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Blog: A Corporate Perspective Turned Inside Out

Featuring Sarah Dearman and Steph Kersten-Johnston

We’ve recently welcomed two new staff members who have joined us from the corporate world: Sarah Dearman, formerly Sustainable Packaging Program Director at Coca-Cola North America, is now our new VP of New Ventures; Steph Kersten-Johnston, formerly Director of Sustainable Business at HEINEKEN USA, is now our new Director of Innovation.

Now that they have a few months under their belts as members of The Recycling Partnership team, we wanted to capture their fresh perspectives on corporate engagement and the opportunities and challenges in the recycling industry.

TRP: Sarah & Steph – thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedules to give us your “inside-out” perspective! Let’s start by getting your thoughts and first impressions after joining The Recycling Partnership team, and the non-profit world.

Steph: I have to say that I’ve been blown away by the spirit of collaboration in this team, and the willingness to get stuck in and work together no matter the situation. As for my first impressions of the industry, I would say folks are understandably feeling really pressured given the market conditions. However (as an unashamed optimist), I see every reason for this to be a turning point for recycling; both the market conditions and the system-wide focus on plastics are potentially the catalysts we need to inspire more ambitious problem-solving and to attract more capital funding into the system. As ever, the non-profit world plays a key role here.

Sarah: I love working for this mission-driven, non-profit organization. It drives enormous passion and inspiration in a team. This is apparent with everyone at The Recycling Partnership. We are all here because we really want to be. It also brings us together. We are all working toward the same mission which provides for a very collaborative environment. It’s great being surrounded by team members that are industry thought-leaders and subject-matter experts. At most companies, sustainability groups are small (but mighty) teams. I’ve learned so much from my new colleagues already! 

TRP: That’s great to hear. Now that you have a slightly different perspective on the recycling industry, what do you think industry folks need to be aware of in terms of corporations diving into this space?

Steph: It’s critically important for recycling industry stakeholders to recognize that the corporate world is a very variable place and that each company is on its own journey, just the same as communities, states, and others all have different considerations. In some cases, companies are very early on in their journeys towards understanding their relationship with the recycling industry and its infrastructure. For many, this is an issue that is only just coming to light as a critical one, based on a number of variables. While some could argue that it’s late to get involved at this stage, I would counter that, in many cases, it’s not a deliberate attempt to avoid taking responsibility, but some naivety around how the system works. I’d certainly rather companies begin to wrap their heads around this now, rather than not at all! At the same time, some companies are very mature in their work in this space and are getting increasingly ambitious because they’re hearing more and more signals from their consumer base about the importance of their sustainability efforts. All in all, I would ask industry stakeholders to embrace the opportunity to have companies at the table and assume the best (instead of the worst), because the maturity curve indicates that once companies understand how to play a productive role, they will. Our broad and committed funder base is a testament to that.

Sarah: Corporations really do want to be part of the solution. The companies I’ve worked with have great, passionate people who want to be good partners. It can be challenging to navigate because as Steph said, they may be at different points in their journey. They also may be driven by different objectives. But if you’re willing to sit down and really listen, I’m confident you can identify shared interests and opportunities to make progress together. This is where I see the most promise for real change. Having now worked for the government, corporations, and non-profit organizations, when we are all willing to work together to build solutions, great things happen.  

TRP: And in return, what reflections would you share with corporate stakeholders?

Steph: My main thoughts would be to encourage those in positions of influence to use the power of their employees to drive action, and to build as broad of a base of understanding of the world of packaging and recycling as possible, internally.

Education is critical to help companies move forward, whether that’s taking the first step to engage or more advanced steps in this area. I’d also say that while there may be all sorts of exciting initiatives launching in this space, what we really need is action: we’ve had enough talk! From that perspective, it’s important that companies take time to evaluate opportunities on their radar and really apply their dollars where they can make the most impact. As a funding partner, The Recycling Partnership always stood out to me, because they are action agents who have expertise in the system.

Sarah:  I know it’s not easy. Corporate stakeholders are working in extremely complex environments with rapidly changing priorities. It can take a while to build champions to help lead the change, but it’s worth it. The ability of corporations to drive progress is huge. Depending on the organization, there are so many touchpoints: sales, marketing, procurement, design, public affairs, etc. Each of these provides a unique opportunity to make a positive impact. It’s likely there are people that are eager to support the cause throughout the organization. Sometimes, it takes a bit of creativity to find them, figure out how to get them engaged and how to align priorities. But when you do find opportunities for shared success, it can lead to exponential results.

TRP: Where do you see the biggest missing links and how can we solve for those?

Steph: I think what a lot of people fail to recognize is that recycling is a loosely connected, highly dependent system. That means that we all need one another! While it can feel hard to wrap your arms around it all, the upshot is that we’re more powerful when we work together: there’s no silver bullet solution, but collaboration is essential in navigating complex, adaptive systems. I’d also ask everybody to recognize that recycling is, in most cases, the only opportunity consumers have to influence the outcome of Circular Economy and our research shows that it’s a service they really value, so let’s build on that!

Sarah: I do think public-private collaboration is key. I also think there’s an opportunity to help people understand what their role is in this system and how they can be part of the solution. For example, helping a designer understand what happens to the package at the end of its use and how the decisions they make can have big impacts on the system. Or working with policymakers to better understand the system and how much it can benefit their community. And of course, with people, so they know what to put where. I believe everyone truly wants to do the right thing. We have an opportunity to make it easy for them. Let’s do it together!