Doing the dirty work, Sharon Kneiss, ’77, has found fulfillment
By Sandra Snyder / For The Scranton Journal
Someone must speak for the garbage.
Sharon Kneiss clearly remembers the day. She and her husband, John, were driving near their Bethesda, Md., neighborhood when yet another driver tried to maneuver around a trash truck.
“My husband actually got out and chided the driver,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I guess I trained him well.”
Not sure she’d have acted similarly, she nonetheless applauds the spousal intentions. Impatient people who cannot wait two minutes while such an important service is performed in their midst drive Kneiss, B.S. Chemistry, ’77, “absolutely crazy,” she says.
Would you expect anything different from the president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association, the Washington, D.C., trade association that represents collectors and managers of waste, waste equipment manufacturers, distributors and other service providers?
“There are 100,000 trash trucks on the road every day,” Kneiss says passionately. “These people are undervalued. When I see how people in our communities react to these people who are trying to do their jobs, quite frankly I’m appalled.”
Call it life imitating work, if you will, but for Kneiss, a North Scranton native who has lived and labored in the Capital Region for much of her life, garbage is not only a career but indeed a way of life. She spends many outspoken days advocating for policies that support the environmentally responsible management of the nation’s trash, and the end game is sustainability.
Because the decidedly dirty industry stands for clean living and quality decision-making, you might liken her work to palliative care for inanimate objects.
“It’s all about how you manage the end of life for products,” she says. “Everybody touches waste in some form.”
Firing the flame
For Kneiss, who started at the University the year after it went co-ed and “at a time when there was streaking,” many late nights in the chemistry building easily could have fueled her passion for the behind-the-scenes life of trash, from birth to death to rebirth. That’s the beauty and basis of recycling.
“I call recycling an innovators’ game,” she says, noting the range of items born of garbage: fleece, carpeting and Trex composite decking, for example, and even recycling bins themselves.
She finds it rewarding to work with such innovators, “down-to-earth people,” and they say the same of her.
Ask Steve Sandherr, CEO at Associated General Contractors of America, the largest trade association for the construction industry in America. He’s one of several Scranton alumni living in the D.C. region and working in senior positions in a trade association.
Though industry issues he and Kneiss face seldom intersect, he says, professional challenges often do. Having known each other for 20 years, they exchange emails and have lunch often.
“She’s sharp, she’s professional, and she’s done a great job of growing her membership and advancing her association,” Sandherr says. “She’s knowledgeable on key issues, which is a key aspect in a job like this.”
Where it all began
To hear Kneiss, also an MBA graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, tell her trajectory, working for the Petroleum Institute in 1988-1989, addressing the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, marked her first steps down the advocacy and policy road.
The RCRA authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to control hazardous waste “from the cradle to the grave,” according to epa.gov. Amendments enabled EPA to address potential environmental problems from underground petroleum tanks. Her work with the institute, among other experiences, might lead a casual observer to conclude she’s been on both sides of issues.
As vice president in the American Chemistry Council’s products divisions from 2006 to 2009, she was instrumental in defeating attempts to ban products in 46 states. She also broke ground with partnerships and campaigns on critical issues. In one such partnership, with California government and conservation groups, she sought to address plastics concerns and achieved a 30 percent increase in favorability ratings among influential residents.
But her positions always have one thing in common:
“I’ve always been on the side of good science,” Kneiss says. “Each industry has its challenges, and the bottom line is each of these industries is trying to do the right thing.”
That’s not to say the right thing always gets the popular vote. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for example, has divided minds in the Marcellus Shale regions of the country. Kneiss is not an opponent.
“Using good, sound and safe methods to extract gas is beneficial from an energy perspective for this country,” she says. “Fracking is, quite frankly, very exciting for this country. … We are bringing jobs back to this country.”
Landfills also get a bad rap, Kneiss says, maintaining, “We need landfills. There is enough gas extracted from landfills to power 1.2 million homes in this country.”
Educating the public – especially about common misconceptions – is part and parcel of Kneiss’ daily life, extending to schools, businesses, trade and other groups as well as her own close-knit, golfing family.
Case in point is husband John. He not only educates – as he did with the impatient driver – but gets educated.
In the home they also have shared with their son Matt, a civil engineer who this year will marry a woman now also getting a golfing education from the green-and-greens-oriented Kneisses, one corner of a counter is dedicated to recyclables. House residents, likely even a 3 ½-year-old doted-upon cat, Fuscus – are expected to know the rules.
One day, however, Kneiss found her husband lining a recycling bin with “killer” plastic bags, which prompted an automatic “What ARE you doing?” gasp upon discovery.
The moral of that story? Everyone makes mistakes, but everyone is teachable. Schools especially do a terrific job teaching recycling these days, Kneiss says. “You have to get to the kids. They’ll take it home.”
For more on the state of recycling today from the perspective of Sharon Kneiss – and to learn why plastic bags are so dreadful – visit www.scranton.edu/alumni/journal.