Pile of Scrap Ep. 49: Adjust Your Understanding of Sustainability with Cheryl Coleman
The word “sustainability” has been a buzzword in the recycling industry lately. With many different interpretations of what the term means, Cheryl Coleman, ISRI’s Vice President of Sustainability, joins John Sacco on the podcast to clarify some confusion. The two discuss the importance of recycling profitably, how the packaging industry is a critical factor in furthering that push, and how ISRI has created a plan with brands to implement some protocols to execute it. As we sit down with Cheryl, we get some overall insight into what’s in store for this industry to keep sustainability intact.
Watch this episode on YouTube here.
John Sacco and Cheryl Coleman
John Sacco: Well, welcome to another episode of Pile of Scrap. Today, I have the honor and privilege… I finally get to meet Cheryl Coleman who is ISRI’s Vice President of Sustainability. It's great to sit down with you, finally get to meet with you and talk to you. And, you know, when I received the email, Cheryl Coleman, Vice President of Sustainability… I got several emails that go… “What is that?” And, because we aren't in person; that we've been, you know, relegated to Zoom meetings, I feel that it's done a disservice to the trade association and to you, and I want to know – I want the members of this trade association to know you. And, I think this is the great forum for them to get to know you. So, thank you again for joining me.
Cheryl Coleman: Well, thank you so much for the –
John: You're not nervous, are ya?
Cheryl: I am a little bit.
John: Why would you be nervous? Because you don't know me. All right. Well, right on. Let's just get started. First thing’s first. What are you doing? What – Vice President of Sustainability… Tell us a little bit about what you're doing and then we'll go dive further into it. But, give us a brief description of what you do.
Cheryl: Okay. So, thank you so much again for allowing me to be here with you today. Um, as the Vice President of Sustainability, I'm doing several things. One of them is supporting some of our other areas like our governance group… Really working with government affairs and how they're working with some of our political leaders. And then, I had the opportunity to start a group shortly after I arrived at ISRI and that group is called the Sustainability Forum. Right now we have 12 members and we invite Sierra to become a part of our group.
John: I’m gonna check it out. I want to learn more.
Cheryl: And, the purpose of that group is to really raise ISRI’s voice and our members’ voice in more global and domestic forum. What do I mean by that? We see a lot about domestic residential recycling right now. There's a lot of attention being given to that right now.
John: On the blue bins?
Cheryl: Yes, on the blue bins. And, people are asking questions… “Is this recyclable?”
Cheryl: “Can I put this in the bin?”
John: The pizza box.
Cheryl: The pizza box is…
John: I’ve done a whole series on pizza box.
Cheryl: The pizza box is a perfect example. Well, I want to raise ISRI’s voice in that forum because we are the ones that are making those pizza boxes.
Cheryl: But to date, we've gotten very little visibility out there because people think of it as the trucks that come and pick up from my blue cart and then it goes somewhere and then I get another pizza box. So, one of my goals and in sustainability is to raise ISRI’s voice but also to let people know more about how recycling contributes to the manufacturing segment.
John: You know, at Sierra – okay... Our social media campaign, my personal social media from Instagram and LinkedIn… We have been out there and I changed my message just the other day that we are the for-profit recycling companies and “For-profit recycling industry is essential.” And, my question… We're hearing this from you is, when you say we have to raise our voice, how much of it does that voice need to come from ISRI National? But, how much of it really needs to come from the individual companies who are recycling that are members of ISRI?
Cheryl: Well, I would say that ISRI National is responsible for creating a consistent message that our member companies can then go out and spread… Because then you're absolutely right. You're in the communities, you're interacting with people in the communities every day.
Cheryl: But we want consistent messaging. Just like there's confusion around the pizza box.
John: I wanted to talk about that for a second.
John: Because we put out – we did a Superbowl commercial back in 2020, and we did that for the National Championship game. We did two commercials for the pizza box and it was a comedy-type commercial and we put it out, so… But this last one we did, we got a lot of remarks from people who said, “Recycling is more dangerous to the environment because of the cost,” “the carbon footprint, it takes to recycle that pizza box.”
John: And, we're fighting it. I'm like, “Wow, this is crazy.” So, you know, Sierra's done raised the voice and we've had a lot of feedback. Okay? Are we prepared to get that negative feedback and respond? Because we have found out, you put a message out and people comment and you don't respond… They don't ever – they don't go to you anymore.
Cheryl: Exactly, exactly.
John: They want to feel that they're part of this interaction. So, are you going to lead that charge?
Cheryl: I'm hoping to. And, when I say “hoping to,” I really want to be a part of the leadership of that charge because as you said, it is our members, it's organizations like yours that really are the true messengers. My goal is to create a collective message to bring us together and say, “What should our message be?” And then help you and others amplify that message.
John: Okay. So, here we are at the Board of Directors… What committee meeting will you be at as a liaison – a staff liaison – to spread this message that you just already talked to me about? How to help raise the voice? What committee meeting? Would that be communications? What – which one in particular?
Cheryl: So, it’s Communications, it's our trade and it's government affairs. But, we're also hosting a meeting on tomorrow for the recyclability protocol, which is another project that I'm leading here at ISRI.
John: Tell us about the recycling protocol.
Cheryl: So, the Recyclability Protocol is an effort that we – where we brought a number of our members in the MRF and mill sectors as well as other recyclers to come together and create a fiber-based packaging recyclability protocol. We've heard since I've been at ISRI from at least 30 brands who've come to us and say, “ISRI is the place where we want to come and have those direct conversations with your members because we want to design our packaging for recycling, but we need to know from your members exactly what we need to do. We're hearing that there's a whole lot of this material out there, but when we try to get access to it, we are unable to do so.”
John: Okay, so that's the consumers who are getting no access to whatever it is they're trying to get?
Cheryl: Well, we don't know.
Cheryl: So, part of this protocol is to create a streamline process for users to take their packaging through and it asks questions about – detailed questions about that packaging in a way that allows them to get the – those points in that packaging process where that packaging may not have recyclable components that may make it detrimental for it to be recycled so that they can go back to their designers and say, “Okay, we found this, this and this. We need to go back into the drawing board.” So, let's take inks… Instead of having this kind of ink, we need a water-based ink.
John: Okay, that’s good information. So, this is what the recycled – recyclability forum?
Cheryl: Recyclability Protocol.
John: So I did a podcast with Wes Carter at Atlantic Packaging.
John: And, he created what they call… It's called a Fishbone can carrier. It's made from recycled fiber paper and it's replacing the plastic rings. And, if that gets into the blue bin, after, you know, the households dispose of it, it gets properly placed in the proper bin… That going into a MRF, it can be pulled out and it can be recycled. But, in the same token, the biggest issues when I'm talking to with the plastics in the MRFs is single-use plastic. You know, you get the little Keurig –
John: Coffee things. It's in that little plastic. You have to tear it open. That plastic technically is recyclable. But, it's not. You can't recycle it profitably. So, how are we going to bridge? Where – how do we come to – you know, is this part of your program? We're going to learn how to create the product that is recyclable but profitably because you can't recycle without profit.
John: Nobody's going to innovate without profits. Our industry doesn't exist.
Cheryl: Exactly. So, let's take small packaging like you just defined there. We know that when it goes through a MRF, that if it's so small, it's going to fall through and it will end up in residuals that will not be recycled.
John: That is correct.
Cheryl: And, so part of the protocol addresses size of what size is your packaging.
John: Size and weight is interesting. I know this because MRFs’ real estate is expensive inside the MRF.
John: Okay. You – when MRFs that separate all the different grades and you got these big bins of cardboard and you've got big bins of mixed paper and – or aluminum cans, or pet bottles, or milk jugs, there's significant weight and volume that goes into that. But single use plastic… There's not enough real estate to put it in to get any form of density to get out to the conveyor belt to be baled and to send to a consumer.
John: That is a big issue.
Cheryl: It is.
John: And, so you're going to bring together people to create that type of packaging that could actually be one of those bins that can be.
Cheryl: I'm bringing together people to talk about how they can create that kind of packaging.
John: Have you had pushback on this?
Cheryl: A little bit.
Cheryl: Well, there's some people that say they are already protocols out there. And so, we don't need another one. And yet, we have brands that have come to us to say, “Yeah, there are some protocols that are out there and we do use those, but there are some gaps,” and we're not interested in duplicating. We're interesting in finding those unique places where those challenges and problems are occurring and then tweaking our protocol so that you don't encounter those when you go through it. And part of that, since you keep bringing up plastics, for example, we funded a 2D/3D study with the Association of Plastics Recyclers so that we could make sure that more fiber-based packaging went to those paper bins, or those fiber bins, and more of the plastic goes to the plastic bins. That's part of the protocol also, is to look at that 2D/3D.
John: So, because of the pandemic and everything's gone to teleconference meetings… That's had to be just a major in getting the ball rolling on what you're trying to do with sustainability, hasn’t it?
Cheryl: Yeah, it is. I'm from South Carolina. I grew up in the South. I grew up around the country, but mostly in the South. And so, I'm used to face-to-face, I'm used to reading body language, I'm used to reading a room and understanding the dynamics in that room and how to adjust the conversation so that we don't have people drop out of the conversation and doing that via Zoom is extremely difficult. So, I'm so excited that we're having this face to face meeting tomorrow, even though it will be a hybrid meeting, but getting everybody in that room… I've seen the energy among our members… Yourself included. And, just being around each other again.
John: Here in DC… We're at the epicenter of regulation. Okay? We are at the epicenter of people creating buzz words… “Sustainability,” “Essential,” and this and that. Is DC opened up now to where there's enough people you can still go into their offices and meet and talk, have this – what you described is very important.
John: The face-to-face to be able to communicate is so much different in person than it is Zoom. Is that open yet? Is DC still closed? Is it still pretty much back to Zoom?
Cheryl: Well, I would say that we are still having a number of virtual meetings, but we're starting to see it open up. And, I think after September, we'll see more and more of it open up because I believe the federal government offices will start to open up in September and then we'll be able to go in and do more actual face-to-face visits. But right now, it’s still pretty much a virtual world. But, the other project I'm working on in sustainability is the Brands Council where we're starting to get brands – we now have three…
John: Can you mention them?
Cheryl: Yes, we have Colgate, Palmolive, we have Unilever. And as of yesterday, we now have Keurig Dr. Pepper. So, those three have joined our Brands Council, and they're going to help inform the protocol, but it also opens the door for us to have more direct engagement to learn what it is that they need and how ISRI can share more about what we do so that we can get more of these materials back into the manufacturing sector.
John: We need to bring the packaging industry in. I believe the packaging industry – okay, so… The brands are one thing, but the people who create the packaging for the brands…
John: Because, you know, the brands… And, how it's shipped and there's so much material that is used that can be recycled that oftentimes finds that ways into the waste bin where it's actually should be in the recycle bin or industrial recycling, as I like to call it.
John: So, this is big news. And, I think this is where the momentum is going to be incredible and getting those forms together… I think that's going to be a big success for ISRI, and its members, and for the brands because we're going to create – Private industry will create solutions. Instead of being mandated by a government agency...
John: If we bring together – the sooner they get out in front of it, I personally believe the better it is for everybody involved. Even for these brands. These brands are gonna – Look, I was walking by the waterfront today and it saddened me. I didn't take the picture ‘cause I've taken too ma–There's all this crap in the water. Plastic bottles, paper… All of it's recyclable. And, where is it? On the Potomac River?
John: I hate that.
Cheryl: Yes, you're right. You're absolutely right. And I – you mentioned those packaging product makers… Because I think we have the brands… They're going to follow some because they want to be able to please their customer. And so, they want to want to know what those brands are talking to ISRI about. So, I think they will come in. We'll have more of them. We already have a lot, but I think we will get more because they do want –
John: Well, we need to announce this. I think this – in this form, people who are gonna watch this podcast are going to already hear it. But, this is opportunity. If you're a recycler and you starting to see more recyclable packaging that you can do it for to profit come in and it doesn't necessarily have to be from the blue bin, but it's more industrial.
John: That's opportunity. This industry is built on opportunity from our forefathers who started… You know, I'd like to say, and I say this every podcast, the recyclers… We are the original environmentalists.
Cheryl: Exactly. We’re the original green.
John: We were green before green.
Cheryl: That’s right.
John: All right. So, let's talk about another role that you were telling me about. Helping companies… What we call sustainable, but in there and for their employees… Talk to us about that.
Cheryl: Okay. So, a number of companies and a number of funders of publicly traded companies are having to report what we're calling the ESGs; the environment, social and governance goals. How are they achieving those? So, from an environmental perspective, how are you protecting the environment? Okay. From a social perspective, how are you making sure that your employees have a living wage? That you have a diverse, grew food group of employees who all have access to the ability to move up within your organization?
Cheryl: And, how are you governing your company in a fair way? So let's take, for example, we keep hearing these numbers about the number of females who've had to come out of the workplace in order to take care of their families during the pandemic.
Cheryl: So, how are you – how is your company – and, your company has a great track record. You have a number of female employees that you are supporting and helping them to move through this difficult timeframe so that they can retain their ability to be able to support their families financially but also be there in order to provide the emotional and everyday living support that their families need. So, how are you governing your organization so that you recognize that we have different lifestyles now? Are you allowing telework? Are you allowing virtual workers? Are you making everybody come into the office every day? And, we realized that for some positions, that's necessary, but is it necessary for all positions? And then, how are you making your employees aware that these opportunities are out there so that they can take advantage of them? Because it's one thing to have them in a book. It's another thing to say, “Here's something you can take advantage of.”
John: Well, you know, the safety protocols, you know… Some people say that, kind of, their safety – their employee handbook or their IEPP a book and they have it and it sits on a shelf. Well, we do business with some very large oil companies. They come in and they audit us.
John: Because of their audits, they've actually made us a better company.
John: Because you have to show them your drug testing program, your, you know, what are your randoms? How many people, you know, what do you do? You know, what kind of training are you… Do you have your sexual harassment? Well, that's mandated by the State… But, these companies want to know you’re involved that in creating a workplace that is free of…
Cheryl: Any negatives.
John: Okay. I was trying to find the word. Free of negatives. I like that. But, you know… And, I guess I see things a little different because I've been so used to this for so many years and that, really, our members need to step their game up in a lot of different areas. Environmentally, stormwater. Sierra… We've spent $2 million over the last 10 years in our stormwater infrastructure. Okay? And, we get 5.8 inches of rain a year in Bakersfield.
Cheryl: Oh, wow.
John: That's nothing.
John: It dries before it hits the ground.
John: Almost. So, we’re on the forefront of it. But, I live in California. Our businesses in California… And, they're not very friendly towards business if you're not putting forth the effort in the environmental way. In the governance part, I'm a little gray on that what that really means. But, how are the members? See, this is a great forum for people to know you now, Cheryl. How are we going to get this message out to the membership? Because I would have not known this, that you're a resource for my business.
John: Okay. I don't know that. I do now, but that's what I want the members. How are we going to get that message out to our membership? Because this sounds like a fantastic opportunity for businesses to grow and learn how to become the modern company and get us out of some of those old ways of doing business and come into the new – to the new world, the new century that we are, the new people, the new companies we are trying to be, because we have to create an atmosphere in our businesses that is welcoming, it's safe for the employees. Safe just isn't just safe from injury but safe from emotional attacks too, right?
Cheryl: Right. So, I want to go back to governance for a minute because you mentioned that was a little bit of a gray area. For some companies, they are tying those types of goals that you just articulated; the safety, sexual harassment… They're tying that to the reviews for their senior leaders.
Cheryl: As high up as a CEO. So, your ESGs are environment, social and governance goals would be tied to the performance of the leaders. So, that's how they – because they feel that if it doesn't come from the top or if it does come from the top…
John: Well, I noticed just from the actual – Say, if I don't wear my hard hat and my safety vest when I'm in my – and my glasses…
John: Nobody else is going to.
John: So, from the top.
John: So, do you feel that's a challenge – that's just a big hurdle for a lot of us in our – in the recycling industry?
Cheryl: I don't know that it's as much of a hurdle as this really pulling it together in a format that people understand it. So, that if I were to walk in there tomorrow and say, “Tell me about your ESGs,” that you could pull out all of the documentation that you need to say, “This is what we're doing here at Sierra.” Others are doing it, but they may not necessarily have it compiled in a way that they could make it visible to someone else.
John: I'm going to ask that question when I get back to the office. You know, we do a lot of that, but do we have it “in an ESG file?” I'm not sure we do. I don't know if we do. I know we're doing all these thingsg… Environment, the safety and the governance. I know we're doing it all.
John: But, do we now have it in an area where we call it ESGs? And, that's – it's a good point. See, these are – we're not going to learn this in a Zoom meeting.
John: We're going to learn this because we're interacting again.
John: People are going to take the time, “Hey, how are you?” You don't – I mean, you're meeting people for the first time.
John: How is it?
Cheryl: It’s great. It is great. I had the opportunity to attend the convention when I was working for the government. And now, to have the opportunity from – as an ISRI staff person… So much better, but it really – to see the collegial atmosphere, the energy that I'm seeing just by you guys getting back together and seeing each other, it's like they're lifelong friendships.
John: There are.
Cheryl: There are familial relations where your families have come together and just seeing that, coming from the South and a family that's very close knit… That's heartwarming to me because it's so – it blends so well with my values as a per – from a personal and a professional standpoint. So, I'm excited to be here.
John: Well, we're going to soon see you thriving when things open up because, you know, I just… I have a vision now. Having talked to you… And we spent a lot of time talking before we even got on camera… To get to know you a little bit and to see what you're going to bring as value to people like me. Okay? Our conversation for where we're going off-camera is – was enlightening, okay? Enlightening because not that I didn't know things, it's just what I didn't realize what's really going on out there in other places. You know, and I'm like… You know, I mean, I don't know. I was raised by a father who came from Italy. Okay? I'm a son of an immigrant who came to this country with no money in 1935. And so, I am blessed to have had that cultural experience when I was 18. My dad took me around the World. So, you know, I'm 18 years old… I'm walking the streets of Calcutta, India, and I'm like, “Oh.” You know, that's you talking about eyeopening, right? Now, a little boy from Bakersfield, California, and you know, where we were kind of backwards back in 1980… And, I go to Calcutta, India. But, those cultural experiences has shaped me and shaped my family.
John: And, but it's about interaction. What my point is, is my dad brought people in from all over the World all the time because we were an international business. And, I think that interaction and what we're going to get back to here at ISRI is the interaction. We're going to start building bridges and we're going to start creating better forums and better ideas and actual stuff's going to get done in a positive light in the recycling industry.
John: You're going to be leading that charge?
Cheryl: I'm going to co-lead.
John: You're going to co-lead. But, you know, I think this is great because people are going to now know what Cheryl Coleman does.
Cheryl: Thank you.
John: You're not just Vice President of Sustainability because I'm guilty of “What the heck is that?”
Cheryl: And, “What is she doing?”
John: “What does that mean?” But, that's where we – that “Sustainability” is a buzzword. And, it means so much… To everybody… You ask 10 people walking the street, “What is sustainability?” You’re gonna get different answers.
Cheryl: I agree with you a hundred percent.
John: And so, you know, this is going to be great for people to see this.
Cheryl: Thank you.
John: And, it's another reason you're going to want to join ISRI because this is a resource that's only going to make your business better.
John: And, it doesn't cost anything to call you once you're an ISRI member.
Cheryl: Exactly. Exactly.
John: So, why aren't they going to reach out? So, I've always looked as a former Chair, it's always befuddling why anybody would not – in the recycling industry, would not be a member of ISRI. You know, we’re the voice of the recycling industry. Well, you want a louder voice, be part of it. The larger our membership is, the louder our voices.
John: Because no single company can get all the benefits that you get being on your own island.
Cheryl: Right, and that's exactly what I heard from the brands. When I was have been talking with them about joining the Brands Council. Because, I asked them, I said, “You got 1300 members. That's 1300 voices that we can hear from, and we want to hear from them.” And, I know that you want to hear from them.
Cheryl: Because that's how you both build the business – your businesses. And, so I haven't said anything to Robin about this yet, but one of the things that I hope to do at the convention next year is have a sustainability track.
John: Track? Oh, a sustainability track.
Cheryl: Track… Where we will be able to offer several sessions where folks can come in and learn more about what sustainability is but also how what kinds of principles, what kind of practices can they take back to their companies. Because, it's only through that communication and collaboration that we can all grow.
John: Well, I think that's going to be a good track. And again, you know, I'm a marketing guy. I love marketing. So… And, I like communicating what it is we do at our company but I also love communicating ISRI. I have a real love for this trade association. Once you've drank the Kool-Aid, it's forever, okay? You know, once you’re Chairman… And, this– the Pile of Scrap – our podcast... I've used it for the promotion of ISRI because it's so important. I want more members in ISRI. I want more people coming to our conventions. Yeah, as an exhibitor, as an equipment provider… Heck, I want more, I want more of him. But, I know that the louder the voice we have, the better we're all going to learn and better we’re all gonna be. I am a believer. And like I said, I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago. So, you drank it too. You came onboard. You said, “I'm going to go to work for ISRI.”
Cheryl: I did. ‘Cause I was really planning to retire.
John: You're too young to retire.
Cheryl: If I can get my kids off my payroll, I'm out. I’m just kidding.
John: I don't think we ever do. My daughter just graduated from USC and I still find myself... “Funny. She's got a good job with Oracle. I’m going…”
Cheryl: Yeah. Yeah.
John: That's our job.
Cheryl: You're her retirement plan.
John: Yeah, I’m her retirement plan. Yeah, you're right. That's funny. But, you know what, Cheryl, thank you for joining me today.
Cheryl: Thank you.
John: And, I'm really excited about what you're going to bring to us members. And, I now know that you are a resource for my company and that we'll be reaching out and we will be having conversations with my keeping, my HRs, my safety director – however we need to communicate with you to be better.
John: And, I just encourage anybody who listens to this podcast, who watches this podcast to understand this is a huge step and to make it all our businesses better from internally.
John: And, if we can become better internally with our ESG programs and we can become better as an industry with bringing the brands in to understand the real getting products that can be recycled profitably. That's win-win.
John: And, I love that. Well, thank you, Cheryl.
Cheryl: It’s not only a win-win for us, but it's, it's a win-win for everybody.
John: Yes, ma'am.
Cheryl: Because the more higher quality products we can make, the better products we can offer to our consumers.
John: I can't wait for these messages to get out.
Cheryl: Thank you.
John: Thank you so much for being part of my podcast and our podcast. And, that's it for ano–That's it for another episode of Pile of Scrap.
Conclusion: This has been a Sierra International Machinery original audio series. Thanks for listening. Please share this podcast and make sure to subscribe.