Cultivating a Green Image

Through a range of environmental initiatives and an effective ad campaign, Waste Management has fostered the solid waste industry's green consciousness.

It is common these days for companies to "go green." But Waste Management Inc. (WM), the largest U.S. waste firm, argues that it, along with the rest of the waste industry, was green long before green was cool. The Houston-based behemoth has decided to accentuate the green aspects of its business while building a marketing program around its particular brand of environmental responsibility. "We want to change the image of the trash industry," says Lynn Brown, WM's vice president of corporate communications. "We really aren't trash companies anymore. We're environmental companies."

To highlight that point, WM has set about proclaiming in its advertising that its environmental bona fides come from extracting materials from the waste stream and putting them to use. Useful materials include recycling commodities that provide raw materials for manufacturers; gas produced in landfills that generates electricity and powers motor vehicles; trash for waste-to-energy (WTE) plants; used electronic devices with components that can be recycled; and much more.

In 2007, WM generated 49 percent of its revenue from services that extract useful materials from the waste stream.

Recycling Now, Plus More To Come

WM processed or brokered (paying to tip at someone else's material recovery facility) 8 million tons of recyclable commodities in 2007. By 2020, the company expects to nearly triple that amount to 20 million tons.

Its subsidiary, WM Recycle America, recycles more municipal solid waste than any other recycler in North America, operating 105 material recovery facilities (MRFs) serving municipal, manufacturing, commercial and residential customers. Processing is handled at Recycle America MRFs. Alternately, WM hauls the brokered tons to MRFs owned by other waste firms for processing.

Recycle America will lead WM's recycling growth by increasing the number of advanced technology single-stream MRFs. According to company officials, single-stream processing produces an average increase in recycling amounts of 30 percent.

While manufacturers have voiced concerns about the quality of recyclable commodities recovered, advancing single-stream technologies are driving down rejection rates. WM Recycle America says its single-stream rejection rates are averaging 33 percent lower than recycling facilities using other processing methods, including dual-stream processing.

WM Recycle America also has introduced a nationwide electronics-recycling program in partnership with LG Electronics USA Inc. The program currently offers 150 e-waste drop-off sites across the country. Consumers can drop off LG, Zenith and Goldstar brands of televisions, monitors, audio equipment, VCRs, DVD players and recorders and other accessories free of charge. The program also will accept e-waste from other manufacturers for a modest charge.

According to Brown, the company is developing recycling programs for materials that have not previously been accepted by most recyclers. “We've invested in four facilities that will recycle compact fluorescent bulbs,” Brown says. “The plants will extract the mercury from the bulbs and recycle it along with the metal, plastic and glass. We also have a pilot process to recycle shingles into asphalt. In this case, we'll market the end product, something we don't ordinarily do.”

Generating Green

WM extracts more than recyclable commodities from the waste stream. It also burns trash to generate energy, while capturing methane from its landfills that can be burned to produce energy.

Through its Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary, WM is a major producer of renewable, green energy from waste. Wheelabrator converts enough municipal solid waste to energy (WTE) to power 650,000 homes every day, potentially saving nearly six million barrels of oil per year.

Renewable WTE produces other environmental benefits. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, each ton of solid waste processed for fuel eliminates the need to mine a quarter ton of coal. Moreover, each ton of trash burned in a modern WTE facility avoids one ton of carbon dioxide emissions.

As the largest operator of landfills in the United States, WM is expanding domestic U.S. energy supplies with landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) technology. One of WM's newest LFGTE facilities provides the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., with 80 to 85 percent of its energy requirements.

The company currently operates more than 100 LFGTE projects, with 60 new facilities scheduled to come on line by 2012. At that point, the company's LFGTE facilities will generate enough energy to power 570,000 homes per day and offset the use of nearly 2 million tons of coal and more than 6 million barrels of oil per year. WM also intends to begin providing local governments and waste industry companies with technical consulting services that will help manage LFGTE projects at other landfills.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, municipalities and private companies operate more than 535 landfills across the country that could host LFGTE projects. Those projects could generate more than 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy.

In 2007, Wheelabrator's 16 WTE plants, LFGTE facilities and third-party facilities processing brokered materials produced enough electricity to power 1 million houses. The company's goal is to double that to 2 million houses by 2020.

Running in the Green

Efficiency gains in fleet operations will help WM conserve even more fuel. Through 2017, for instance, WM expects to spend an average of $450 million per year on its fleets and heavy equipment. Much of that spending will go toward the goal of improving fuel efficiency by 15 percent, which would save about 350 million gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million metric tons.

The company even is looking at producing its own fuel. Just this year, WM announced an agreement with Terrabon LLC to invest in that company's unique waste-to-fuel conversion technology. Under the agreement, WM also will secure organic waste streams that Terrabon will use to produce high-octane gasoline using its MixAlco technology, an acid fermentation process that converts biomass into non-hazardous organic bio-crude that can be refined into gasoline and blended with conventional oil refinery products.

From Landfills to Land Preserved

Over the years, WM has striven to transform landfill properties into community amenities, including environmental education centers, golf courses and recreational facilities. Among the most innovative uses WM has found for landfills are wildlife habitats. The company has partnered with the Silver Spring, Md.-based Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) since 2001 to ensure that its landfills/wildlife habitats are properly designed and built.

As of 2007, the partnership had produced 24 WHC-certified wildlife habitats, totaling 17,000 acres that WM manages in partnership with the communities it serves. WM plans to increase its total certified wildlife habitats to 100 by 2020. Land set aside will grow to 25,000 acres.

Pitching the Planet

Waste Management is using its environmental efforts as a theme for the company's “Think Green” marketing campaign. According to Brown, the campaign is aimed at civic-minded opinion leaders.

“The components of the campaign include print, online advertising, radio and television commercials, and a special program for kids through the Discovery Networks and Discovery Education,” says Charles Kaylor, WM's senior director of marketing.

But how effective has the campaign been? “We do reputation studies twice a year,” Brown says. “The goal is to determine how aware the audience is of WM and its sustainable activities as well as the levels of favorability and trust they have toward the company. The results show dramatic increases in those indicators over the past four years.”

There is no shortage of companies advertising their sustainable, green credentials today, inside and outside of the waste industry. And why not? It's one of the most effective ways to get people to notice you today. As Brown points out, Waste Management wasn't really working for the benefit of the rest of the industry when it decided to begin building a pubic brand around its green philosophy: extracting value from the solid waste stream.

But the industry has benefited. Waste Management pioneered a green brand that has since become a model for waste handlers everywhere. Virtually any solid waste company that goes beyond collection and disposal into recycling collection and processing, WTE, LFGTE, composting and other environmentally beneficial activities can now don that green mantle. Waste Management just did it first.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

Related Stories

The Elephant In The Landfill

Houston-based Waste Management Inc. recently provided a nominally priced lease for 300 acres in Okeechobee, Fla., to the National Elephant Center. The center will use the land to operate key conservation programs for 77 North American zoos that house 290 elephants.

Among the services provided to the zoos, the center will provide population management, artificial insemination and breeding services, conservation programs, and training for keepers, curators and veterinarians. Research based on these programs will aim to save endangered Asian elephants as well as African elephants living in the wild. For more information, visit

The center's land sits adjacent to property that Waste Management maintains as a nature preserve certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council. The preserve provides food and nesting areas for threatened Florida sandhill cranes and other species. About 900 acres of open space separate the National Elephant Center's land from Waste Management's nearby sanitary landfill, which serves the surrounding communities.

More Green Facts About Waste Management

One of the advantages of marketing yourself as a green, sustainable company is that you can slice and dice the statistics that you keep to produce all manner of interesting green facts.

For instance, as North America's largest recycler of household-generated materials, Waste Management recycles enough newspaper, office paper and cardboard in the course of a year to save more than 41 million trees.

Here's another: By recycling more than 40,000 tons of aluminum each year, Waste Management saves enough energy to run 1.6 million televisions for 13 hours a day for a year. The energy saved by recycling a single aluminum container will power a television for three hours.

How much material is Waste Management talking about? The company managed 7.67 million tons of commodities in 2008. It would take 99,000 Boeing 737 airplanes to hold that much tonnage. Also in 2008, the company managed enough recyclables to fill the Empire State Building more than 11.4 times.