Lisa Coelho, pictured far left and right above, is a California girl, but it was a trip to Ethiopia that inevitably brought her to SCS Engineer’s West Coast hub. When she made that 7,000-mile trek, she had no idea she’d later land where she is now; she’d been traveling a very different path.
She was studying agricultural engineering, thinking she wanted to grow food. But now Coelho is about getting on top of the glut of nutritious edibles that already exist, rather than making more of them. Her title is Sustainability Materials Management Specialist. Her job: developing strategies to keep organics and some other materials out of landfills and make sure what’s of value is used as intended. And she teaches communities how to manage their discards.
What brought her to Ethiopia was a service project to help develop better systems to grow food.
“I asked a council of elders [knowledgeable of old traditions of the area] about their sustainability practices. I wanted to look at their long-standing practices before suggesting another way,” Coelho reflects.
They told her they don’t throw out the stock of kale; they eat it. They save and regrow the potato eyes. And they compost almost all their scraps to amend their soil.
“It was eye-opening to see what they were doing – going back to basics to grow food and respect land,” she recalls.
Then came a second epiphany.
“I’d flown thousands of miles to help feed people, and some of them said, ‘thank you, but aren’t there people where you live who need help?’ It was like, ding! That’s right!”
She knew that in the U.S., unlike Ethiopia, the quandary is not a lack of food; rather that roughly 40% of it gets tossed. She switched to Environmental Science, wanting to develop approaches to prevent food waste, but fast saw an opportunity to work on trash problems beyond food. That’s when she thought the waste management industry was for her. The industry was becoming part of the sustainability landscape, and their work in this space would grow, she believed.
These days Coelho spends a lot of time in the field, teaching best practices to businesses and apartment dwellers, whether how to comply with local laws around organic waste diversion or what to put in which bin.
“I tell them I’m here to talk about that place called ‘away’ where they toss something and don’t think about it anymore. That’s where I’m from –away.”
Coelho helps them break old habits and form better ones. She meets them where they are, which entails asking a lot of questions. For the Mom-and-Pop burger shop, it could be: “What containers do you need? What do you want to look out for? Maybe keeping kitchen workers’ gloves out of organics bins?”
For families living in apartments around the corner, it’s questions like “Who takes out the waste at your house, and what steps does this involve?”
It’s a dirty, tough job that has value.
One job she’s proudest of is week-long trash sorts, where she digs into mega volumes of garbage to learn what’s in the stream, then uses what she discovers to help municipalities improve their recycling and diversion programs.
She’s at the materials recovery facility before the sun’s up, unloading garbage containers and shovels from her truck, ready to join her team in the grueling task of hand-sorting 2,000 pounds of waste into several dozen categories designated by CalRecycle. Then comes the job of weighing it to calculate the proportions of each material in the total stream.
Coelho is on her walkie-talkie with the scale house asking when the next load is coming while keeping a close eye on her surroundings.
“There’s heavy equipment and hazardous materials in the waste like sharps, gas cylinders, and different chemicals. I have to be present for my team.”
Breaks are short, and she takes them standing up, wanting to miss nothing.
“You’re lifting 50 to 150 pounds of trash at a time and sweating because you’re in a Tyvek suit and steel-toed boots, and your mask makes your safety glasses fog up.
I come home smelling like trash, and my dog loves it. He loves to sniff my yucky shoes,” she laughs.
Interestingly, Coelho compares waste sorts to another personal lure: backpacking.
“The rest of the world fades. You’re not caught up in calls and emails. You’re just focused on getting to the ‘top,’ and when you get there, it’s great. A shower feels awesome, and food never tastes better!”
She got her start in Sunnyvale, California, launching a community food scraps program, then started another program like it nearby when SCS came calling, inviting her to interview for a similar position.
At the time, she had a five- to 10-year plan to be part of a large company that did solid waste consulting.
“I thought, it’s happening now? It’s here? I can help so many cities all at the same time!
My interview with Tracie Bills – my boss – who runs Sustainable Materials Management in Northern California was exciting. I’d heard her speak at conferences and knew her to be a powerhouse as a woman in the waste industry. I’m going to interview with her?”
Besides Coelho’s fieldwork, there’s her desk job writing detailed reports analyzing what’s in the waste stream; she uses them to help identify effective processing changes and design outreach and education campaigns.
Making supplier to distributor connections.
Supporting food recovery operations is her favorite job. She helps connect businesses with the surplus, edible food with the organizations that feed people in need. And she pilots her clients’ food recovery projects.
It’s not easy. There are logistical and operational barriers to breakthrough for food businesses and food recovery agencies running on razor-thin budgets.
“Food recovery has a special meaning to me because I see our fractured food system. We have all the puzzle pieces, but we don’t put them together correctly. We have edible food going to waste, and we have too many neighbors that do not know where their next meal will come from. It breaks my heart,” she says.
The notion of waste management pros being a force in moving the needle excites her.
And there’s an impetus for her California clients to take the challenge; it helps them comply with a steep state mandate: recovering 20% of edible food that is now disposed of by 2025.
“I envision our role as learning as much as possible about the existing food recovery system; supporting recovery agencies with funding, logistical innovations, and solutions to infrastructure gaps. And I see us encouraging collaboration with other industries. It’s piecing together the puzzle,” Coelho says.
She likes that she uses both mind and muscle to try and figure out creative solutions to hard-to-fix situations between all her roles.
And she likes connecting the pieces, ultimately coming full circle while working toward long-term change.
“You sort and study what people put in the waste stream. Then tailor community outreach and diversion programs based on what you learn. You sort again and see how what you did in the field is working. Then it’s back to finding ways for greater improvement.”
Curious, creative, and determined.
She got what she calls the best gift from her mother: determination.
“She told me you can do whatever you want. And I learned it’s okay to question the norm. To be the only girl at the party telling everyone out for a good time that red beer pong cups are not recyclable.”
Coelho attributes her inquisitive side and craving to solve problems to genetics.
“My grandfather wrote a lot of crazy, out-of-the-box stories, and in each one, he asked himself philosophical questions. He was always self-analyzing and wanting to figure out more … I think this is important to do as an individual, but also as an industry.”
She has never had a boring day at SCS Engineers.
“We are busy, and there’s constant change as we work toward improving systems and practices. I like that I am in a place where I’m always learning. I can try new ways to get to a goal. I can always reach further.”
Learn more about Lisa and our Sustainable Materials Management team.
More great reading:
The California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) is hosting a kick-off webinar to introduce its new Edible Food Recovery Technical Council on November 17. Admission is free and you do not have to be a CRRA member to participate, but registration is required.
Learn about CRRA’s edible food recovery goals and plans to achieve them. At the webinar, participants will:
SCS Engineers’ Tracie Bills is the Director of CRRA, and Lisa Coelho is on the Executive Committee for this new technical council on edible food recovery that will launch in January and is currently planning how to achieve its mission so they can hit the ground running. A main goal of the council is to identify common goals between reducing waste and feeding people excess edible food, which requires more thoughtful behaviors than feeding leftover food to our curbside Organics bins.