things other than just that investment community, if you will.

John: Right and I need to share this with our listeners in terms of you are a publicly traded company and you have been on Forbes best employers for women’s list, the Dow Jones sustainability industries and [inaudible] institute’s world’s most ethical companies. I mean, you guys have earned your stripes and you continue to lead the way and I am just really grateful for you spending some time with us today, Pet. Any last thoughts before we have to say goodbye today, of course, you are always welcome back here because I love you guys and I love what your mission is and how great you do it and you are one of the leaders in the world, but I want to give you the last word before we sign off for today.

Pete: You are very kind. I am just very appreciative of the opportunity to talk to you today. It was good to hear your voice. Again, if any of your listeners have any follow-up or questions about Republic Services, it is at republicservices.com. So happy to talk to you, John.

John: Hey Pete, also for our listeners out there, there are also these great K through 12 series that Pete spoke about earlier recyclingsimplified.com. It is a wonderful website. I have spent hours on it and you can get a lot out of that website as well. Pete Keller, you are one of the great leaders in sustainability. You are making great impacts every day with Republic Services and all your colleagues and friends there that I know and I just really appreciate your time today and also the fact that you make the world a better place. Thank you for being on the Impact Podcast.

Pete: Thanks, John.