EPA's Mathy Stanislaus: 'All of society has a waste management responsibility'

In an exit interview with Waste Dive, one of the Obama administration's longest serving officials opens up on his perspectives of the waste industry.

When it comes to national solid waste policy under the Obama administration, Mathy Stanislaus has been there nearly every step of the way.

Stanislaus, the assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM), was appointed in June 2009 and is one of the administration's longest serving members. As a chemical engineer, an attorney and a born Sri Lankan — with a background in environmental justice and community work in New York — he has brought a unique perspective to the waste management discussion. 

Environmental Protection Agency

In addition to helping usher in EPA's sustainable materials management approach, Stanislaus has made progress on brownfield cleanups, Superfund sites, coal ash disposal and an array of other issues. He has also been a leading figure in the EPA's efforts to reduce food waste 50% by 2030 — following the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal — and has spoken around the world about the potential of a circular economy.

Waste Dive caught up with Stanislaus to reflect on his tenure, discuss some of the latest industry trends and hear his advice for the next OLEM assistant administrator.


WASTE DIVE: You're credited with helping the EPA transition to a sustainable materials management approach. What experiences did you draw on for that and what was the general theory when you decided to implement it?

MATHY STANISLAUS: I spent a lot of my career before I came to EPA in waste management at multiple levels. I was very much involved in trying to develop a waste management plan for New York City. I had also been a chair of a waste transfer facility siting committee for the EPA and developed recommendations for EPA before I got here. I'd also been a teacher on life cycle-based approaches to multiple problems including waste.

I think for EPA, [a life cycle-based approach] really began in a 2009 report [in which] we did analysis of the life-cycle of materials. So we focused on initially three areas. Two were materials — one was food and the other is a subset of metals being electronics. And the third area was what we call the federal challenge, which challenged the federal government agencies, their facilities to minimize those impacts.

The related issue was really trying to embed this deeply in how we do our work. We established a set of tools, we worked both domestically and internationally looking at alignment of data, life-cycle data, so that we can all be analyzing this in the same way.

This effort has really gone global. When Germany held the G7 presidency, I represented the U.S. and articulated all the things that we're doing and talked about the trajectory of materials to drive the economy and how we're at a point where that is not sustainable and there are already concerns about supply chain disruption. Some organizations, including World Resources Institute, have identified this whole concept of resource efficiency and better waste management in the manufacturing sector as one of the key levers to address the gap to achieve the Paris Agreement. There's real commitment to expand that even further.


At 'The Future of RCRA' event on Oct. 27, you talked about the need to promote more circular economy systems. Where do you see the best potential to start doing that?

STANISLAUS: We're moving the ball on this. So we've done some analysis, it's called a hot-spot analysis, of those products which have built into them life cycle-based considerations and are working to include that into the procurement guidelines of the federal government. Globally there's an effort to use public procurement and private procurement to begin driving that. I think that the more that you can see the purchasing power behind it, the more that it's going to expand beyond the leaders in each individual sector.

In the supply chain report that we issued we identified some of the best examples of some of the leading companies who have been able to demonstrate both the business win from doing that and the environmental win from internalizing these within their design ... Design to maximize refurbishment and maximize a life of a product. Design for inclusion of what we call secondary materials back into the design of product. How do we make sure that the procurement folks in a company and the design folks really align and understand the opportunity of designing products around secondary materials, both for economic and environmental opportunities? 

So I think that's going to take off and I think at the World Economic Forum Davos meeting in the third week of January, there's going to be a special emphasis and special focus on these kinds of efforts.

"How do we make sure that the procurement folks in a company and the design folks really align and understand the opportunity of designing products around secondary materials...?"

Mathy Stanislaus

EPA assistant administrator


Many state and local governments have struggled to deal with electronic waste. One idea is that companies could make it easier to repair and refurbish some of these items. Do you see the same kinds of circular economy principles applying when it comes to electronic waste?

STANISLAUS: I'm not sure in electronics where I've not done the hard analytics. We have this market phenomena of the new iPhone and the new whatever, the new Galaxy. The turnaround is so quick. So I'm just not sure whether refurbishment will work in the U.S. I do think that there are those who are looking at refurbishment and direct reuse in other parts of the world. So I think there are opportunities, potential opportunities.

But I think refurbishment and remanufacturing as a broad category is important...[Companies have] noted that there is still work to be done in terms of the perception of refurbished and remanufactured products. Is it as good as a new product? What can government do to kind of articulate the value-added proposition? So there is a little bit of education that's necessary and the private sectors also have been looking at how do we put in warranties to provide some of that inducement to buy these kinds of refurbished products.


What role do you see the waste and recycling industry playing in the EPA's food waste reduction goal?

STANISLAUS: [The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy says] obviously reduce waste in the first instance ... So we want to continue to maximize the value-added proposition of maintaining the hierarchy and make sure that there are not unintended choices being made which prevent opportunities on the top.

So the ReFED study shows that investment in education and communication to the public is critical. [The study shows that] one of the highest rates of early return is actually in the educational space. But education has not been monetized in city budgets and federal budgets. So I think that education has been viewed as kind of a soft category and education has been viewed as a temporal category. But if you view education as a monetary value-added proposition in the same way that you view infrastructure investment ... Investment in digesters, investment in composting ... People do not do education with the same level of discipline and I think we have to monetize the value of education to really capture the value.

So I think there's some effort that definitely needs to happen, especially between those folks at the local level making decisions and the commercial establishments doing work at the local level.


Many cities now have 'zero waste' or high diversion rate goals. Yet unlike in Europe some of these cities aren't considering waste-to-energy in the U.S. Do you think it's possible to hit these targets without having that on the table?

STANISLAUS: I don't think we are in an optimal system, an optimal decision-making framework, to make decisions in a full life-cycle environmental and life-cycle costing perspective that is connected with kind of the hierarchy that I mentioned. Have we optimized the systems for reducing and reusing? I think that there are huge untapped markets of this growing concept of a secondary materials marketplace.

So I translate that effort to enabling business-to-business transactions to expedite the opportunity of materials diverted from the first user or the first manufacturer to being [sent] directly as a feedstock to another. So I think that either streamlining the processes at the local government and state level, especially to accommodate that, I think we can maximize that.

And so clearly waste-to-energy, if you capture some value-add once you've maximized all that, that's beneficial. Obviously done in a protected way that uses the best technologies with the best monitors. I do think that without the systematic rigor of making sure that we maximize all the upper ends of the hierarchy there's a risk. It's the same risk of jumping to composting. There's a risk of jumping to waste-to-energy and [losing] all these opportunities, truly circular opportunities, further up in the hierarchy. 


Based on your experience with transfer stations and environmental justice, what advice you have for the waste industry in terms of siting and operating these facilities?

STANISLAUS: All of society has a waste management responsibility. And the history of waste facilities is that it is not sited in a way that recognizes all of society's responsibility, it is sited in lower income communities. So we need to have a equitable way of siting facilities and develop criteria so that it is sited equitably. So that is making sure that no community is [disproportionately] facing the burden that should be borne by all communities and looking at that in a very intentional and rigorous way.

And there's some really great examples of really well-designed facilities. Looking at making sure that the air issues are handled well, the odors issues, the ingress and egress of the vehicles. Make sure the vehicles are managed in a clean way. So those are all things that can be done.

But I want to again make sure that people understand that even the best designed facility must be sited in an equitable way. Even the best designed facility cannot be used as a way of avoiding the fairness in the siting of facilities.

"Even the best designed facility cannot be used as a way of avoiding the fairness in the siting of facilities."

Mathy Stanislaus

EPA assistant administrator


What advice do you have for your successor?

STANISLAUS: I think that there are huge opportunities that I see in this area, opportunities to build on the foundation that has been built. And this is not just my foundation. There's a foundation built in partnership with external stakeholders, with the business leaders, with non-governmental organizations, with local and state governments and even our world leaders ... Continue to look at that from an economic and environmental value-added proposition and continue to advance that.

And you know the other thing is, I have tried to establish a very transparent way that I do my work and a way that my office does its work. There's tremendous value in...continuing to bring people to the table in a regular way and within that recognizing that communities generally, and especially low-income communities, have the most challenge to participate in the process. [There is value in] the extra step of technical assistance and translation of technical information in a way they can understand.

So I think those needs will continue and that is not political. It's how society is and how we can seize the opportunity for the future.


What do you plan to do next?

STANISLAUS: I don't know right now, but I hope to take a very long break.  

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