At WasteExpo this year, American Cleaning & Hygiene had the opportunity to meet with the waste industry’s leaders and innovators. One standout meeting was with Bryan Staley, President of Environmental Research and Education Foundation. We sat down with Bryan to learn more about how he got involved with EREF, and what exactly may be on the horizon for the waste industry.
What led you to become a part of EREF and the waste industry?
I am an engineer by trade with a master’s in biosystems engineering. I started my career as a consultant and worked for a land development engineering company where we designed subdivisions and shopping centers. While I worked there, I knew I wanted to go back and do more research, so I made the decision to pursue my Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.
While I was in that program, I ran into a faculty member who asked if I had thought about doing anything related to solid waste. At the time, I responded that I really hadn’t considered it. He suggested that I think about it and let him know what I decide. Unbeknownst to me, he was one of the most published and well-respected researchers in solid waste in the world. Before I learned of this, I had already decided to start working with him.
Bryan Staley, President, Environmental
Research and Education Foundation
Two years into the program, he suggested I apply for a scholarship from a foundation called EREF, which primarily worked with the waste industry. I applied for the scholarship and was denied. I then applied for the same scholarship the next year and was successful. During my time receiving that scholarship support, the Executive Director suggested I give a presentation of my research to the Board of Directors at EREF. I went to Alexandria, Virginia and gave my presentation. I didn’t think anything of it and went back to my work.
A year later, I was applying for faculty positions and accepted a postdoc at Northwestern University. I was in Chicago looking for apartments with my wife and newborn son when I get a phone call from the Executive Director of EREF. He asked, “Would you be interested in a job?” After that phone call, I accepted a position as the Vice President of Research at EREF.
Not long after I got hired, the Director explained he was going to retire and would like to groom me for his position. A year later I accepted that role, and I have been with EREF for ten years now.
What has been your passion in your current position?
My passion in this position has been to advance knowledge around how to manage waste sustainably. For example, I believe it’s important that we ask if the ways that we are managing waste now are the right ways. In this way, it is necessary to question the whole paradigm and ask if recycling is good in the way we know it to be. If it is, that’s great, but if it’s not, what exactly needs to change? Sometimes you need to throw away the thermometer and see if you need to build a new one.
What do you see as the next step for the waste industry?
I think we have to get a better understanding of how we define the different ways we manage waste. For example, how do you define and measure recycling? Should we measure it based on weight, and if so, what exactly does that mean? Perhaps we should instead measure recycling based on what we recycle and the number of items recycled. Basically, we have to standardize definitions so that we are all on the same page—this would be a huge advancement in the industry.
Waste is not a problem but an opportunity.
In this way, it is important to recognize that waste is not a problem but an opportunity. The biggest opportunity currently is making sure that product manufacturers create products that end up in the trash with value, ensuring a circular economy. Unfortunately, right now, that’s not the case across the board. The waste industry has a role to play in making this shift, although historically we have not recognized ourselves to have a role in that decision. I think we are realizing that we need to have a voice in that conversation with product manufacturers, and product manufacturers are beginning to realize that too.
Basically, unless the government begins to tax the use of landfills, which is currently standard practice in Europe, then the decision to use landfills over other solutions will continue to be a financially preferable one. This decision will also guide innovation in the US, causing other areas of innovation to be limited economically because of it. For example, there are advancements in landfill technologies, such as capturing the gas and creating electricity out of it, because of the current focus towards using landfills. Until policies are in place that shift that focus, the US’s waste infrastructure will need to innovate, drive end markets for recyclables, and create situations where composting can be successful.