Like many people in the recycling industry, Andrew Lincoln’s introduction to advocacy was at the ISRI chapter level. Every year, the Pennsylvania members of the ISRI Pittsburgh and Mid-Atlantic chapters host a Day on the Hill in Harrisburg, organized by their lobbyist Greenlee Partners. At the event, Lincoln witnessed recyclers across the Commonwealth come together to advocate on recycling issues and talk to legislators about the robust industry in the state.
“Having a relationship with your representative is key,” says Lincoln, co-owner of Lincoln Recycling, headquartered in Erie, Pa. “No matter what industry you’re in or what issues you face, developing relationships with your congresspeople, state representatives, or your city/township officials makes it much easier when you need to have the tough conversations.”
At the federal, state, and local levels, advocacy is an important opportunity for recyclers to tell their story to the people who influence, draft, and pass laws and regulations impacting the industry.
“It’s critical to do proactive rather than reactive engagement,” says Michael Mervis, director of Danville, Ill.-based Mervis Industries. Part of that means hiring a good lobbyist. “You need to be in frequent communication with your lobbyist, and your lobbyist should have their pulse on where the state house is leaning and the key issues before they’re in bills,” he says. “Most of [advocacy] is about relationship building.”
Proactive engagement also means sharing the industry’s good work and the benefits it provides to the community, economy, and environment. “Our members are doing a lot of great work that I feel often gets unnoticed,” Lincoln says. “In sustainability, partnering with their communities to assist in recycling events, sponsoring local events, educational tours, and lastly employment. We need to keep communicating all these positive stories.”
While making first contact can feel daunting, Alton Schaubhut, marketing manager at CMC Recycling in Dallas, Texas, has fun stretching his political muscles. A self-described political junkie with a background in marketing, he recognizes his unique perspective on advocacy. But at the end of the day, he says, recyclers just need to talk about a subject they know very well and that legislators know very little—the ins and outs of the industry.
While recyclers know the local laws and regulations under which they operate, legislators may know very little about them. Schaubhut says legislators have many issues on their plate, making it impossible to know every detail about every industry. Recyclers can fill in those knowledge gaps. “You want to be the one telling your story because otherwise it might come from someone with an inaccurate perception of our industry,” he says. “You’re better off telling your own story. After all, who knows it better than us?”
When it comes to metals theft prevention laws, Mervis says legislators often want to make strong laws without realizing there are existing laws that recyclers follow. “Informing legislators about these laws and how we follow them means they’re less likely to write new laws without understanding what’s already on the books,” he says. “And the more we engage, the more we’re viewed as an asset by these groups and the more likely we’ll be able to have influence before bad laws are written.”
ISRI Chair Brian Henesey recognized the value of advocating for the industry the moment he got involved in the Rocky Mountain chapter. Not only is it critical to get engaged on all levels but also elected officials want to hear from constituents. “Legislators prefer to hear from their constituents, so we need to be engaged and share our message,” says Henesey, vice president and general manager of RMR Recycling in Commerce City, Colo. “Officials want to learn, they want to hear from us.”
Schaubhut has also found that elected officials pay attention to the people they represent. “At whatever level of government, you’ll be surprised how quick they are to listen to you once they realize you’re a constituent and a voter,” he says. “Whether you support them or not, if your address falls in their district, you’re important to them.”
Once you get their attention, Schaubhut suggests finding common interests. “I truly think that you’re much more comfortable when you’re dealing with what is familiar to you, so do some research and find common points you share with your legislator,” he says. “Understand where they’re coming from so you can better tell your story,” he says. “And tell your story in a way that they can relate to. In other words, why is it important to them and their communities.”
Connecting with ISRI chapter leadership is also a great way to get involved, Lincoln says. “ISRI members can sign up to be part of the government relations committee or state policy subcommittee,” he adds. “It’s a great starting point to learn what issues our industry is facing and how they are being addressed.”
Henesey recommends attending ISRI advocacy events such as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which this year is August 1-4 in Denver, Colo. “There’s no bigger forum for state legislators,” he says. “NCSL is an opportunity to get together and get to know people. If you’re looking to get engaged, it’s a good place to start.”
ISRI continues to strengthen its advocacy efforts through its events and programs. In 2020, ISRI’s state policy subcommittee launched a three-part lobbyist continuing education training program for members’ state lobbyists. The virtual sessions explored the essential nature of recycling, the issue of environmental justice, and important definitions to the industry. “All three sessions were well attended,” Lincoln says. “We plan to continue these in the future as they built collaboration among lobbyists.”
The subcommittee hopes to debut a program on membership advocacy training. Lincoln says the goal is to get more members comfortable with advocacy by developing a basic understanding of the issues; creating a mentorship opportunity at the chapter level where more seasoned members take a new member under their wing; and deploy this in the field when opportunities arise to meet with elected officials.
While recyclers may still be nervous, Henesey says the real fear is what happens if they choose not to engage. “I’m intimidated by the fear of the unknown, of what would happen if legislators created laws with no or very little knowledge of what we do and who we are,” he says. “You might be nervous if you think your officials are unwilling to listen, but at the end of the day we’re all the same, we’re all human.”
Photos Courtesy of ISRI. Captions: ISRI members engaging at NCSL in 2018 and 2019.