Seat at the Table

David Steiner, CEO of Houston-based Waste Management (WM), has a new, part-time job: helping America solve its energy problems. He has joined a group of business leaders and retired senior military officers called the Energy Security Leadership Council; together, Steiner and his high-level colleagues will seek to formulate and promote a comprehensive energy policy that will reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

The council members aren't exactly a collection of Mr. Smiths Going to Washington. Consisting of generals and Fortune 500 executives, the group is well-suited to corral the ears of Congress and help prod our federal government into creating a better energy policy.

“To develop a truly comprehensive strategy to reduce U.S. oil dependence, we need to expand the circle of voices contributing ideas to the discussion,” Steiner said in a press release. “[WM is] both a large energy consumer — having a fleet of more than 27,000 trucks — and a renewable energy producer.”

For an industry that is, for the most part, invisible to the general public, having one of our most prominent members helping address one of the biggest issues of our time is a good moment indeed.

Of course, the Energy Security Leadership Council is right to seek the advice of the solid waste industry, for we have a lot to contribute to the debate. For instance, Steiner's firm has replaced about 500 diesel-fueled trucks with vehicles that run on natural gas. And the company operates facilities that burn landfill gas to produce electricity.

Steiner's presence on the council may mean that waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, which burn municipal solid waste to produce electricity, could get a careful look as part of a new energy policy. According to the Integrated Waste Services Association, a total of nearly 90 WTE sites — including 17 owned by a WM subsidiary — currently produce enough electricity to meet the needs of 2 million U.S. homes. Standards issued by EPA in the 1990s have dramatically reduced the emissions of WTE plants, but they still face some skepticism.

The council has framed the energy issue primarily as one of national security, but it also carries implications for the environment. Because Americans recognize the importance of those two issues, our politicians have begun to as well, especially in light of the upcoming elections. Like the bumper sticker says, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

With the garbage industry donating one of its leaders to help sort our energy problems, perhaps it would now be appropriate to see that sticker appearing on the nation's garbage trucks, too.

The author is the editor of Waste Age