Elizabeth Browne, EGLE's new Materials Management Division (MMD) director, joins MI Environment for this Fast Five edition. MMD is responsible for program areas that deal with solid, liquid, medical and hazardous waste; hazardous products; energy; and radioactive materials. The division also leads statewide efforts regarding pollution prevention, recycling, sustainability, scrap tire management, electronic waste takeback programs and radon safety.
Your career at the State of Michigan has included stints as a water quality technician and programs such as water and ground water discharge, Superfund, storage tank, land and water, emergency management and more. What attracted you to work for the State?
I came to Michigan from New Jersey to attend MSU, not really contemplating staying in Michigan as I had always lived on the East Coast. When I graduated, the economy was in a slump and the DNR (at the time) was hiring. With student loans to pay, I happily accepted a job offer and never looked back.
What experiences stands out?
My initial job with then-DNR was a wonderful training ground. We did wastewater surveys and specialized sampling events statewide. It allowed me to see the variety of industry we have in the state - huge auto plants, small plating companies, major and tiny municipal treatment systems, nuclear power plants, etc. The senior technicians who were our mentors instilled some basics that I carry with me today. Always assume what you will do will end up in court - so know the procedures that you are to follow and document if you don't follow them for some reason. Take time to plan your approach and think about what might go wrong and consider contingencies. Find ways to bring humor to the job. Ask questions and seek input from those with more experience. I could go on - it was such a valuable training ground and allowed me to learn about Michigan from Detroit to Bessemer! Of course, interacting with so many dedicated staff everywhere I worked will always be humbling.
How did your background prepare you for your current role?
Initially, having a degree in wildlife management provided a broad-based education that helped me understand the technical issues that arose. Having the great fortune to work in so many different programs across the department has helped me significantly. I was able to gain a broad network of people within the department as well as retain just enough knowledge of the programs in other divisions to know where to go when issues arise that need support from other areas in EGLE. Over time, I was also able to work on things such as public speaking, the legislative and rule amendment processes, working with stakeholders, personnel issues, budgeting, etc.
What will be your focus in 2021?
Like most of us, a lot of my thoughts are about how we create our "new normal" once office work will be allowed. How does MMD look and function under what will most likely be a hybrid system of office and home workers? In addition, how do we support the new people we are hiring into MMD when still working from home? What does training and mentoring look like for staff new to MMD and MMD staff taking on new roles? Working with our stakeholders will continue, especially on Part 115, the solid waste statute amendments and in other program areas as well. As always, assuring that we have adequate funding, equipment and training for staff is at the forefront.
What trends do you see in the world of materials management and where do you see the department going in the years ahead?
Michigan has so much potential to be a leader in materials management - with the great staff in our Sustainability Section/Office of Energy group to help lead the way. That is not to discount our more traditional regulatory programs and how they can look to help businesses become more sustainable during their interactions. Of course, success in the world of materials management relies on EVERYONE being involved. Each of us as generators of material in our homes (and sometimes work places), other EGLE divisions and other departments, communities, non-profits and business all have a part to play. Fortunately, we have seen that there is a lot of interest across all of these groups to find options to allow more sustainable solutions. Our goal is to find ways to provide residents and businesses reliable and close options to move their materials at the end of their initial use and to provide businesses who specialize in reuse and recycling a source of clean, dependable material. The Renew Michigan funding that the legislature has provided, as well as other state and federal grant monies allow us to support efforts to move us in the right direction. This will help us toward a goal of a circular materials economy, hopefully within Michigan, or at least within the Great Lakes region.
Photo caption: Elizabeth Browne (center) at recycling event.