Environmentally Responsible Recycling Opportunities with Tricia Conroy

February 18, 2021

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Tricia Conroy serves as the Executive Director of MRM, the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company. MRM was founded to help electronics manufacturers work together to provide convenient, environmentally responsible recycling opportunities to consumers and to comply with e-waste laws across the United States. Ms. Conroy has led the organization since 2009.

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 leading the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am so excited and honored to have with us today, Tricia Conroy. She is not only my friend. She is the executive director of the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, better known as MRM. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Tricia.

Tricia Conroy: Thank you so much, John. It is great to be here and I really appreciate the opportunity and it is fun to talk to you. I wish we were face-to-face [crosstalk] but it is great to hear your voice. Thanks for having me.

John: And this is the next best thing. We are living in this COVID period that [crosstalk] is still tragic and strange at the same time. You are in Minneapolis. I am in Fresno, but we will be together soon. Science seems to be winning and that is good news for all of us here and around the world. Tricia, for those who have not had the chance to get to know you as I have over the years, you have a fascinating background besides being one of my favorite people in terms of education at Stanford and at Columbia University, two may be of the greatest institutions of education in America, can you share a little bit of your background leading up to joining MRM, and how that went, and how you got to get to MRM?

Tricia: Sure, thanks, John. So I am a native Minnesotan, and then I went to this like you said the sunny skies of California, but went east for my graduate program, and stayed east. I started my career working in the Washington DC area. So I did environmental consulting work for ETA. I worked for the Congressional Budget Office, but like many Minnesotans, I just wanted to get home. So after a lot of years away I came back to Minnesota, worked a little bit on environmental issues here, and happened to write the first report on electronics issues for the Minnesota Legislature way back and so from that electronics recycling just really started to grow here in Minnesota, and I think I just happen to be in a place where that industry kind of grew around me. I was a consultant in the area and I knew I got to know the people at Best Buy and I came on board to help them plan and start their program and then things just took off from there. So I have been head of MRM since I think 2009. I became the head of it and it was it has been a great experience, and as you know, we all started with a handful of spots and a handful of locations and things have grown and we now operate around across the country. And electronics recycling is what I do. I do not think you know when you go talk at the career day my message to people is you just never know where life is going to take you and you want to stay open to meeting new people and new issues and I never would have thought that I would have a career in paying attention to electronics recycling but it has been fun and fascinating and it changes all the time. So it has been a great ride.

John: Well, you know you have been such an inspiration to me, Tricia, because truly, helping to write the legislation in Minnesota is literally the genesis of electronic recycling in America.

Tricia: Yes, Minnesotans like to be modest, but it was the first state to pass a law that required electronic manufacturers to set up their own programs and that was different and there were states that were ahead of Minnesota but you just signed up for a state program or like you guys in California you all pay a fee at the cash register and that funds recycling. In Minnesota, the state legislature wanted these schools met, set them forth real clearly, and then told the manufacturers, “Hey. You make these things. It’s your responsibility to get it done.” And so that is when MRM was founded because these manufacturers had a job to do to comply with the Minnesota state law and they had to do it on their own, and so that is why MRM was founded to help do that. We really have been fortunate here to be around from the beginning and watch things grow and develop.

John: And for those listeners who want to find MRM, I am on your great website now. It is www.mrmrecycling.com. It is a great website. There is a lot going on there. You have a lot of great brands that you represent. But before we get into that, share with our listeners who do not yet know about electronics recycling. A, you and I both know that electronic waste is the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world still today even since we have met all those years ago, but why keep it out of landfills and why really care about how it is handled when they come to their end of life?

Tricia: That is such a good question, and I think you know, it has changed through the years, to be honest. [crosstalk] You see a gold piece that was in your house years ago and your grandparent’s basement, they had a lot of lead in them and that was really the driving force initially, but as the product, that is one of the things we spend the most time on, is making sure that any of those old TVs are handled right. But there are lots of other materials, some that you want to ensure are not just thrown in a landfill for hazardous reasons others because there is a lot of value to them. You know if this you are one of the experts in it, but we need to be thinking about our planet. We need to be thinking about the overall footprint of all of our actions and electronics have all sorts of stuff that can be pulled out and used in new materials, and we want to make sure that is happening. So it is a combination of keeping things that work well and make your electronics work for you and work keep you protected and but maybe are hazardous if they are dumped in the ground. We want to keep that out of a landfill, but we also want to get the resources to put to capture as much as we can to put into new products and not just throw away.

John: And back to the MRM story is you said, what year approximately was it founded?

Tricia: We were founded in 2007, right after that Minnesota law passed.

John: Right.

Tricia: And Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba were the three big TV manufacturers at that time and they founded the company to help manufacturers do recycling programs. You know this, John. We now work with about 50 manufacturers.

John: Wow.

Tricia: Help them with different makeups in different states not everyone works with us across the country.

John: Right.

Tricia: We have about 50 that are with us and there is not a single one that does not want to do the right thing, but they make electronics, they are not recyclers and so they need people like you they need people like us [crosstalk] to help them plan and coordinate and ensure that things are being done responsibly. So we were started in 2007 and we started just with the mission of figuring out that Minnesota law that I mentioned, the goal of was to bring manufactures together, to provide environmentally responsible recycling, and then it grew to provide opportunities for consumers across the country. So we have programs in all the states. We have regulatory programs in 20 States and then we have collection options across the country. So that is the real goal is to make sure that the manufacturers have someone thinking about their recycling while they work on producing the product.

John: You know, Tricia as you and I are so culturally aligned and DNA aligned in terms of environmentalism, and good practices, and mission-based work, is not it still incredible that in 2020, we do not have every state that has a landfill bin all[?] electronics? I always scratch my head about that, not only electronics by the way, bottle bills and things of that that never got real traction. I think there are only eleven bottle bills in America, but is not it still crazy that it is not banned in every state?

Tricia: It really is and if I could tell you how many phone calls we get, we run an eight hundred number that you can see on our website from out our options, and we get so many calls from places that do not have strong, that there is no mandate in their state and it is interesting. It is hard to believe particularly since increasingly, we have so many more electronics in our home and so consumers do not want to throw it out, right?

John: Right.

Tricia: And I think we have even been conditioned that on recycling but yes, it is pretty incredible, the difference but not everybody makes sure they are recycled. [crosstalk]

John: When I met you, Tricia, it was the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world then, but just think about it, all these EV cars have become computers on wheels. The white goods now are having televisions or computers inside of them so they could tell us when there are no eggs in the refrigerator, and as you just pointed out, the incident of things are all electronic sets should be responsible to recycled, the Rings, the Alexas, the Nests, and all the other gadgets and the wearables that we have. So, there has been a huge proliferation of electronics and that just makes our job, I guess more sustainable and everything else, I do not know- the need for our work. But talk about the evolution though a little bit in terms of it is not just about the environment anymore part of what we do is also brand protection and also data protection. You want to share a little bit about the journey of the evolution of electronics recycling and how that has also changed as well?

Tricia: Sure. Thanks. That is absolutely true and if I would ask the listener to look around their home and think about the last 10 years, increasingly we have to think about data and electronics recycling because all sorts of things are smart [crosstalk] and they have all sorts of your data and so we started out really focused on big items, CRT, cathode-ray tubes, that powered those big TVs that had lead in them, and then over time then we had flat screens and they have a whole separate set of recycling issues and we want to capture the resources and boy the explosion of concern about data security has fundamentally changed the industry, I think, John and you guys have really led the way, but it is a real piece of what we look for and people are mindful of it. Frankly, consumers need to feel safe in their data security, businesses and even us right throwing out even our any peace. People do not just want to pitch it even. They want to have a home where they know the data will be safely destroyed. So that has been a real development that has fundamentally changed our industry and it has made I think we all have to get more sophisticated in recycling, right?

John: Right.

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Tricia: I mean, I think it is a lot harder. You have to invest the resources to ensure that you have data safety [crosstalk].

John: Yeah, I agree. You know Tricia, we have a new administration coming in in January and they have already committed to resigning the Paris Accord. It seems as though from when you and I became friends that this whole issue of now it started as sustainability, and now it has become a circular economy. Now, the acronym ESG is being used a lot.

Tricia: Right.

John: It seems it is starting to reach a tipping point with the legacy activists like Jane Fonda out there doing her thing again on environmentalism, but then the youthful activists like Greta Thunberg [inaudible] also taking hold. Where are we now in this journey of sustainability in the United States? We know Europe was ahead of us. We know geographically challenged countries that are smaller landlocked areas like South Korea and Japan were also way ahead of us. Is America’s adoption of sustainability in ESG and circular economy here to stay and where do you see us going in the years ahead?

Tricia: Gosh, what a good question. I think you know we are in the United States, there will always be differences and people will always be on different sides of the coin, but there is no getting around the fact that climate is going to affect you, no matter what. Climate going to affect our business practices. It is going to affect us and I think because of that, because it is marching along, it is here to stay in the U.S. There is no way around it and even if it is not fully moving forward in government policy, maybe like we have seen the last few years, you still have corporate America moving forward on steps to ensure that circular economy is promoted, the climate change is on our minds, reducing the footprint of our products. So I think it is here to stay and I think there is just no way around the climates not affecting you and here, we have this little niche electronics recycling but there is not a manufacturer we work with. I am thinking about the impact of their product on climate and it is bubbling up like you said from the youth. They want to buy climate-friendly products. Every manufacturer we have talked to is thinking hard about reaching the consumer, responding to the consumer on a climate issue, and I am so thrilled to see this administration really stepping up their efforts on it and I know that our manufacturers have been quietly working away on making sure their products are as responsible as they can be. And I laugh, Gina McCarthy. I think I first encountered her as an electronics initiative years and years ago and now she is going to be the climate tsar. I mean things are just here to stay. The people have been thinking about it and working on it are just going to be moving forward regardless, and gosh, you cannot avoid it. Here in Minnesota, I think we are one of the more affected states. The moose up near Canada their whole habitats are changing already. It is here already and it is here to stay.

John: And in California, where I live here in Fresno, the fires were closer to us this summer than ever before, and literally, we had a month that every day you walked out of the house the sky was black and the [inaudible] was palpable not only on the street and on your cars, but literally in every breath that you took.

Tricia: Oh my goodness.

John: It was quite a feeling to live through that. For those listeners who just joined us, we have got Tricia Conroy. She is the Executive Director of MRM. To find MRM, Tricia, and her great colleagues, you could go to www.mrmrecycling.com. Tricia, you just mentioned the 50 great brands that you represent which are just, again, some of the most iconic brands in world history, Panasonic, Sharp, TCL, Hitachi, Sanyo, Polaroid, Funai, Toshiba, Hisense. That is just a couple of them. That is just a few of them. Talk a little bit about the importance now with the next generation coming behind us the millennials, the Zs, whatever they are being called now, the importance, they are voting with their pocketbooks, and they want to buy greener electronics that are made out of a certain percentage at least is made out of recycled material, whether it is the plastic, the metal, or other parts of their electronics. Share a little bit about how your constituents and how the brands that you represent, think about that.

Tricia: Absolutely. It is on their mind all the time and one of the things I was thinking about is a brand has to be nimble these days. I mean you have to be nimble and responsive and you were talking about how the industry has grown and changed I would say, when we started circular economy was not on anyone’s radar screen. [crosstalk] I mean we absolutely tried to recycle as much as possible, but without exception, the brands that we work for really want to think about how can we ensure that the material that we are recycling is available to put into new products, that we are ensuring that we are capturing as much as possible, and you at ERI, you guys have been leaders in some pilot projects and our colleagues over at HP and Dell have announced real initiatives to actually take the products from their product and get it back into their new material and even if that is not possible, our manufacturers want to reduce their energy use, use recycled content as much as they can in their products and we just have been laughing at the kids just drew are so much more. They are so informed. I think is one of the things I hear continually from the manufacturers we work with. They know what they want. They are talking to each other. They are researching and they have a really strong interest in the environment that we need to respond to. And so I think the efforts are just really serious to try to make sure we are ramping up all the ways we can in terms of our narrow band of recycling this little piece that we have.

John: Right.

Tricia: And it is feeding into the big corporate strategies on sustainability and reducing climate impact and just making sure we are getting as much use out of the product.

John: [crosstalk] It is a narrow band. That is a great way of terming it, but what I find with this narrow band, Tricia, and you tell me if this is something that you have realized as well. It is so intimate to all of our lives, our cell phones, our laptops, our desktops, our iPads, our wearables, that although it is a narrow band, it is still so close to our life that it is something that everyone has knowledge about and understanding about and is uses regularly just like eating and clothes. So to me, what I have seen in terms of trends in the last ten years, the three biggest ideas that recycling concepts that cities or municipalities or states even attack are around electronics, food composting, and clothes recycling apparel and as this happens, those are the three things that are closest to us as human beings.

Although it is narrow, it is still one of the most critical elements of our life who really walks around without their cell phone or their wearable, or their desktop, or iPad, or another type of tablet. It has really become part of us now, so I think it is here to stay in terms of the work that we do and continue to work that we are going to have to do because they may be the electronics have gotten smaller, but there is more of them.

Tricia: So many more and we turn them over faster.

John: Right.

Tricia: I mean there is something new every month that you want to get your hands on and play with them and see what is up there and it is just I am with you It is everywhere. It is part of everyone’s life. So it is a narrow band but it is a piece of the overall impact that we are all having because we are using so much more. We buy more all the time, but I think we are holding them all the time, but people want to do the right thing with them. And that I do not think they want to just pitch them out. When it is right on your body, it is more upfront. When it is in your house or when it is everywhere, the top of mind to make sure that you are not just pitching it out for a lot of people we hear, they just instinctively do not want to throw it in the trash, but we got to find solutions for them that make sense and that are easy to use and make sure their materials are being handled but make it easy for them to also get to the proper end of life.

John: So let us talk about that. So as a universal truth, you and I know people are good and we want to drink cleaner water, breathe cleaner air, and leave the world a better place than we found it. What are your thoughts for our listeners out there both here in the United States and around the world how they can become part of the electronic waste solution and not just think about anymore, not just fret, not just store their old electronics in their office drawers or their home closets or attics or garages, how can we all become part of this greater solution?

Tricia: What a good question. Globally, you pointed out at the top of this broadcast that other countries are way ahead of the U.S. and then there is a difference in States, I think we need to speak up and ask for the services that we need to be able to recycle these things and in the way that Greta Thunberg you mentioned are speaking up about the bigger issues. We got to start in our house and what is in our house, a lot of electronics. So we need to speak up and be vocal about wanting to see requirements that these be recycled and then allow flexibility in how it gets done to respond to the needs of the consumer so that it is realistic that they are going to recycle. I was just thinking we just launched, I think you had Jonathan King of TCL on, and they launched this big take back and we did it in COVID intentionally in a really different model that you guys were helpful on. So it would be safe. So people would be comfortable and so that we are bringing it to more locations and we have to be responsive to consumers’ wants. You got to make it easy and you got to make it possible for them to recycle.

John: You know, MRM is such an important part of that ecosystem in terms of manufacturers and connecting these great brands and the consumers with responsible recyclers around the United States. It is such an important role that you play, Tricia, and you have been an inspiration to me since I met you years ago, too many years that I do not even remember anymore, but many, many moons ago, and your work is so important. I want to leave you with the last words on anything else you want to share with our listeners before we sign off for today, and again, it is just so important that you got the MRM story out and we give your voice today because it is just the work that you are doing is so, so important and critical.

Tricia: Well thanks, John, and you and I have been an invaluable partner to making sure that electronics are recycled responsibly in the U.S. and now around the world, really. I think what I want to leave people with MRM, we pride ourselves on being leaders in the U.S. but we are behind-the-scenes group. We want to support the manufacturers that are doing these great things. And like we said, electronics recycling is one piece of their big thinking[?] on a sustainability strategy in circular economy. I just urged folks to speak up and ask their local governments, they want to recycling, they want to see it, they wanted it easier, and know that manufacturers are actively working in hearing you on making their products environmentally responsible and we are proud to be just one piece of their overall big picture sustainability goals.

John: Well, Tricia, I am so grateful for the time you took to spend with us today. For our listeners out there to find Tricia, her colleagues, and the great brand that she works with, MRM, please go to www.mrmrecycling.com. They do great work. They make the world a better place. So do you Tricia Conroy and I am grateful for you as my friend and as an inspiration, thank you for joining us on the Impact Podcast today.

Tricia: Thank you, John, It is a pleasure. Always great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by the Marketing Masters. The Marketing Masters is a boutique marketing agency offering website development and digital marketing services to small and medium businesses across America. For more information on how they can help you grow your business online, please visit themarketingmasters.com.