"Recycling isn't about feeling good. It's not even solely about doing good. It's about good solutions for long term economic and environmental health in this country and others," wrote The Recycling Partnership's Executive Director Keefe Harrison in a 2015 blog post. The post was directed at New York Times writer John Tiereny, following his controversial opinion piece on recycling methods, however this message has been continuously reflected in Harrison's work and creative efforts at the Partnership.
For nearly three years, Harrison has been rapidly leading her team to connect communities with resources for recycling and build a network of public-private partnerships, all aimed at increasing diversion across the nation. From Athens, OH to Emmet County, MI, thousands of residents — of all ages, nationalities and income levels — have been given access to a more sustainable living under Harrison's leadership.
For this month's installment of the "Women in Waste" spotlight series, Waste Dive caught up with Harrison to get her perspectives on appealing to different demographics in an ever-changing industry and raising young girls to be confident leaders.
WASTE DIVE: How did you get involved with The Recycling Partnership?
KEEFE HARRISON: I was a consultant with Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) prior to my job here and we were working on a project under EPA Region 4 funding to pull together a public-private initiative to drive better recycling across the country. There have been a number of initiatives started by EPA Dialogues and Ameripen and Action to Accelerate and there was a lot of interest, there just wasn't the right model. So we worked with industry and government to build this model, we placed it in Curbside Value Partnership which was an existing nonprofit to run it, and shortly thereafter the executive director retired and I was recruited to take his place.
In [the past] three years, what would you say is the thing you’re most proud of or your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
HARRISON: Since I've come on board, our budget has grown more than fourfold and during that time with the new model we designed, we're able to do 30 times the impact with every dollar that we used to, and we measure that impact in the number of cities we can collaborate with. So in that time we partnered with more than 100 communities, we can see more than $20 million worth of new infrastructure on the ground because of our work — that's in the form of carts — and we've directly impacted how more than 2 million households have access to recycling. So it's been fun.
There seems to be a pretty even balance of men and women on your [leadership] team. How do you think that enhances the dynamic at The Recycling Partnership?
HARRISON: I've been in recycling since 1998 and I used to really be a minority but now I see that there's a better balance of both men and women in positions all across the pay scale in recycling, and I think that's a plus. At The Recycling Partnership, that balance of genders has come pretty naturally. These are all relationships with people that I've had through the years and everyone on staff is really looking to make steady change and being a change agent is a gender-neutral plus, I would say.
Have you ever felt like you had trouble standing out as a woman in the waste industry, even back when you first got started?
HARRISON: When I first got started in this, my then-boyfriend, now-husband would joke when I would come home from a meeting like, "Got any marriage proposals?" It was so odd to be a woman that wasn't just doing communications but was doing operations and [was] in the middle of problem solving, that it did stand out that I was a woman. I even received flowers from some of my male counterparts. I don’t think they knew what to do with me, frankly. I'm so glad to say that that has all stopped. Now it's just very normal. And one of the things that really stands out is at the Resource Recycling Conference a couple of weeks ago, the opening plenary was all women, from Unilever, Tetra Pak, SPC and me, and then a plastics recycling company KW. The opening plenary of experts were all women and that was not intentional, that's because we have our place in the field.
So do you think this is an industry shift that's happening, that more women are taking positions of leadership?
HARRISON: Yeah, I think so. I think we have some work to do though. We need to help younger people who are looking for sustainability fields and may overlook solid waste and recycling as something that's not as sexy as other things and help them understand that the reason we do our work is because of climate change and global protection. There's so much work to be done that we need to continue to foster bringing younger people into the industry. And then I'd say we have some work to go to bring other diversity into our industry but for now I think we're in a good place with the gender balance.
Much of your job is to engage communities to increase recycling, so how have you used that platform to get different demographics of people interested in waste management issues?
HARRISON: What we address is, "Who is our recycling demographic?" And it's everyone. Every age, every gender, every nationality. That means that we have to make access our number one priority so that it's easy for anyone in any home in any place of work to be able to engage with the recycling system. And then we begin to address specific communications approaches to tackle those different demographics. We take that balance of being inclusive very seriously and that's why we really work with our communities to provide universal access. We don't like opt-in programs because they often exclude populations that might not be readily considered to be active recyclers. But we find through good access and good communications [they] can very much be part of an active recycling program.
I read your open letter from last year to New York Times writer John Tierney responding to his piece on recycling. I thought it was empowering that you felt confident to stand up and voice your opinion on that matter. What advice do you have to women who may not feel confident enough to do that in their profession?
HARRISON: I have a 10-year-old daughter and last night I was having dinner with a colleague who — we started in recycling in a university scene well over a decade ago, and she is now a mother of daughters too, and we were having that same conversation of raising confident powerful young women. Before I had a daughter I didn't even understand that that was part of my role in life. I didn't really feel like I had that feeling as a gender until I had a daughter. Now in talking to other mothers with daughters, we see that we do have a role in guiding our girls to be thoughtful, to be articulate, to be engaged and to never expect that their role will be anything less than that. Fortunately I think that's getting easier and easier and we'll know we're in a better place when we don't even have to ask that question anymore.