Cleaning up WA through waste education and outreach

E_SzoradElizabeth Szorad

Waste Zero Specialist at Recology

Environmental Studies alumna, class of 2013

What is your current role?

I’m a Waste Zero Specialist at Recology CleanScapes, an employee-owned company that works with municipalities on waste diversion strategies. I work closely with businesses, schools and multi-family complexes providing education and technical assistance for handling their waste.

How did a degree in Environmental Studies at UW help you in your career?

I came to UW not knowing anything about the environment or the issues our society faced. I was a pre-med major, with an interest in psychology, but after taking a fisheries class and an introduction to environmental studies class I discovered my passion.

Recologytabling_E Szorad
Elizabeth Szorad
Elizabeth at the 2016 Washington State Recycling Association Conference supporting Chico Bags initiative to ban plastic bags.

My interest in waste was peaked when I took ENVIR 480: Sustainability Studio. We implemented paper towel composting in the UW athletics department (working with the women’s volleyball team). At the same time I was working on my Capstone internship with  Recology CleanScapes (formerly CleanScapes) in their Waste Zero department where I managed several outreach and education projects. I fell in love with the work and stayed on with the company through my senior year.

My degree taught me about systems thinking and to understand what makes people care or not care about environmental issues. The hands-on classes helped me to gain practical experience, including the Capstone, Sustainability Studio and a service-learning project I did as part of ENVIR 100. I was also a peer TA for ENVIR 100, which built my communication skills and helped prepare me for my current position, where I use my public speaking skills every week.

Belonging to a passionate community and working together to change behavior helped me get to where I am. I wouldn’t be here (at my current dream job) if it weren’t for Environmental Studies.

How did you get the job you currently have?

I took a job in Recology CleanScapes’ customer service department shortly after graduation. In that position I learned about the operations side of waste management. While I knew my passion was in outreach and education I recognized I needed more varied experience in the field.

Through networking at the largest waste conference in Washington, I learned about environmental consulting and applied for positions. I was soon offered a job as a project manager for Full Circle Environmental, an environmental consulting firm. I managed commercial recycling programs outside Seattle and also worked on water conservation and energy efficiency projects. I increased my professional skills through report writing, budget tracking, data analysis and face-to-face outreach with communities and businesses.

I loved the work at Full Circle Environmental but Recology CleanScapes was always home, and I wanted to go back. I reached out to my former colleague and it was fate as my dream position had just opened up. In this position as a Waste Zero Specialist, I work with all demographics and ages. There is no place I would rather be and I am lucky enough to wake up every day knowing that I love my job.

Recology street outreach_E Szorad
Elizabeth Szorad
Walking in a parade during the largest Washington State event, “Salmon Days” in Issaquah.

In what ways are you making an impact? 

People take waste management for granted. It’s an out of sight out of mind mentality. I help people understand why waste is important and how each individual can make an impact in helping WA be the leader in waste management.

I get to work with schools, businesses and multi-family complexes to help them understand why it’s important to recycle and compost.

It is empowering to see what happens to your waste once it’s out of sight and it’s rewarding for me to help individuals connect the dots.

We give free tours and presentations to educate the public about how waste is processed in WA.

It is very rewarding when people come up to me after a presentation and thank me for the work I am doing and say that they are inspired to change their behavior. I feel like I am moving the needle and making a difference in the world of waste.

What are you working on currently and what inspires you about the work?

My days are never dull as a Waste Zero Specialist and my duties vary, much like a start-up atmosphere. I manage many waste reduction city programs and right now there is a competition in Seattle for the Golden Dumpster Award. Owners of high-rise buildings apply and answer questions about their waste management and education initiatives. I then go in and evaluate what they’re doing as well as consult on how they can improve their waste diversion methods.

Another project I’m working on helps companies qualify for LEED certification. I recently developed a waste characterization report and manage a crew that sorts a day’s worth of waste for companies that want to become LEED certified; we go through the trash, recycling and compost and send data about how much waste is currently being diverted. It’s fun to visualize the data and provide recommendations. There is always room for improvement!

Teaching kids about waste_E Szorad
Elizabeth Szorad
Giving a presentation after a waste audit at Concord Elementary School, Seattle, where students get to sort through their own school’s waste.

My favorite part of this job is working with schools. We conduct waste audits with students, which includes a presentation and then students get to participate by sorting through their own waste and creating their own report.

Do you have a few words of advice for current Environmental Studies majors?

Take classes that give you experience outside of the classroom setting and expand your perspective. And stay in touch with each other. I’ve stayed in touch with my graduating class; we continue to help and inspire each other and it’s always nice to run into familiar faces at environmental events and have your former classmates become your colleagues and partners.

Also, passion can take you very far in comparison to industry knowledge because you have added motivation to learn. I cannot tell you how many times a potential employer told me I needed more experience. Don’t give up – it’s about finding the right employer who recognizes the drive UW Environmental Studies students have.

The environmental field in Seattle is very competitive and small; once you find a company that values passion do not take that opportunity for granted. If you know where you want to be, go get the experience you need and then go back to the company you see a future with; it demonstrates loyalty and determination. It is hard to break into the industry but if you talk to the right people and show initiative, you can get that dream job!