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Eco awakening: Alumna leads sustainability efforts in the Big Apple

woman speaking into microphone in front of group
October 16, 2015

Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.

Jessica Schreiber may have gotten a late start on recycling — she never heard of it until college — but you wouldn't know that by her profession today: overseeing recycling programs for the biggest city in the country.

Schreiber explains that she was so inspired by a lecture on climate change that she wanted to be able to teach what she had learned to the general public. She received degrees from both ASU’s School of Life Sciences and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2010, and she advocates for increased individual responsibility as the senior manager of apartments and outreach for New York City’s Department of Sanitation.

Despite an increasingly busy schedule due to NYC’s recent announcement of a Zero Waste goal, Schreiber took some time to share about her favorite part of the job and to tell us why we should care about recycling.

Question: What does your position with the New York City Department of Sanitation entail?

Answer: I work in the department’s Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability managing recycling programs for New York City apartment buildings. This includes textile, electronic and food-waste recycling, as well as recycling trainings for building staff and management on the mandated metal, glass, plastic and paper streams. I also coordinate public events for the bureau and help with our social-media channels.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue a career in sustainability?

A: I was serving as a peer mentor in the education residential college, and one of the training sessions covered recycling in the dorms. That was the first time I heard anyone talk about recycling, and I became obsessed.

That year I set up a recycling program for my entire floor. Every week I collected recycling from each resident and paid them in Monopoly money for the items they recycled. At the end of each semester, I held an auction where residents could use their accumulated cash for small prizes, and I shared stats on what our floor had recycled. Some of the lessons I learned while completing that project — about convenience, motivation and scale — still inform my current work. It was when I fell completely in love with waste management.

Q: How did ASU help get you there?

A: My sophomore year, during a lecture devoted to climate change and resource use, a professor said, "Scientists have answers, but they are terrible communicators." I remember thinking, "I get that, but it's a solvable problem."

I immediately wanted to bridge that gap; I wanted to understand the science, but also communicate it in ways that mattered. That's when I added my second degree in education. I needed to learn how to take complex concepts and processes and break them into comprehensible pieces, without losing meaning.

ASU provided opportunities for me to explore and lead, and most importantly, supported the chances I wanted to take. The culture of "If you want to, and are willing to do the work, let's make it happen!" is something I have seldom encountered since leaving ASU.

Q: Why should people care about recycling?

A: How much time do you have? Economically, we're spending millions of dollars to bury things. Things that could be recycled or reused to prevent the further destruction of our natural world. It's nuts. Ecologically, the problems with landfills are numerous, and the resources we need to fuel our consumption are rapidly being diminished. Socially, items we are throwing out now will become part of the landscape of the future, and that is quite an obligation we have to humans to come.

At a recent seminar I attended, someone mentioned that future generations will be unable to mine resources from the ground or forest — we will have depleted them all. Instead, mining will happen in landfills, to recover things we currently consider invaluable. I think it's a powerful but sad image.

Ironically, I think our contemporary problem with waste management is actually how well we solved it in the past. We remove waste so effectively that people are not always aware of how much they are actually producing. I believe on a national scale it's an average of 4.5 pounds per person per day. Think of how differently we would go about buying and using items if we knew that, when we were ready to throw it away, it didn't go "away."

What if it stayed in your front yard? Think of how that might not only change your behavior, but by social comparison, change the behavior of a neighborhood? I wouldn't advocate for that, but the need to activate individual responsibility and personal engagement within a municipal management framework is something I find very interesting.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work you do today?

A: I really enjoy working in government on the local level. I get to be involved in designing and implementing programs and policies that directly influence my community. At the state or national level, I might not have such tangible evidence of the effects of my work. I can drive around any borough and point to buildings enrolled in e-cycleNYC, and it's awesome to meet a property manager and they have a re-fashioNYC bin in their building! I love that the programs include both systems management, data analysis and public interaction. It's the nexus I always hoped to be part of!

Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in the renewable/sustainable field?

A: I think it helps to determine what aspect of sustainability you find most compelling. Is it air quality? Is it renewable energy? Is it water conservation? Is it public outreach? Once you find something you care about, any related work will be worthwhile in helping you refine your interests and grow in expertise. Your first job might not be your dream job, but you can use each role as a stepping-stone, and let your goals evolve. As a new manager I think all the time about advice my mother gave me: try to find ways to make your boss' job easier. It's not specific to sustainability, but it has always served me well.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: We're hiring! NYC recently announced a Zero Waste goal, which means our bureau is very busy and growing. Current job postings can be found at:

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