What’s Next: Issues Facing the Next Generation of Leaders in the Recycled Materials Industry

Nov 1, 2022, 09:09 AM
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Hannah Zuckerman
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When thinking about the future of the recycled materials industry, ReMA Director-at-Large Sean Daoud recollects the words of an ReMA leader at an annual convention several years ago. “He was speaking to members in his generation, telling them to transition their knowledge to help develop the next generation of industry leaders,” Daoud recalls.

Daoud, vice president, treasurer, and shareholder of PNW Metal Recycling Inc., has dedicated much of his work at ReMA to helping build and develop the next group of leaders. He’s not alone. Companies across the industry are welcoming in leaders who are coming of age into the industry. Though their voices may be new, their views, values, and insights are no less valuable to the success of the industry.

Sam Shine, who co-chairs ISRI’s Young Executives Council with Daoud, is a fifth-generation recycler. He’s part of Manitoba Corp., a multigenerational, family-owned business founded by his great-grandfather in 1916. With such a legacy he doesn’t think about the next 10, 15, or even 20 years.

“Our goal is to think about how we survive and thrive in the next 100 years,” Shine says. “It’s a much bigger question but one that we need to focus on. Being proactive about finding new homes for recycled materials not just for this decade but for the next several decades.”

A Sustainable Future in Recycling

The world looked a bit different in 1977 when Virginia Buechel’s father, Tom,  started Rockaway Recycling. But as the needs of society change, recyclers have adapted their operations and processes to meet them. One issue on her mind, and the minds of many industry leaders, is sustainability.

“Our climate is changing,” she says. “That’s just science. Sustainability is an important part of the future of humanity.”

The recycled materials industry helps protect natural resources, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce waste, all of which contribute to ensuring a sustainable future. Buechel, Rockaway’s marketing director, wants to see industry leaders demonstrating recycling’s role in sustainability.

“We want to educate our employees, and we want to educate consumers,” she says. “We want to show them a clear picture of what can be recycled. The more material we get, the better able we are to provide a renewable source of high-quality materials for the everyday items and essential infrastructure people depend on. More high-quality renewable materials mean less is being taken from the planet.”

Welcoming New Technologies

Bond Danku, Ferrous Trader at AIM Recycling, entered the industry by taking an internship in logistics through a family connection. Though he’s the first member of his family to work in recycling, he’s no less forward-looking than industry leaders from multigenerational operations.

Danku believes leaders in the industry will be in a better position to move forward with sustainability goals by looking inward. “We want to figure out how to recycle more materials more efficiently to reduce waste and protect natural resources,” he says. “That means understanding the shifts we need to do internally to make those goals happen.”

One of those shifts is new recycling technologies and how to best incorporate them into facilities. “I think technology is going to vastly change how we operate,” Danku says. “As technology improves, we’re going to need to move in the direction of using robotics and artificial intelligence to improve sortation rates and speed. As recycling improves so does sustainability. The new machines coming out can get more recycled materials into facilities and help recyclers provide a source of renewable materials for manufacturers.”

Introducing new technologies to improve efficiencies will allow young leaders to focus on what their companies do best: produce high-quality materials for use in manufacturing and infrastructure projects.

“The quality of materials we produce is important,” Daoud says. “There’s a need and desire from the public for companies to make products using recycled materials instead of relying on mining operations that threaten our natural resources. It’s all connected. If we provide high-quality materials, it’s easier for manufacturers to operate on higher margins and produce less emissions and pollutants to create their products.”

Part of Something Bigger

Whether it’s educating the public or employees, messaging is an important tool for young leaders, Shine says. A major challenge for industry leaders is workforce development and recruitment. Shine recommends showing employees the value of their work and how what they do fits into a larger picture of the company’s and industry’s goals.

“Show them how valuable a career in recycling is, and how it’s fulfilling and rewarding,” he says. “If your employees recognize why and how their work matters, they can see how their daily jobs are part of the big picture, and how what they do contributes to our goals of reducing waste, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.”

Daoud recommends industry leaders educate themselves about the day-to-day operations of their facilities and the role everyone plays to provide a source of high-quality materials for manufacturing. That education means stepping out of the office.

“There’s natural knowledge you gain from physically working in the operations,” Daoud says. “We all do better when everyone involved in the business understand why and how we’re operating to get the finished product.” Industry leaders should embrace firsthand opportunities because the experiences lead to a richer understanding of the industry.

“I think I’m a better leader for our business because I started in labor-intensive positions,” Daoud adds. “Everyone in your business plays a key role and if you don’t understand how those roles work, you won’t understand how your business or the industry works and you’ll be in a worse position when talking to legislators, regulators, and the public.”

A Voice for the Future

With a better understanding of the business and the industry, leaders are well equipped to manage a major focus that will likely continue into future generations: advocating on behalf of the industry. “For years recyclers tended to keep to themselves and focus on running their businesses,” Daoud says. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

Whether it’s Environmental Justice, extended producer responsibility (EPR), or metals theft, young leaders need to be an active voice for the industry. “Advocacy is everyone’s responsibility, no matter your company’s size, location, or commodity,” Shine says. “Get involved on the local level, form relationships with legislators to tell the story of the industry and how our goal is to provide a source of high-quality sustainable materials that helps reduce waste and support supply chains.”

Telling the story is what matters; challenges and issues will change over the years, but the importance of the story will remain from one generation to the next. “There will be challenges we haven’t even thought of yet,” Shine says. “So be creative. Sharing that compelling narrative with lawmakers and regulators is the best way to approach these challenges.”

Daoud agrees. “At the same time, we need to continue to drive innovation and the recovery of materials, there’s a lot of opportunity to recycle more materials more efficiently,” he says. “We need to continue to drive that innovation to show that not only do we currently have a positive impact, but we’ll continue to create that positive impact in the future.”

Featured Photo and Second Body Photo Courtesy of Virginia Buechel. First and Third Body Photo Courtesy of Sean Daoud.

When thinking about the future of the recycled materials industry, ReMA Director-at-Large Sean Daoud recollects...
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