More than 130 people die each day from opioid overdoses in the U.S.— and according to Stericycle Vice President of Marketing and Sales Operations Maricha Ellis, it's increasingly critical that the hazardous waste industry step up its efforts in curbing the epidemic. Ellis walks the walk: in recognition of her role in combating the nation's opioid crisis, she was recently awarded a Silver Stevie Award in the Executive of the Year category at the 15th annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business.
Waste Dive caught up with Ellis to discuss her work, steps the industry can take to address the escalating crisis, and the chief challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the realm of hazardous waste.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and annotated for context.
WASTE DIVE: How did you find yourself in the waste industry?
MARICHA ELLIS: Over my career, for perhaps the last 12 to 15 years, I've been in commercial roles. I was looking specifically for a role in Indianapolis, and Stericycle came on my radar. In doing a little bit of research, there were a few Stericycle core values that were really exciting to me — primarily their customer-first focus. My career in marketing really came about because I do enjoy bringing customer requirements to organizations, and helping them prioritize their work, products and services around what customer needs are. So the core value of customer-first is probably what attracted me to Stericycle — and therefore the waste industry.
Did you come in with any experience in hazardous waste or environmental emergency response, or was it basically learned on the job?
ELLIS: It was a little bit learned on the job. Honestly, when I came to Stericycle, I was very new to waste, and definitely very new to hazardous waste and all of the regulatory bodies that surround that industry — DOT, EPA and so on. So, in the last four years, I've gotten a crash course from very talented colleagues, industry events and our customers.
What are some of the more challenging environmental situations you've had to address?
ELLIS: I'd say over the last couple of years, a lot of natural disaster-type scenarios have surfaced. I think as a whole, the industry has been challenged to be responsive and reliable, and to be trusted advisors to customers ... Another unique challenge of the waste industry in the last few years has been, "How do we as a nation, along with other stakeholders, address the growing opioid crisis?" Those are a couple of things that are key to the waste industry that I've seen as a challenge over the last couple of years.
What sparked your initial interest in the opioid crisis?
ELLIS: When I came to Stericycle, there was some regulation that happened in San Luis Obispo County, California that required retail customers to provide for the take-back of consumer pharmaceuticals. So the primary interest for Stericycle came from a couple of key customers who had storefronts in that county and would be subject to that regulation. A big part of Stericycle's role is helping our customers navigate the regulatory environment and stay compliant. So, initially, I think the interest from a company standpoint was, "How do we help support our customers in San Luis Obispo County?"
As we started to put together a solution and get that ready for market, a bigger opportunity grew for Stericycle to become part of the state conversation, then the region and now really a national conversation around the opioid crisis. How do we enable our partners and customers to participate in that conversation and that solution? That's really where our interest grew — a little bit by regulatory design, since that drives our business, but also because it's the right thing to do. We need to be part of that community. Our customers need to be part of that community. And, as a leader in the regulatory environment, it's very important for us to be part of that conversation.
Ellis led a team in launching Stericycle's Pharmaceutical Consumer TakeBack Suite, which allows customers to dispose of drugs via pre-addressed envelopes or medication collection kiosks, and also played a role in facilitating Stericycle's partnership with the National Safety Council.
Can you talk about the specific opioid initiatives you've helped promote, such as the TakeBack Suite and Stericycle's partnership with the National Safety Council?
ELLIS: With regard to the TakeBack Suite, as we expanded the offering from just San Luis Obispo County and a couple of retailers, a lot of conversations came about: How do we deliver this in a retail store? How do we deliver this at a police department? How do we provide for the services — because the regulatory environment for DOT and EPA conflicted a little bit at the beginning. We ended up growing to where our kiosks are available nationally. We've grown that business — and our footprint with where those kiosks are located — quite a bit.
And then, additionally, we have an envelope solution we introduced to help more rural counties where, a lot of times, the opioid crisis is hitting hardest. Those envelopes are available to corporations, to individuals, and we've partnered with the National Safety Council most recently in 2018 to deliver those envelopes during their national Stop Everyday Killers campaign. We visited a lot of cities with the National Safety Council, including D.C. The focus of that was primarily educational, and not about driving revenue for Stericycle. But at the same time, it was about understanding the crisis, the solutions that we could bring to market, and how we could help our partners and customers be successful in addressing that epidemic.
Have most of the communities you've worked with been receptive?
ELLIS: I think they have. Initially, there were a lot of concerns about safety — retail organizations placing something like this in their store wonder about liability and how they can avoid causing additional problems by the placement of it. It's a very new concept, and all of the unknowns are very scary at first. But we've really seen in the last year so much interest in these solutions and willingness to participate. A lot of our customers have been out in national publications talking about the crisis and their role in it — I think there's a lot less hesitation to do something. It's just about finding the right solution for each of our customers.
What are some efforts and pain points you're seeing in the industry with regard to curbing the crisis? Have those been successful, or do you think we need to keep pushing?
ELLIS: I think a lot of the pain points for our customers revolve around access to data. Our industry is a little bit mature, and I think that as we're moving into the future, we're seeing a lot of need for data-based decision making. The EPA's requirement to electronically manifest waste has certainly been a strong point of discussion at those customer advisory boards, and something that they're looking for thought leadership and information on.
The new EPA pharmaceutical rule — and how it's going to affect their day-to-day lives — has been top of mind for a lot of folks ... The folks here that are very knowledgeable about upcoming regulation are having conversations daily, weekly, with our customers in order to make sure they're comfortable with the changes. So I'd say the waste industry is picking up a lot of change right now primarily due to evolving regulations, data needs and increasing pressure on our customers to be compliant at lower costs or lower price points.
Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the EPA's final rule for the management of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals in December. The new regulations, according to the EPA, are intended to establish "cost-saving, streamlined standards for handling hazardous waste pharmaceuticals to better fit the operations of the healthcare sector while maintaining protection of human health and the environment."
Can you talk about the hazardous waste industry's general reaction to the EPA's final rule and the impact you foresee it having?
ELLIS: I'm definitely not a regulatory expert, but I think the community at large has a huge interest in the EPA pharmaceutical rule and the impact on their organizations. Several of our key customers are going to be impacted by that, and I think mostly they're looking at that as a positive thing and an opportunity to simplify. So I think there's been a positive reaction from customers and the community. The concerns are more, "How do we execute on this? How do we take full advantage of the opportunity that this offers? How do we make sure, through the change, that we're staying compliant with regulation?"
Any plans to launch other initiatives in the near future?
ELLIS: Well, another initiative I'm very passionate about is capturing the voice of our customers. I think that's been kind of a driving force in my career. And we've really parlayed that in the waste industry by creating a first-of-its-kind customer advisory board where we bring a lot of large national generators together every year and have conversations about their requirements, their pain points and how we can help them be more successful. This is an industry event that I think has grown tremendously over the last couple of years ... it's really become a must-attend for a lot of our customers.
Last but not least, what advice do you have for other women or traditionally underrepresented minorities in general who are hoping to break into this industry?
ELLIS: If you're looking to advance into an industry or into an organization, the very best thing you can do is over-deliver on all of your promises and really take care of the job that you have today. That reaps huge benefits for you in future opportunities. People think of you as being credible, delivering on your promises. Those are all important things for anyone, really, not just women or people of color. And it's definitely not specific to the waste industry.
Specific to the waste industry, I would say that the biggest advice I could give is, dive in. Spend time with customers. Spend time on the backs of trucks. Get out and attend industry events. Ask a lot of questions. There are so many great people in this industry that have so much experience — utilize them, capitalize on their experience and seek their advice, because it's a great community of people with just tons of expertise to offer. It's all about being resourceful, finding those people and making those connections early and often.