For the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, tables and chairs were set up for a large luncheon on Tuesday, Sept. 28, in the south corridor of the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing. The furniture signaled the return of the ISRI Michigan Chapter’s annual legislative reception, where ISRI members build relationships with lawmakers and discuss current issues in the recycling industry.
Matt Sowash, lobbyist at Michigan Legislative Consultants (MLC), the chapter’s lobbying firm, says the event provided Michigan Legislators with a welcome feeling of normalcy. “I was talking to the senate majority leader’s office, and this was the first time they’ve had tables and chairs in that wing of the Capitol since the pandemic,” he says. “They remarked how nice it was to hear conversations in the hallways again.”
The chapter and MLC worked to ensure the event was as safe as possible for recyclers and the 67 legislators in attendance. “We had to be creative from a logistics perspective because of this year’s unique challenges,” Sowash notes. Boxed lunches were provided instead of a buffet (as in previous years), and other precautions were taken to keep everyone safe and comfortable.
Sowash felt the event was a success and credits much of it to ISRI members. “The representation from the member companies is what really drives attendance,” he said. “The legislators want to connect with people either from their district, near their district, or those who employ people in their district.”
Located in the hallway between the offices of the state Senate majority leader and the minority leader, the luncheon began as a Senate session was letting out and before a House session started. “We made it as easy as possible for legislators to attend the event,” Sowash stated.
Todd Jousma, Michigan Chapter president, was struck by how engaged legislators were with ISRI members. “I think it was a success,” he says. “I found that more this time around legislators were reaching out and asking if we had any hot topic issues that they could help us with. They were very polite and asked us a lot of questions.”
Tony Levin, the chapter’s past president, had a similar positive experience. Representatives who hadn’t seen him since the pandemic remembered him and ISRI. “We’ve held this event for several years, and many of the legislators who come back each year remember ISRI and remember us as individuals,” he says. “I think that gives our industry credibility when we’re discussing issues and [shows] that we’re not fly-by-night type business people. Our representatives know we’re a resource to lean on when they have questions about issues that come across their desk.”
Prior to the luncheon, MLC hosted an advocacy training event for ISRI members at the firm’s office. During the morning meeting, Sowash and Danielle Waterfield, ISRI’s chief policy officer, presented on legislative topics, talking points, and key issues for members to be aware of when speaking to lawmakers. “We wanted to make sure members understood ISRI’s position and activity on some of the headline-making topics in states that are impacting the recycling industry and the strength and goals of One ISRI in advocating for recyclers’ interest on these many multi-commodity spanning issues,” Waterfield says.
Sowash and Waterfield also provided members with general background and understanding of the legislature. They reviewed the make-up of the Michigan Legislature, what the sessions entail, and any legislation that could impact the recycling industry. “These types of events are about relationship building,” Sowash states. “We placed the focus on individual member companies connecting with the legislators in their districts, rather than focusing on a specific issue or concern.”
At lunch, ISRI members shared their concerns with their representatives including logistics, transportation issues, and labor shortages. “I found myself talking about the labor shortages and transportation difficulties we’re having now,” Levin recalls. “Representatives and senators we met with were eager to hear about those issues and hoping they could do something to address them.”
These topics are not just relevant to Michigan recyclers; they affect the entire recycling industry. “These types of events demonstrate a strong alignment in the industry,” Levin says. “Legislators are hearing a little of the same message from different ISRI chapter members at the luncheon. It helps them realize that these are important issues for ISRI and the industry as a whole.”
Jousma noted how cultivating relationships with representatives can help highlight the essential nature of recycling. “When you build those relationships and invite representatives to your yard, it can be very eye opening for them,” he notes. “It can leave a lasting impression because what they think of recycling initially isn’t what they see on our worksites. It’s an opportunity to show the impact our industry has on local businesses as well as the environment.”
When recyclers share their stories and place themselves in the context of local businesses, it helps legislators recognize the value of the industry. Representatives are often aware of local businesses or may be business owners themselves. “It can help legislators connect the dots,” Jousma explains. “You’re doing business with the same people or companies that they know so it can make for a stronger relationship when they see we’re a part of the same chain.”
Much of the continued success of the Michigan Chapter’s events and training is due to members’ ongoing commitment to advocacy. “It comes down to the engagement of our members,” Sowash says. “Legislators are busy, they have a lot of issues they are juggling, so having their constituents come to Lansing to meet them at their workplace—the Capitol—demonstrates a level of importance for our issues.” He adds that the Michigan Chapter prioritizes this event and training for ISRI members. “It’s both a financial and time investment for the chapter, however, year after year the Michigan Chapter leadership has made it clear that this is important and something that it needs to do.”
Making initial connections with legislators helps lobbyists during follow-up discussions. “In the one-on-ones I can connect legislators back to their conversations with ISRI members,” Sowash explains. “I’ll remind them, ‘You talked about this issue with Tony, or with Todd, or a different local business, and this is how this specific issue would impact their businesses.’ The advocacy efforts play well into what we do when issues arise.”
Jousma says there’s nothing quite like building relationships with state lawmakers, and connections will help in the future. “Take the time and meet your representatives, it will leave a lasting impression for when you do need to ask for help with an issue.”
Featured photo courtesy of Tony Levin. Caption: ISRI members out front of the Michigan State Capitol. Left to Right: Josh Padnos, Tony Levin, Sam Padnos, Joel Conn, Brendan Bolhuis, and Steve Bolhuis. Front row: Kari Bliss. Body photos courtesy of Danielle Waterfield. First body photo caption: ISRI member Kari Bliss and lobbyist Matt Sowash talking with Rep. Luke Meerman and his wife. Second body photo caption: ISRI member Rich Wallace chatting with Sen. Jeremy Moss and Sen. Rosemary Bayer.