This Cox employee is thinking long-term and big-picture about conservation and sustainability.
Sometimes changes happen so slowly that they’re barely noticeable. Whether it’s a child growing up, a tree getting taller or a paint color fading in the sun, it usually takes a “before-and-after” photo to really notice the toll time has taken – especially if you’re around it all the time.
Change isn't always a negative thing. But Jeff Merritt, a market vice president at Cox Communications in Roanoke, VA knows what it means to witness bad change slowly creeping in.
“I grew up in the Hampton Roads area, and I did a lot of fishing on Chesapeake Bay,” Jeff said. “I lived very close to the waterfront, and I was seeing changes happening around me rapidly. I was seeing pollution in the water; I was seeing the effects of sea level rise and the impacts that storms were having, and I really wanted to know more and do more about it.”
Jeff has only lived in Roanoke for about eight years, but he’s been with Cox since 2000. He’s very active with Cox Conserves (Cox's national sustainability program) as the executive sponsor in Virginia and is the program's co-sponsor for the entire eastern region. To say he’s passionate about environmental issues would be an understatement.
“It certainly helps that my personal passion around this issue aligns so well with the Cox Conserves mission,” he said.
Jeff’s desire to learn more about conservation and sustainability drew him to a graduate degree program at Virginia Tech. He earned his master’s degree in natural resources and global sustainability in 2019. He found returning to school as an adult to be quite a bit different than he remembered.
“I got my undergraduate degree right after high school,” he said. “I'm not going to say it was easy to get the master’s degree, but my passion for the subject matter fueled me, so it didn't really feel like work.”
When he arrived in Roanoke, Jeff learned that no curbside recycling was offered. Never one to sit on the sidelines of sustainability, he got to work on a solution.
“I can't take credit for starting the recycling program,” Jeff said humbly. “But hopefully I've added some value. When I arrived here, there was a quasi-agreement that the county could place one of their containers here at our facility for the community to drop off their recycling. I quickly realized the container’s capacity wasn't meeting the community’s needs. So, I worked with a lot of people on our Cox Conserves team, made good partnerships with the solid waste department and the administration for Roanoke County and we have built that program up significantly over the last seven or eight years.”
To meet the needs of the community, Jeff led the county in purchasing four large, single stream recycling containers, each around 25 yards long. Cox donated the location on the property for the containers.
“There’s a nice little access point for people in the community to drop off their recycling,” Jeff said. “We've worked with the county over the years to help promote it and to secure funding for them within their budget. They collect these seven days a week. So, you're talking 100 yards of recycling collected every single day. We received an awesome letter recently from the county about how our site is the largest one in the county and how they wouldn't be able to do it if it weren't for Cox and the work we're doing here. It really does make me feel good that we were able to find a solution that benefits the community.”
In his professional capacity at Cox, Jeff has many opportunities to speak externally about the strides we’re making at Cox in the sustainability space. He’s been on multiple committees both local and statewide and enjoys sharing ideas with others.
“It's been an honor to rub elbows with some other companies and talk about things that we're doing and to learn what they're doing,” Jeff said. “We are starting to think about environmental topics on a broader scale. We’ve got our Cox Conserves initiatives and we’re making great progress with them. When we consider that we're serving these localities that are influenced and impacted by climate change, we have to be resilient ourselves. We have to look at ways that we can adapt our business to support the communities we're serving. This has all been a good opportunity for me to lean in on various infrastructure initiatives and participate from that perspective as well.”
As far as Jeff is concerned, the biggest environmental issue Cox is facing falls into two categories: What impact are we having on the world, and what impact is the world having on us? We address the former with our initiatives in reducing our carbon footprint, reducing the amount of water we use and keeping waste out of landfills. As for the latter, Jeff feels that is just as challenging.
“We serve a lot of areas that are impacted by climate change in different ways,” he said. “Wildfires out in California and extreme heat and drought in the Southwest are a real issue. There are stronger and more damaging hurricanes along the Gulf and east coast. Even sea level rise...I just read a report that Norfolk has the highest rate of sea level rise along the entire east coast. New Orleans is already several feet below sea level.”
So how does Jeff think we should tackle these issues?
“We're a multi-generational family-owned business that thinks about these things in the long term, and we've got to make decisions today that'll affect us positively ten or twenty years down the road. I think that's the biggest challenge and opportunity that we have at Cox."
The changes occurring on and to our planet seem to be coming exponentially faster – so fast they’re hard to miss. But with people like Jeff on the job, we’re confident we can affect change for the better.