Packard retires from solid waste post

Phyllis Packard was in the minority when she took a job in the solid waste industry 16 years ago.

"It was pretty much a man's business," she said. "I didn't come in with diamonds and high heels saying, 'How do you run a landfill?' I came in with boots."

Packard, the solid waste director for the Vermillion/Yankton Joint Solid Waste System, retired June 18 after nearly two decades in the industry.

While she was one of few women managing landfills and recycling centers at that time, Packard said her male counterparts welcomed her in like family.

"I helped them and they helped me. We learned from each other," she added.

While today the industry is still very male dominated, Packard is proud of her part in trying to break down the stereotype that women cannot work in the solid waste industry. She is also proud of her role in making the industry cleaner and safer in South Dakota.

"Something most people do not know is that there are only 15 landfills in the entire state," Packard said. When she started in the solid waste industry nearly 20 years ago, the state had somewhere between 150-200 dumps.

"South Dakota was right with the game in that they got their own rules in and had primacy over EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA's rules were, in many ways, very over the top for a place like South Dakota," Packard said.

But her success in the solid waste industry is far from what many people expected from her.

The Massachusetts native earned her bachelor's degree in fine arts from Syracuse University. She practiced silver smithing, weaving and ceramics with the intent on working as a full-time artist.

In 1968, she ended up in South Dakota teaching weaving and fiber arts courses at the University of South Dakota until fiber arts were removed from the art department's curriculum.

For nearly 20 years, Packard found jobs teaching art at colleges and schools around the state. She even worked at the Mike Durfee State Prison teaching prisoners tapestry and weaving.

When Packard heard that USD was giving scholarships to women to study politics and government, she decided to earn her master's degree in public administration.

Upon graduation, she got a job as the solid waste senior planner for the Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Council (SIMPCO). Packard was introduced to how solid waste and recycled goods were managed in South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska — and it was quite different from what she had grown up with on the East Coast.

"We had to recycle, and we had an amazing recycling center," she said. "It was rather second nature to me that one should recycle."

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that public recycling was started in South Dakota, with Vermillion housing the first recycling center in the state. Part of Packard's job was to develop recycling into a normal habit for South Dakotans.

In 1994, when she became the solid waste director for the Vermillion/Yankton Joint Solid Waste System, Packard used her East Coast mentality about recycling and her knowledge of the arts to help her succeed in the industry.

But today, Packard's life has switched gears yet again. She helps her son, Aaron, manage LumoStudios and Gallery, a yarn, spinning fibers, fine arts and gift shop, as well as a photography studio, in Vermilion.

In her retirement, Packard hopes to dedicate time to weaving cloth and spinning yarn — two passions that have been put on hold.

But she is not ready to cut ties all together with the solid waste industry. Packard plans to do some consulting, as well as stay involved in solid waste industry through politics.

Recently, Packard won the Democratic primary for the Clay County Commission. She is looking into other avenues in which she can still be an advocate the solid waste and recycling industry, too.

Most of all, Packard wants to make sure she does not lose contact with the people she has met along the way.

"The whole industry is filled with phenomenal people. I already miss them," she said.

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