Episode 12

Published on:

16th Oct 2023

Innovations in Waste Management and Sustainability with Heather Johnson

Connect with Heather:

Website: www.pureingenium.com

Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Heather Johnson. Heather is the CEO of Ingenium and has over 25 years of experience in hazardous waste management. Her innovative sustainability and waste management approach has positioned Ingenium as an industry leader in waste-to-energy programs and zero-waste initiatives.

Lisa Ryan: Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Johnson: Thank you, Lisa. I'm excited to be here today.

Lisa Ryan: Share a little bit about your background and what led you to do what you're doing.

Heather Johnson: You named it over 25 years of experience. Back in my college days, I was answering phones in this industry. Along the way, I started doing some marketing and sales and ultimately ended up 27 years in the industry. I never look back on anything, finding anything in this and carrying it forward.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah. Right now, many companies are aspiring to achieve a zero-waste status. What are some of the steps and strategies businesses can take to embark on this journey?

Heather Johnson: So zero waste is a journey, as you mentioned, and there are several steps. The first step for a business is to determine that they want to move forward. And in that, the first step is looking at what they're generating in terms of waste, what's going into the trash cans at the cubicle level, what's going into the trash cans in their kitchens or cafeterias throughout the facilities that all end up in a dumpster typically and where we start is at the dumpster level.

For lack of a better term, we call it a dumpster dive, but dig in the trash and look at what are these guys producing that might have some value and be removed from the waste world and used elsewhere. From there, we provide data. So it's data collection and then reporting out to the business.

Hey, here's what you guys are doing. Are you aware? And most of the time, they are not aware to any significant extent of what types of things are making it into the trash. But it starts with the conversation at that point: okay, here's what's happening. What are you willing to do as a business to reduce the waste going into the trash?

From there, we talk about strategies that can be deployed within the business, ways to minimize waste, and ways to reuse materials in lieu of creating waste. And continue to track the progress of the efforts and provide more data to show reduction over time. Ultimately, the objective would be to achieve this zero waste certification, with a certain percentage milestone to remove waste from the landfill.

Lisa Ryan: So when it comes to zero waste certification, I think about zero waste, just in my own house, and what goes out into the trash every week. What is that percentage? How much are people reducing their waste to get that certification? What does that look like?

Heather Johnson: I believe it's 90 percent on average, which sounds extremely challenging, and it is. Don't get me wrong again. A business has to have a concerted effort. It doesn't just include leadership behind it; everybody in the organization takes pride in reducing waste.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, I know your company is known for its innovative waste-to-energy programs, but how can these green solutions work as a viable option for manufacturers?

Heather Johnson: Believe it or not, manufacturers produce a lot of waste. There's a lot of opportunity. Manufacturers use solvents as an example, and we can reuse those materials and repurpose them for another business that can continue the use as opposed to a manufacturer having to send out the material as waste.

Many different items are used in manufacturing, resulting in a beneficial reuse opportunity that minimizes what goes into the track. There are a lot of opportunities in manufacturing. In the event we can't do something better with the material, then make it a waste or call it a waste, then waste to energy comes into play as a viable technology that's greener than putting something into a landfill or incinerating it.

Lisa Ryan: So when you're reusing, like you said, solvents, would that manufacturer who was using the solvents be able to use them again? Or would another manufacturer or another company buy that? 

Heather Johnson: Yeah, both. The answer is both. Some manufacturers will continue to use a solvent until it's so dirty. They cannot do anything further with it. Some manufacturers have quality control. These procedures allow using a material only once, and it's still clean enough for someone else to use. They don't allow it in their process.

We can pass that along to another manufacturer or company using that material. Additionally, when a solvent gets dirty, we can do something called distillation, which cleans it up and creates a renewable product, the solvent. Without whatever was contaminating it, those manufacturers can rebuy it because it does have a cost associated with it, but it's less expensive than buying a new solvent.

Heather Johnson: The ultimate goal is to minimize what is wasted. If you can prolong the use, the longer you do that, instead of using a new product, you're doing the environment a favor every time.

Lisa Ryan: Absolutely. Discuss hazardous risk because assessing and managing hazardous waste is crucial in industrial operations. So what can businesses do to mitigate their hazardous waste risks so that they're in compliance and safe?

Heather Johnson: Call ingenium? No, calling a company like Ingenium can help them understand both from a compliance standpoint. What are you required to do based on what you're generating? What are your hazardous processes? And then what are the requirements and regulatory risks around what you're doing? It's a whole world that most people don't think about regarding tracking and managing.

If you have a chemical, for example, that you're using, only when you say you no longer have a use for it, and there is no longer a use for it, then it's a waste. So once you determine something is a waste, new regulations kick in. And. A lot of businesses don't necessarily understand what the requirements are around managing hazardous waste, so they can bring in a consultant who does understand that, or bigger businesses, often, will have a full-time environmental health and safety manager who is responsible for the hazardous waste and the tracking and management of it.

Either way, from a safety standpoint, a lot of training goes into place so that people know what they're handling. And then, from a regulatory requirement standpoint, there are holding time issues. There are manifest paperwork-type issues. There's also something called cradle to grave, which means once you have a waste, it's yours until you know it's been managed to the end.

So you must know what's happening to the waste. And you're using a company that's properly disposing of it at the end of the day. And there's a paperwork trail on that. And there's a time requirement for that. So, if you understand all of the needs, you should be good to go, but if you don't, I highly encourage you to have a consultant on board to help you with everything because there is a lot.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, it sounds like it. And I think about this when we're looking at attracting younger people into manufacturing and the industry. Sustainability is a huge topic because they want to protect the planet in whatever they do, or at least not cause additional harm.

What are some things businesses are doing to use eco-friendly practices, or are there specific success stories or examples you can share?

Heather Johnson: Yeah. And you're right. As it pertains to younger people in any industry, they want to work for a company that is environmentally friendly and conscious and doing something if they can to better protect the environment.

Many businesses that can make a difference are pushing back on their suppliers to use greener materials, whether shipping materials or things that can be recycled or reused. That's a big one I'm seeing because many businesses we work with receive chemicals in styrofoam, for example.

And the styrofoam is it's voluminous. If you will, it's lightweight. It's got a recycle value, but It's costly to move it unless you can condense it. And so I've seen companies pushing back on people that use styrofoam to take it back and use it again, for example, instead of the stuff going into the landfill because it takes up a lot of space and doesn't break down easily.

Additionally, they should look at more environmentally friendly products they can use in their processes instead of highly toxic chemicals if there's a way that they can introduce something more environmentally friendly. They're doing that and then ultimately downstream on the wayside. How can they reduce or reuse materials before they become a waste, prolonging the use of something?

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, one of the arguments you hear from people is that the more environmentally friendly products don't. They don't believe they work as well. As the horrifically hazardous materials that they've been using forever. What are you seeing as far as the advances in technology, or is that still true?

Heather Johnson: Yes. And no, I totally know what you're talking about. I know. We also work with a lot of research and development. And they use mercury thermometers. And I remember when they made a play to use cause mercury is highly toxic.

And so, what else can we use in lieu of that? And it took a long time, but they've come out now with a good alternative to the mercury. But there are several products that people will argue are nothing better than radiation isotopes in some cases. However, it's become more challenging to manage that stuff, so people have almost been forced to move away in many situations, but over the last 25 years, I've seen a lot of movement in that area.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, that's a good thing. Then, we also look at things like community service and corporate responsibility, which you are big on in your organization. How do you tie in what you're doing with sustainability goals regarding focusing on the corporate responsibility efforts of the companies you work with?

Heather Johnson: We have a big push in innovation. On top of what exists today, we're always looking for what is coming in the future that we can leverage and introduce to people. We are the experts in the technology as it presents itself. We don't own any technology, nor do we create any technology. Still, we understand what other people are doing and how it can benefit our customers - from manufacturing businesses to pharma and any industry that uses chemicals and produces hazardous waste. There's more and more technology that's greener to manage this stuff in the future. Historically, it's gone for landfill or incineration, and we want to minimize what goes to the landfill.

More and more, there are conversations about that. But if it's not going to landfill, where is it going? What can we do? And so, more and more, you're seeing new technologies present themselves that minimize the need to send things to the landfill.

Lisa Ryan: What are you seeing regarding some of those new technologies that you've been the most impressed with, or have changed the game in waste management or your zero waste initiatives?

Heather Johnson: I've seen more people figuring out how to prolong the life of things. If you have to dispose of it, there's something called fuel blending, where you can use hazardous waste as a secondary fuel in a cement kiln. So, a lot of hazardous waste qualifies instead of using natural resources.

To make cement as an example, I'm also seeing people clean up waste reuse. It can't say clean up waste because once it's waste, you have a different right to prolong the use of a chemical. We have something called an orphan chemical program. For example, a large manufacturer with quality controls can't use products past their shelf life, but that doesn't mean that a smaller business with fewer funds can't use those chemicals in their research.

We can take them from the large manufacturer to the small startup, and they can continue using them without buying new chemicals. It may end up as waste in the future as well.

Lisa Ryan: How did they find out about you? I mean you because you're, we talked earlier about the companies reusing themselves, or it goes to other companies.

How does that whole process work? How would somebody even find out what you have in the list of products that you have that you can make available to people?

Heather Johnson: Right now, that program is Largely amongst our current customer base because we haven't figured out how to leverage AI, which I think would be our next play.

But right now, we have a list of all our customers who are interested in being potential recipients of chemicals. So when a customer wants to donate, there's the donor and the recipient. Let's call it: the big manufacturer has a list of chemicals they no longer need, but there are still good chemicals, right?

They're not crystallizing around the caps or inherently waistline. They will go out as waste unless we find a home for them. So we'll take their inventory of chemicals, and we'll send it to our customer base of recipients. And then those guys will look at it and say, okay, I'd like to have the following chemicals, and then we will arrange.

The transportation from point A to point B of those materials and the way they find us when they find us is frequently a Google search for hazardous waste recycling because more and more people want to be sustainable. And so it's more complex than hazardous waste disposal, which we'd still come up with in a search for that, but it's word of mouth or Google search.

Lisa Ryan: How does a company know they need to talk to somebody like you? What is the first clue that making the call to Ingenium is a good option?

Heather Johnson: If they're generating hazardous waste and they understand they can't throw it in the trash, that's the first clue.

And then, what type of business do they want to work with? I would say the majority of business. Businesses today have gotten on board with sustainability. When we started Ingenium 17 years ago, sustainability was not a big deal to people. It was. I don't even know if it was a word used in our industry.

And then, when the markets crashed in 08. We saw a huge influx of chemicals that had to go for disposal because businesses were shutting down. These would be chemicals that had never been opened, but the business is closing, and part of the closure process is that all of the chemicals have to go out as hazardous waste.

And it was crazy for us to see just how much good material was being wasted. So, we started to promote sustainability back in 2008. However, it comes at a cost, so traditional disposal is less expensive than some screener opportunities. And early on, businesses weren't willing to take on additional costs to do that today.

Fast forward 15 years later, and it's a big initiative at the leadership level for many of these businesses. In addition to just having hazardous waste and saying, Hey, I need to dispose of this, many people managing it know they also want to try something greener. So they'll be looking for companies who have these innovations.

Lisa Ryan: So what's the process? They call you for the first time because they have some waste or want to look at more sustainability. What happens next?

Heather Johnson: We send somebody out to their facility and talk to them about what they're doing. We want to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it because if there are things they can change upstream, and we can help consult with them on that to reduce the amount of waste or use less toxic materials, all kinds of those things that I spoke to earlier.

And then, in that conversation, what are their goals? Again, most companies will tell you that they have some sustainability goals. Some will say we want the lowest cost. Based on what they're trying to accomplish, we will tailor a program for them that meets those needs.

Lisa Ryan: And are you cleaning up the chemicals and stuff? Do you have a pro, so you have a whole processing facility?

Heather Johnson: We don't have a processing facility, but we have the trucks and the people. So, we will go to the manufacturer and ensure everything's properly labeled and packaged so that it can go on a truck for safe transport to the disposal facility or wherever the material will ultimately end up.

Lisa Ryan: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you think is important for people listening to? No,

Heather Johnson: I think you touched on it, but ultimately, what I believe is the most important for people to know if they are not aware and understand is the cradle-to-the-grave element of the waste generation that they, it's crucial that they're working with a dependable company like Ingenium, because, again, if you're working with somebody you're getting a cheap price or, these people aren't on the up and up.

If your waste ends up somewhere it shouldn't, you're going to pay for cleanup a second time, and possibly, if other companies have waste in that area and are out of business, you're going to be paying for other people's waste as well. So it's most crucial that. You know that you're working with a reliable vendor.

Lisa Ryan: If somebody wanted to continue the conversation or learn more about how Ingenium can help them and you, what would be the best way to contact you?

Heather Johnson: The best way to contact me and learn about Ingenium services is to visit our website, www.pureingenium.com, and that's P U R E I N G E N I U M dot com slash podcast. This podcast will be listed there with others, and they'll be able to get all of our other information on the website from there.

Lisa Ryan: Heather, having you on the show has been a pleasure today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Heather Johnson: Thank you for having me, Lisa.

Lisa Ryan: I'm Lisa Ryan, and this is the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. We'll see you next time.

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About your host

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Lisa Ryan

As a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), an award-winning speaker and author of ten books, Lisa Ryan, CSP, works with her clients to develop employee and client engagement initiatives and strategies that keep their top talent and best clients from becoming someone else’s.
Lisa’s expertise includes: strengthening workplace culture, improving employee engagement, increasing customer retention, and initiating gratitude strategies (“Grategies”) for personal and professional benefit. Lisa’s participants enjoy her high energy, enthusiastic delivery and quick wit and they leave the session with ideas they are committed to acting on immediately to make positive workplace culture changes.
Lisa costars in two films with other experts including Jack Canfield of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” She is the Past-President of the National Speakers Association, Ohio Chapter and holds an MBA from Cleveland State University.

Relevant Experience

• Keynote, breakout or workshop speaker at more than 100 national and international conferences
• Thirteen years of industrial marketing and sales experience, including seven years in the welding industry – and yes, she does weld
• Host of “Elevate Your Engagement Levels: What You Need to Know” on the Elite Expert Network and the C-Suite Network
• Creator of “The Seven Mistakes Managers Make to Crush Company Culture” video series
• Best-selling author of ten books, including “Manufacturing Engagement: 98 Proven Strategies to Attract and Retain Your Industry’s Top Talent”
• Award-winning speaker