Multiple roles to play

Features - Industry Leaders Q&A

Mark Lewon, the current chair of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, says the organization can assist recyclers in numerous important ways.

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April 12, 2017
Brian Taylor (edited by)

Mark Lewon has been involved with industry trade group the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, for almost as long as he has been working with his family business.

Lewon, the president of Utah Metal Works, based in Salt Lake City, had volunteered for positions in his region’s ISRI chapter before he began getting involved in ISRI national committees.

The volunteer efforts resulted in Lewon becoming part of ISRI’s slate of national officers earlier this decade, and since April 2016 he has served as ISRI’s national chair.

In an interview with Recycling Today, Lewon talks about some of the issues he considers to be priorities for ISRI and for the scrap recycling industry. He also spells out what he considers to be the benefits and compelling reasons for recycling company owners and managers to join ISRI and to get involved with its activities.

Recycling Today (RT): Promotional material for this year’s ISRI convention urges attendees to “get plugged in” by attending the event. In your career, how has the association helped you and your company stay plugged in to industry changes and opportunities?

Mark Lewon (ML): No matter how many times I go to the convention, I always learn something new. While there are always top industry speakers and the latest in equipment and technology, networking is always the No. 1 reason why people go to the convention. Given that, there is no question in my mind that I always learn something from the others I talk to there. I also learn things in board meetings that precede the convention. It’s a different kind of learning, but I’m still learning. For those who have never been, it is a great way to gain insights into some of the issues or problems others in the industry are facing and how ISRI is working to solve them.

RT: What are some ISRI initiatives you consider your top priorities during your time as a national officer and why?

ML: The increased focus on safety initiatives and resources that has been ongoing is for sure going to continue under my administration. We consider safety to be a core value, and there is no question in my mind there are still some advances to be achieved in that area.

Given who I am, involvement in local and state politics is a clear theme. I’d like to see people be more proactive in their states and cities. As an industry, we have a lot at stake, especially at the state and local levels. This is the case both legislatively and from a regulatory standpoint. Issues such as metals theft, one-bin collection, extended producer responsibility and using recycled rubber are constantly popping up all over the country. If the recycling industry does not take a proactive approach to educating lawmakers and other stakeholders, there could be serious harm.

The first step is recognizing we have a voice, and we can make a difference. For example, here in Salt Lake City, when the mayor was not supportive of our issues, Utah Metal Works took note of it. When it came time for the election, we helped another candidate out with resources, and I believe we were among those who helped her to get elected. It’s not like it doesn’t help—it does happen. This is a clear example of the importance of developing strong grassroots advocacy at all levels of government and encouraging recyclers to become part of the political process.

Advocacy doesn’t just take place during election time either. It is year-round, constantly educating lawmakers about our industry, what we do and the many environmental and economic impacts we have on our communities. To this end, one of my goals is to strengthen ISRI’s outreach at the state and local levels while further advancing our federal efforts.

RT: How do you respond to recyclers who say they do not see the benefit of belonging to ISRI or perhaps do not favor the dues structure?

ML: It is often not a case of recyclers not seeing the benefit but realizing the benefits and taking full advantage of them. For those who are current members, the benefits are obvious, but until you are a member of ISRI, it is often difficult to see.

For those who are members, it is a matter of taking full advantage of the range of benefits available. ISRI has an outstanding, professional safety team and training tools to help recyclers. We offer free webinars, discounted SREA (Superfund Recycling Equity Act) reports to help with due diligence requirements, member insurance policies and assistance with compliance.

Again, the role of advocacy is important here. If a member company runs into a problem with a state regulatory agency or a federal agency, they always come to ISRI and want the help. And ISRI provides it for its members. That’s something I always point out to people.

Beyond the work the organization itself does, you have a great opportunity to meet others in the industry who may have encountered the same problem—and they can say how they handled it and what lessons they learned from the process.

I understand market conditions can be difficult and some people say they can’t justify the expense. But ISRI is an investment in your company with both short-term and long-term gains.

RT: ISRI has for many years preached that “scrap is not waste.” To what extent do you think the public is now aware of this? How about policymakers?

ML: We have been successful in many parts of the government but still have a way to go. I think the public awareness is close to zero, though.

If we explain it to individual elected officials or regulators, I think we have some success. When you go to Europe, and to Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) meetings, the words waste and recycling are used less distinctly. It has created some problems. Here in the United States, our regulatory issues can be different than in Europe, but I think we’re further along in making the distinction. It still gets our hackles up, when the word “waste” is used for a scrap material with value.

Compared to the public, it’s easier for regulators and legislators to understand the distinction. They can see the difference between a waste hauler and someone like Utah Metal Works or Sims Metal Management. Yet, it is a process of constant education, especially with the large amount of turnover among legislators and their staffs, particularly at the state and local levels.

RT: To what extent have responses to metals theft reached a “new normal” at the scale house? Does ISRI still have to respond to allegations of scrap recyclers being the “bad guys” in the eyes of some law enforcement agencies?

ML: I think it is a perennial problem and an issue on which the industry must always remain vigilant. As prices go up, we tend to see more of these kinds of problems.

Also, as law enforcement agencies have personnel changes, you have to start all over again with your education. This is why you can’t just let your guard down. People can’t just say, “We’ve got that beat.” You don’t—law enforcement rosters and city councils always turn over.

It’s the same problem I have seen personally with the legislature here in Utah. We have huge turnover each time in Utah. As business-friendly as it is in Utah, the problems keep coming back for that reason. Every state legislature is the same way.

RT: How can the scrap recycling industry tie into wider global trends focusing on sustainability and zero waste? Should the industry try to do so?

ML: I think ISRI, and our President Robin Wiener in particular, does a good job of working on that at the macro level. In terms of achieving zero waste, I believe there are just things in the waste stream you’re not going to recycle, like chewing gum or any number of other things. And people seem to hedge on the definition of recycling to get there, like running a waste-to-energy plant. It’s hard for me to accept that as recycling—and then you still have some ash to get rid of.

The sustainability part we certainly tie into. The concept of sustainability links social, environmental and economic benefits. There is no better activity for achieving all three benefits than recycling, and policymakers get that when you talk to them. They understand that recycling contributes to the economy through jobs and taxes and conserves valuable resources, thereby benefiting our environment. It helps communities by enabling a better quality of life and helping society as a whole.

RT: Are you looking forward to ISRI2017 in New Orleans in late April?

ML: We are preparing for what I think will be one of the best conventions we have seen in years. We are returning to New Orleans for the first time since 2007 and have a great program planned. The speaker lineup is fantastic. So many people have already come up to me to say how excited they were that Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame will be speaking. We have a strong focus on world markets and exploring new revenue opportunities for recyclers of every commodity.

As always, we try to mix up some things. One thing that is new this year is commodity-specific networking events. These will tie in to the different Spotlight sessions and allow attendees more opportunity to network directly with those in their field.

We have also added MRF (material recovery facility) programming. I’m also really excited that the Paper Stock Industries Chapter of ISRI will be holding its Paper Summit SPECtacular in conjunction with the convention this year. (Recycling Today’s Editor Brian Taylor will be speaking during this event.)

And, of course, the exhibit floor—the largest in the world when it comes to recycling [featuring] hundreds of exhibitors and service providers with the latest equipment and technology; it cannot be beat.

Early registration numbers and renewal membership numbers look very good. Markets appear to be headed back in the right direction. I look at the industry landscape and I think this is the time to consider the convention as an investment. After essentially two or three years of difficult markets, it is time to come out of hibernation!

Mark Lewon is chairman of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and president of Salt Lake City-based Utah Metal Works. He can be reached at mark@umw.com.