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How To Prepare For Environmental Emergencies: Q&A with Stericycle’s Maricha Ellis

StericycleStericycle Environmental Solutions deploys emergency response teams when disaster strikes their clients, whether that means a large vehicle fleet owner with a fuel spill, a pharmacy chain with multiple locations flooded by a hurricane, or a retail location that has fireworks going off inside.

Operating largely in the continental US with some responses taking place in Canada and Puerto Rico, Stericycle’s team works with contractors to be on site within two hours of a call to the company’s 24-7 call center, barring any major roadblocks. Stericycle also notes that all of their personnel and subcontractors must have proper safety and health certifications, followed by regular audits and evaluations.

The company helps organizations facing a large-scale event, says Maricha Ellis, vice president of marketing and sales operations for Stericycle. “A little bit of pre-planning goes a long way, and so does having a partner that understands the regulatory environment and how to navigate that.”

We recently caught up with Ellis to learn more about the risks that environmental emergencies pose to businesses, and how corporate leaders can be better prepared when the worst happens.

What are the most common environmental emergency calls Stericycle receives?

Most are natural disasters — you probably heard a lot about Hurricane Harvey last year — earthquakes, tornadoes. We’ve dealt with fires, fuel spills, chemical spills. Sometimes when trucks are traveling, if they have an accident or turn over, we have a DOT hazardous materials scope. Fuel spills are probably the most common occurrence. Large operators of vehicle fleets often have an accident.

How does Stericycle get involved?

We’ve responded to thousands of environmental emergency calls over the last several years. We’re largely helping folks navigate the regulatory environment surrounding those situations, the protocol for how you can clean up, contain the material, and dispose of the material.

Segregation is big in hazardous waste — making sure the materials are in proper containers, in secure locations, and ultimately go to their end disposal in a manner that meets regulatory requirements of the EPA, the DOT, and all of the regulatory agencies.

What are the biggest challenges for businesses?

For business organizations dealing with hazardous waste and extreme weather, one would be that communication capabilities can be compromised. It’s important to have a plan pre-natural disaster. All locations should be aware of what’s going to happen because you’re probably not going to have the chance to get out a lot of communications once that disaster hits.

Another mistake organizations make is not ensuring that the waste is properly secured or segregated prior to a natural disaster.

What could happen if organizations don’t take precautions?

You can incur a lot higher cost from the event. Government agencies can get aggressive with fines, particularly with companies that they feel have failed to prepare. You could incur additional damage to your properties and stores. Materials can combust. The chemical impact can be environmental, it can be a safety issue, it can harm your facility.

With all of the corporate social responsibility, organizations have to be aware of how a lack of preparedness can look like lack of caring. That can cause lasting brand damage.

Which best practices do you recommend?

It’s a three-tiered strategy. Companies should be aware of keeping waste in proper containers at all times. If you get sloppy with your segregation, it’s going to make it more difficult in an emergency response situation.

Second, be prepared. Have a response plan in place before you need it. And finally, use a reputable service provider that has the experience and expertise to help you navigate the regulatory environment during a difficult time.

How can organizations better prepare?

Having a protocol and response plan in place prior to an actual disaster is critical to a successful recovery. Stericycle has agreements with organizations to provide their emergency response services. Part of that is coaching organizations on a protocol and response plan, and training their folks.

There are also steps to minimize the effects of a natural disaster. For instance, you would handle an earthquake differently from hurricane flooding. In the event of an earthquake, you don’t want any release of materials outside of your facility. In a flood, you’d want to elevate containers.

Do you have a client example?

One recent event is Hurricane Harvey. Some of our customers are national retail pharmacies. If you have flooding, pharmaceuticals are going to be loose or floating in the water, and that can present environmental and public health hazards. We’re able to help the retailers contain those hazards, segregate the waste, and move it off the property so that it doesn’t pose a violation.

The outcome is getting those retail locations back online and servicing the community quickly. If we’re able to facilitate the proper segregation of waste and cleanup of the store, the retailers return to business and it helps consumers start rebuilding their lives.

Are there situations where the correct response to a disaster might not be obvious?

The segregation of the materials is probably a bit less understood. Honestly, in some of these disasters, everything just looks like waste that should be put in a bin and taken away. In reality, some of those things need to be segregated from each other and properly disposed.

We have a nationwide network of experts, facilities, equipment, and subcontractors. Managing hazardous waste through our emergency response services, we find the proper disposal outlets and we help onsite with the segregation so that it is going to the right place.

Have you noticed changes in how businesses approach environmental disasters?

One of the things I see now is an openness to talk about preparing. This is kind of like life insurance. When people are in their 30s they really don’t want to talk about life insurance, but people in their 70s are very interested in that type of service. Companies are interested in strategizing on a successful disaster response.

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