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MN VOICES | Susan Hubbard — beyond the Eureka decade, still working for zero waste in the Twin Cities
Fast-talking and intense, Susan Hubbard is a great interview: she has a lot to say and lots of facts and citations to back it up. Hard work and intensity go way back: while majoring in journalism in her hometown Oswego State University, she went to work for the local newspaper, sold ads, wrote stories, and also managed a coffeehouse.
I talked to Hubbard a few weeks ago. She left her position as CEO of Eureka Recycling ("I put a ten-year limit on CEO-ness and started the transition two years ago and it went smoothly.") a couple of months ago and is trying to "breathe a little bit" as she looks around for her next move.
TCDP: So what's this about living in a garage and working for a newspaper?
Hubbard: When I was in school, I didn't have a lot of money. So there was a — they had kind of turned this garage into a unit. It had a sink and stuff, but no heating system. I had an electric blanket. My mom lived about 12 blocks from there. I really just wanted to be on my own. It was fifty bucks a month. [Hubbard says it wasn't as bad as it sounds — she could always go and sleep at her mom's house when it was too cold.] ...
My dad is a construction worker - union guy, worked as a steel worker. My mom was kind of a stay at home mom until she pretty much had to go to work. They divorced, and she worked for the city. She was an amazing researcher. I learned a lot from her about research. ...
This couple - Pete and Ruth Kaplan ... ran this cafe that was a social gathering house for political stuff. It was like a moth to a light for me — a coffee shop, I grew up drinking coffee with my mom. Here's a coffee shop, a hotbed of activist issues. I had never met a Communist, and the Communist party would meet there, the socialist party would meet there. ...
I learned how to run a business and how to talk to people. I wasn't a scholar. I wasn't a big smartypants. I learned how to file quarterly taxes. They showed me how to do it. It was like the best class I ever had.
TCDP: And the newspaper?
Hubbard: I was originally a stringer on a per-inch basis ... I was constantly following ambulances and sirens - I would try to get there and get a story. I was in college, so if there were protests at the nuclear power plant, I would go ... I went down to Women's Peace Encampment, got a front page story with picture. I interviewed Bella Abzug and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Eventually, it turned into a job. Shortly after that, the paper went down - the other daily paper was bought by Gannett, they dropped ad prices so low that all the ads went there, and there was no way to keep paper going.
TCDP: So what did you do then?
Hubbard: [In the winter] I went to Florida, waiting tables, and there were gigantic piles of stuff. Reminded me of salt piles in Oswego. But this is Key West. So I found out — it's incinerator ash. I asked "What's an incinerator?"
I asked, "What? You can't burn a steel can? Can you?" And the guy was explaining - and I kept asking. ...
I asked, "Isn't this at sea level?" The guy is like - yes, sometimes the whole thing just washes out.
So this is my dawning of my last career - that's how I got into this. ...
I ended up in Arkansas. I worked for Bill Clinton when he was governor. I was a recycling coordinator. That's before anyone knew he wanted to do anything.
Thirteen or fourteen years ago" Hubbard left Arkansas — where "recycling was up to 40 percent!" and moved to Minnesota.
Hubbard: St. Paul had a community-based recycling program. [It was the] Neighborhood Energy Consortium then, and it's the Energy Connection now
That was an interesting organization. All the community councils came together and created an organization to try to do something for the whole city. ... Over time, community councils have been decimated by lack of support, lack of funding and huge responsibilities to watch the never-ending growth. The idea was they came together as volunteers for their community and really wanted to make a change about the environment.
Recycling started on a neighborhood level [and then the] city picked it up because it was growing so fast - about 25 years ago.
Hubbard went to work for NEC
The county was closing down the recycling center where things went to get reprocessed. There was only one other place to send stuff. I realized Waste Management Inc. was going to buy [that place.] The place wanted a five-year contract extension. I recommended against it. I also put in a non-assignment clause, so the contract [with the recycling center] would not be assigned if it was sold, and NEC would have the option to get out after one year.
While I was gone on vacation, they signed the contract [with the recycling center]. Three hours afterward, the company was sold to Waste Management. [Then] Waste Management wanted a 40% increase in price and there were no competitors.
NEC took the year and created Eureka as a non-profit alternative.
We had to raise $5 million dollars and find a site and do all this in just a year. The community came together. ...
Eureka paid back the [start-up] loan with interest and paid the city of St. Paul $3.3 million over past ten years. The city pays about $2/household for pick-up, and Eureka is in the black. Eureka's CEO salary is $60,000 max — not what other CEOs are making. None of the management at Eureka gets paid like private companies. [Instead], the profits got shared back with [cities with Eureka contracts, including St. Paul, Roseville, Lauderdale and St. Louis Park.]
That forced Waste Management to start bidding with revenue share, too.
BFI had a processing contract with Minneapolis; the city picks up and delivers [recyclables.] Minneapolis had been paying BFI to process materials that Minneapolis delivered to them.
BFI and Waste Management and Eureka competed for the last Minneapolis contract.
That's first time that BFI and Waste Management ever offered a revenue share — they offered less than Eureka. Minneapolis saw the disparity and put it back out for bid. Then BFI and Waste Management went up, but not as much. So Minneapolis put it out for bid again. [City council member] Sandra Colvin Roy would not agree to Eureka, because they didn't have experience. When they put it out for bid a third time, BFI then matched the Eureka bid [and got the contract.]
And the future?
Even in her current in-between-jobs state, Hubbard is busy with "projects," including consulting work and finishing up some transition bits at Eureka. She is committed to a zero waste vision — transforming the economy so that products are designed for re-use and recycling, and consumers can more effectively make conscious choices to reduce waste.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: We hope that, among her many commitments, Susan will have time to write occasional articles for the Daily Planet.]
© 2012 Mary Turck