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How I Became Passionate About the Circular Economy

Melissa Rusinek headshotWords by Melissa Rusinek
Energy & Environment
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In the U.S., 81 percent of Generation Z say they’re looking for purpose in their work, according to a recent report from American Express. Many are finding that purpose in the corporate responsibility and sustainability fields. As this next generation enters the workforce, we wanted to find out what draws them to careers in this space, so we are publishing a series of personal essays from young professionals, whether they are millennials or Gen Z, to learn about what their new corporate responsibility or sustainability careers mean for them.

I began my academic career at Nassau Community College on Long Island, New York, studying liberal arts and advanced mathematics. I then transferred to CUNY Baruch College with the intention of becoming an actuary, but ended up obtaining my bachelor’s in public policy with a focus on New York City’s government. I held internships with the NYC Council as well as the U.S. Senate, where I had the opportunity to work on constituent affairs and legislative research.

My first professional job was at a boutique government relations consulting firm with a wide breadth of clients seeking strategies to navigate through NYC government. There I worked as a scheduler and office manager, liaising between clients and public offices, and enjoyed the relationship management aspect of job. My next role was with another government relations consulting firm that focused on security and public safety. In this role I provided clients and management with policy research, analysis of current events and assistance cultivating long-term strategic partnerships.

Most recently, I worked in the membership department at a trade association that represents the financial industry. The commonality between these jobs was client relationship management and the intersection of the public and private sectors. Although I enjoyed the high-level themes of my work, I was seeking to make an impact and support organizations that proactively design sustainability into their operations.

On a personal note, Earth Day is my birthday, I practice yoga, I try to minimize my consumption, dispose of items responsibly and I find myself concerned with the unnoticed effects everyday lifestyle choices. I wanted my work to reflect my values. In an effort to understand sustainability issues better – and gain some credentials in this field – I  decided to leave my Wall Street job when I was admitted to graduate school.

Recently, I obtained my master of science in environmental management and sustainability from both James Madison University and the University of Malta. This dual degree took place in Malta and emphasized cross-cultural project management, system dynamics and integrated technologies for management.

Graduate school completely changed the way I think about sustainability issues, and equipped me with a toolkit for analyzing environmental management challenges and implementing holistic solutions. Malta is a country that struggles with water scarcity, and also has had to take on several water pollution challenges.

Upon reflecting on my time in Malta, my takeaway definition of sustainability is “seeking to balance environmental, social, and economic issues within a cultural context.”

Throughout our coursework we examined various case studies about sustainability, including the fashion industry’s impact, which ranges from social and economic issues to environmental devastation. It’s clear the apparel and textile industry is particularly unsustainable in terms of its waste and freshwater use. The culmination of my graduate work – my thesis, which is published here – is a qualitative analysis of traceability technology (as in blockchain) integrated in textile supply chain management to enhance sustainability by mitigating risks and capitalizing on circular economy opportunities.    

My aspiration is to address waste diversion issues in a meaningful way. The circular economy offers one solution to waste management challenges, which are intrinsically linked to other sustainability issues such as water scarcity and social justice.

What I’d love to see included in this conversation is the fact that everyone can win with circular economy solutions. This does not need to be a zero-sum game. Who pays for landfills? Who pays for environmental remediation when there’s an emergency? Taxpayers.

Who needs clean freshwater? Everyone.

Waste is a huge and very unsexy issue. I want to harness my experience in the overlap of the public and private spheres and client relationship management and integrate it with my recent academic investigations. Ultimately, education (what to do with “waste”?) and consumer behavior change (consume less, dispose responsibly) is critical to whatever system we adopt. Now, I’m seeking to develop and support business cases for circular systems with an emphasis on proactive design choices that consider requirements for all stakeholders.

Image credit: Ricardo Bernardo/Flickr

Melissa Rusinek headshotMelissa Rusinek

Melissa Rusinek has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from CUNY Baruch and an international master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability from James Madison University and the University of Malta. She has eight years of government relations consulting experience in New York City where she worked with clients in various industries on diverse issues.

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