Recycling is a difficult industry to be in right now, especially if you’re involved in the collection and processing of glass. But Michelle Goth, general manager at Kansas City, Mo.-based Ripple Glass, sees glass recycling as an opportunity and helps communities develop effective and efficient glass recycling programs.
Goth has been with the company for about six years, and during that timeframe, she has helped more than double the amount of glass recycled from the region surrounding Kansas City, grow the number of local bars and restaurants recycling glass by almost 50 percent in a two-year period and expand Ripple Glass’ collection network to more than 80 communities in eight states.
“Michelle is a great ambassador for the glass recycling industry,” says Lauren Henry, regional program manager at Ripple Glass. “She has passion, drive and is a rock for her team. Michelle guides with a strong yet soft hand for her age. Her authenticity that comes from self-confidence and self-awareness is easily picked up on from those around her. She is continually learning and remaining open to change, and her consistent involvement in the industry in the future will help guide Ripple Glass in having a strong market presence and ensure glass recycling remains a strong success.”
Goth received a Waste360 40 Under 40 award earlier this year and sat down with us to discuss her role as general manager, some of her biggest glass recycling accomplishments and how the industry can work through its challenges with glass.
Waste360: How did you get your start in the industry?
Michelle Goth: Straight out of college, I worked for a local IT healthcare company called Cerner Corporation for about five years. At that time, I was actually looking for a job for my husband, who is in sales, and ended up finding an open business development position at Ripple that I was interested in for myself. I wasn’t really interested in leaving my job at Cerner, but I was working on my MBA and was very interested in small business and entrepreneurship and working locally instead of globally. I interviewed for the position to find out more about the opportunity, and it ended up being a great fit.
Waste360: What does your role as general manager entail?
Michelle Goth: I actually worked my way up to general manager, which was an exciting move for me. When I joined Ripple, I worked in business development and that had a broad meaning. I was working with bars and restaurants, municipalities, recyclers, you name it. I was also doing tasks like reconciling our scale data, running reports and pulling analytics, accounts payable work, etc. I got my hands in everything, so moving up to the general manager position was sort of a natural evolution for me.
As general manager, I oversee all of our activities, marketing, production, logistics, etc. I am not so familiar with processing equipment and maintenance, so the production side of things has been an ongoing learning experience for me in this role.
Waste360: You’ve helped more than double the amount of glass recycled from the region surrounding Kansas City. Tell us about some of the efforts that helped you achieve that milestone.
Michelle Goth: When I was working in that side of the business, I did a lot of regional sourcing, which involved a lot of driving and highway work. I went to a lot of conferences and industry-related meetings to meet as many people as I could. I worked closely with other municipalities, private recyclers, businesses, etc., that happened to be collecting glass and gave them an outlet for the glass they were collecting.
Ripple was a very small company at that time, and I am proud to say we’ve upped our game since then on how we are able to help communities, businesses and recyclers develop efficient glass recycling programs. We used to just send trucks to pick up the collected glass, but now we are able to help with microgrants, so businesses and communities can get containers for collection, help with marketing or whatever they need funds for. We have finally gotten to the point where we are intimately involved in the process of getting a glass collection program started in communities, and that’s great because a lot of people haven’t worked with drop-off programs (especially for glass), so they have some concerns that we can help address and work through via best practices learned.
Waste360: You also helped grow the number of bars and restaurants recycling glass in Kansas City by almost 50 percent in a two-year period. Tell us about that.
Michelle Goth: For this program, we worked with a company that was acquired by Waste Management. They were doing all of the collection at the time, and they are now passing along that side of their business to us. We started doing our own collection in April, and we are up to about 50 accounts of our own in addition to the accounts we are getting from Waste Management.
This is exciting for us because we are now fully prepared to go out and try to get new customers. Most of the reluctance to start a glass recycling program in a bar or restaurant typically comes from the managers. We have found that the staff actually want to recycle the glass, and they are really the ones who are aware of how much of a waste it is not to recycle glass because they hear and see the bottles stack up in the bins. While we only handle glass, I always let bars and restaurants know that if they can recycle glass and cardboard then they aren’t really left with a whole lot of other waste. With a recycling program, they can make a huge diversion impact at a low cost and maybe even save some cash in the process.
One of the most interesting things to me is majority of the bars and restaurants that do start a program with us don’t really care too much about the cost savings. They care that they are doing the right thing, and they like that Ripple is a Kansas City company and the glass is recycled locally.
Waste360: Glass is a challenging recycling commodity right now. Can you talk about some of the challenges the industry is facing with glass and how it can overcome those challenges?
Michelle Goth: With glass, you really get into the argument of convenience over cleanliness, and I don’t think there is any one right answer. In Kansas City, we have chosen to keep glass separate from curbside recycling so that we can ensure glass is collected in a clean fashion and more than 95 percent is able to be recovered. This works well for us, but we also have to deal with the challenge of people not wanting to participate in glass recycling because they have to separate it themselves and bring it to a drop-off location. Really, we get less participation upfront but more recovery.
When it comes to glass that’s collected curbside, we hear a lot about contamination as it runs through the materials recovery facility (MRF), and the value of it after it runs through the MRF. You get a lot of participation upfront because people like the convenience of recycling glass curbside, but then you have to deal with the larger issue of contamination.
As long as commodity values are suppressed, we probably won’t stop hearing about these challenges because glass is a lot of times a neutral or negative value when it comes out of a MRF, so I think MRFs will continue to look at how they can make more on the average ton of material going forward. In addition, I think municipalities need to really start looking at all of the values of the materials accepted in bins and possibly remove the materials that are burdens on the MRFs and haulers.
As a company, we walk communities through their options and give them a realistic vision of their cost, participation rates and recovery. This is also the approach that the Glass Recycling Coalition is taking right now, and I think it’s important for communities to know the impacts of each option so they can make the right choice the first time around.
Waste360: Who are some of your mentors and how did they help you get to where you are today?
Michelle Goth: I have quite a few mentors. One of them is Melanie Nelson, who was my manager at Cerner and a lieutenant colonel and flight nurse. She’s one of the toughest women I know, and she really showed me what a woman in leadership looks like. She was always fair and courteous, but she never shied away from saying what she knew was right. She never shrunk, and one of the biggest things she left me with is to never shrink and that you will always know if something is right or wrong. You are in the room for a reason, and if you need to speak up, speak up.
Mike Utz, founder of Ripple, is another mentor of mine. I have worked for him for about six years now, and he has become like family to me. He has showed a lot of patience with me, and I wouldn’t be able to do the job of general manager if he didn’t have the patience to teach me the things I am not strong on like equipment and maintenance. He is an engineer by trade and will drop things down to a third-grade level to make sure I understand the conceptual parts of how things work and where issues can happen.
Lastly, Matt Anthony, owner of Ripple, has shown me how to treat people and make sure people have a good quality of life. He always says people should be proud of what they are doing and have a way to progress. He has really been a coach to me for the human resources side of things.
Waste360: What would you tell someone who is considering a career in waste and recycling?
Michelle Goth: Speaking from a business standpoint, we look for applicants with strong people skills and trade experience. We hire a lot of electricians and mechanics, but on the admin side, we need people who have strong customer service skills, can work a spreadsheet and run numbers and have a passion for recycling and helping people. The recycling business is a numbers-driven business, so you really can’t shy away from math in this field.
I would advise people to not shy away from applying because this industry has a wide range of roles, and you can be trained on recycling if you’re a good fit for a role. You don’t need to have an environmental degree to have a job in this industry, and there are plenty of recycling-related businesses out there that are looking for applicants with strong people skills, business skills and other skills.