March 12, 2020 by Sarah Beidleman
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, SWANA is highlighting women in the industry who have shown their dedication and hard work. In this male-dominated industry, each woman has had her own unique experience.
For three decades, Elizabeth Roe has been helping public agencies and private companies communicate with the public about recycling, waste reduction, water pollution prevention, sustainability, and more. Elizabeth has led sessions on communications planning and messaging across media channels at various state, regional, and national conferences. Elizabeth is President of Eco Partners, Inc., a firm devoted to providing high-quality, cost-effective, customized local newsletters designed with residents in mind. Nationally, she is involved with the National Association of Government Communicators and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), where she serves as the Landfill Rebranding Co-Chair for the Landfill Management and Communication, Education & Marketing Technical Divisions and the Advisory Board Delegate for the Sustainable Materials Management Technical Division.
We talked to Elizabeth to get her perspective on her time in the industry.
How did you get into the industry?
Elizabeth Roe (ER): During grad school, I worked for a county in Southern Indiana. Because of my background, I ended up writing and reviewing a lot of specifications, RFPs and contract language. At the time, our county owned a landfill, was in the midst of a consent decree on a PCB cleanup, and also hosted our first-ever Tox-Away Day.
When I left the county to go to work for a consulting firm, I asked whether they did solid or hazardous waste work and was happy to hear the answer was “no.” However, about six months later, the president of the company came to me and asked, “At your last job, didn't you have something to do with trash?” With that, I became the coordinator of the solid waste practice for the firm. That was 30 years ago, and I’ve been “talking trash” ever since.
What is it like being a woman in this industry?
ER: I have always been on the planning and communications side of the industry – as opposed to the technical or operations sides. In the early years, many of the people in the education and communications jobs were women, many of whom had come from education, local government administration or communications shops. So, I always felt very much a part of the team because I brought skills to the table that others on the team generally did not have. I was often the only woman at the table, whether with municipal boards, elected officials or staff. At the time, the work I did was seen as a “girl’s” job, so there wasn’t a sense that the role I was filling should have been, or would have been, done by a man. Because of that, I think I had a really unique experience in the industry compared to other women my age.
What progress have you seen being made in the industry?
ER: I'm really proud of having been part of the growth of recycling and three Rs thinking over the last 30 years. Recycling and waste reduction are the most visible ways that regular people participate in pro-environmental activities, so it has been cool to be part of developing that and watching it grow.
How has being involved in SWANA helped you?
ER: The work that we do on the ground is challenging and, in SWANA, we find a group of people who are doing the same kind of work and facing similar challenges. SWANA members want to be better at what they do and want to help you be better. That challenges me as a professional to find my best path and encourages me to share what I have learned.
What progress do you hope to see for the future?
ER: Speaking from my side of the industry, we really need to figure out how to keep and hold attention with simple, clear and meaningful messaging. There's so much information competing for everyone's attention all the time, and it's not just cat videos – there are 500 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every single minute, there's a blog post for every possible topic, and social media is a fire hose of words and images. In that kind of media environment, it is challenging to get and keep attention unless something bad is happening, and then you have attention, but not the kind you want. So, I think that remains an ongoing challenge and people a generation from now will be facing the same dilemma.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry? If not, what do you think it takes to be a pioneer?
TD: Yes, I think we were all pioneers together as solid waste management changed rapidly three decades ago. We were in uncharted territory. There were not college degree programs that led directly to the jobs we were doing, so we were learning in the field together. It was an exciting time.
Who is your role model?
ER: In my first job, Charlotte Zietlow and Virginia Rose showed me that there was a path toward a fulfilling career in local public service. Then there was the president of the consulting firm, Lou Polman, who was the kind of person who made me believe that I could do more and be an essential part of the team.
Certainly, I have looked to Sara Bixby at SWANA who is a like-minded person and, to me, has always been one of the rock stars in this business. I have also appreciated the friendship and comradery of Cristina Polsgrove, Ramona Simpson, Katie Sandoe, Kim Braun and others with SWANA’s technical divisions. My SWANA mentees have mentored me in amazing ways – Catelyn Scholwinski, Katie Saltanovitz, Shelly Fuller, Samantha St. John and Tiana Svendson. I have become better at what I do and how I do it because of the questions they've asked me and the conversations we've had.
When you’ve had a long career with much success, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who helped you get there, and without them, something would have been different. There are so many people who have made me better along the way and I’m sorry that I haven’t named them all here.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
ER: I really believe that every single day local governments are providing absolutely essential services that make life in our communities and our nation possible and better. It is the honor of my lifetime to have worked for and with local governments, helping local staff and elected officials do their jobs and serve their communities.
Plus, my husband and I raised a great son who also works in the industry now.
What advice do you have for other women entering a male-dominated industry?
ER: I would say take your place at the table and be your best self, and that will be rewarded. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to sit down at the table and once you sit down, don't be afraid to speak up. You are there because you're bringing something that is needed in that conversation – never forget that.