food diversion

Coelho Lives and Breathes Sustainability

April 19, 2021

 

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.

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Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:00 am

Five industry leaders provide insight on organics diversion strategies

February 10, 2020

Recently, Waste360 published “Organics Diversion Drives Changes in Landfill Operators’ Roles,” an article examining the evolving role of landfill operators in organics waste diversion. Five industry leaders provide insight into how landfill operators and the solid waste industry are adapting to accommodate the evolution and the cost of organics management.

Waste360 interviewed:

  • Susan Robinson, senior director of sustainability at Waste Management
  • Robert Gardner, senior vice president at SCS Engineers
  • David Biderman, executive director, and CEO for Solid Waste Association of North America
  • Jason Munyan, manager of engineering for the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, and
  • Jim Stone, deputy director of public works/operations for San Joaquin County, California

The article provides best practices, strategies, technology, and systems that could support or supplement landfill operators’ response plans to the changing policies and contract requirements in more economically sustainable ways. Waste360 rounds up answers to the most common challenges operators and public works departments face including how to reduce permitting time, cost, and environmental impact.

Read the article

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:01 am

SCS Advice from the Field: How can recycling collectors ensure clean material when serving the commercial space?

July 13, 2016

By following the simple procedures governing selective routing in the commercial space, it is possible to turn a high disposal garbage collection system into a high diversion recycling system, without incurring additional costs or losing collection revenue. Read more…

Tracie Onstad Bills of SCS Engineers and Richard Gertman of For Sustainability Too explain the steps for commercial-stream routing and management of commercial recyclables with remarkable results in their Resource Recycling article published in June 2016.

Questions? Ask Tracie, she writes a blog series about recycling.

Contact Tracie directly. 

Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:00 am