By Morgan Bryce
Keeping Opelika a clean and safe place to live is Environmental Services director Terry White’s top priority.
As director, White oversees the city’s trash and garbage collection, recycling and animal control departments. Despite the large workload, White says he loves what he does.
“We’ve got good personnel, and I think the best part is dealing with people, which I think is the best part of any job. Working with (city administrator) Joey Motley and Mayor Fuller and having support from our city council also make it a great job to have,” White said.
White, the son of former city of Opelika Public Works director Jack White, grew up in Opelika and graduated from Opelika High School in 1972, before pursuing a Building Sciences degree, which he received from Auburn in 1976.
He and his wife Carol then moved to Birmingham, where he worked in construction for nearly four years. In January 1980, he received a job offer from his father-in-law, who was the founder of Opelika Scrap Materials. Having no previous experience in the scrap and garbage business, he said the chance to go back home to Opelika was one he gladly took.
“It was an opportunity to come home. My parents were here, my wife’s parents were here and we thought it would be great to raise our kids in a small town, and be around their grandparents every day,” White said.
A few years later, Opelika Scrap Materials was purchased by Waste Away, a national trash and recycling service provider, and this job would give White his first opportunity to work with municipal officials.
In his years of working for Waste Away and Waste Management, White worked in several different positions, serving as a sales manager, district manager and most recently as a public services director, covering governmental contracts in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In 2013, while having lunch with long-time family friend and Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, the conversation led to the possibility of White leaving Waste Management and coming to work for what was then called Opelika’s Solid Waste Department. His solid background in the field, along with his age, workload and ties to the area, prompted him to take the job.
“When I first got here, the department needed leadership and to have someone like myself that understood what level you needed to take it to and could take it to,” White said.
Since his arrival, Solid Waste was renamed Opelika Environmental Services in order to re-brand and better describe the department, White said. Other changes included moving to single-stream recycling, which White says has allowed them to increase recycling volumes, and the addition of newer garbage and trash trucks and equipment to help keep employees safer and work more efficiently.
In a short three years, the Environmental Services Department has made quite a turn around, and according to White, they are getting closer to reaching their goals.
“When you move into a situation and you need to change some things, that’s always a challenge. But you want to reach a point where once you get it there, it runs smoothly,” White said. “Another challenge you face is once you get to where you want to be, to keep it there. One of my sayings that I believe and tell my employees is, ‘don’t be a part of the problem – be a part of the solution.’”
Now 62, White has been married for more than 40 years, and has three adult children and six grandchildren. He said spending time with family and friends is the most important thing he does in his spare time.
White did not give a timetable on how much longer he would work for the city, but said his passion for his work is a part of what keeps him going.
“If you had told me that I’d be having this much fun working at 62 years old, I would have laughed. I love what I do and by working later in life, it’s going to force me to stay sharp mentally,” White said.
When he does retire, he said he hopes that his work has made a long-lasting impact on the city he loves.
“When I first sat and talked to the mayor, I told him my goal was to help make Solid Waste the best department in the city and I hope that by the time I leave here one day, we’ll have the Environmental Services department on such a firm foundation that the next 30 or 40 years will be smooth sailing. We’re working on that a little at a time, and trying to lay a foundation for the future,” White said.