Long-time waste industry veteran Bill Caesar has seen the industry from several angles, from his time as CEO of WCA Waste Corp. and a top strategy and recycling executive at Waste Management Inc. Now as operating partner of Generate Capital he’s bullish on the opportunities in sustainability.
He outlined his views with his keynote address on “Sustainability is Good Business,” for the Sustainability Talks forum at WasteExpo.
His remarks focused on three primary points. The first is the tailwinds supporting the growth of sustainability. Numerous stakeholders are making it happen, he said.
“Consumers are pushing to be more sustainable.” Younger people are making enough noise that they want sustainability that brand owners are listening and fundamentally changing the way they think.”
Next are shareholders, particularly big institutional investors who are managing funds for people who want things done in a different way.
Regulators are increasingly coming on board, although it depends on the environmental attitudes of each state. “Those with a lot of support are generally making things easier.”
Next, investors are now seeing the importance of climate change and sustainability. “That’s not who they were a few years ago,” Caesar said.
Then there are the C-Suite crowd – the top business executives running companies. “They are starting to see the advantages and opportunities.”
“These are big changes and core things,” he added.
Other factors strengthening the sustainability cause include numerous technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics making things easier. There are better auditing practices. The amount of capital being invested is impressive. And perhaps most importantly, the people making money are interested in sustainability.
Caesar’s second major point is the emergence of a wide variety of business models. Himself he’s seen 50-60 different business plans. You can electrify, build a renewable facility or engage in circular economy tactics.
Focusing on waste-specific sustainability models, Caesar explored a variety of areas with potential. Municipal solid waste (MSW) to energy, with steady promise; textile recycling, where there’s recycling demand for the PET that goes into it; auto shredder residue, where there is “a pile of money.”
Construction and demolition (C&D) waste to energy has not really taken off in the United States like it has in Europe. Scrap metal sorting is more valuable when like materials are kept together. Electronics recycling remains a large market. Specifically, electronic vehicle (EV) battery recycling stands as a wild card. “Not sure how it’s going to play out,” Caesar said. With the lifecycle of the battery not full known, “it may not be for 20 years.”
Chemical recycling is a technology with a lot of demand. “There’s at least 30-40 companies trying to figure it out.”
Lastly, tires. “They are actually a big problem. There will be someone to figure it out.”
His third area of sustainability focus is organics. “There’s a great deal of opportunity – and challenges,” he said.
It’s an area where he hasn’t seen a lot of models. But with so many governments having large diversion goals, those can’t be achieved without a strong organics program.
What needs to be done is to change consumer attitudes about organic waste. Organics represent 40 percent by weight of the material that’s landfilled. In the most recent year there was 65 million tons of food waste generated, and 52.4 million of that went to landfills.
“There’s clear environmental consequences to landfilling food waste.” With the amount of greenhouse gases that creates, “If you could handle food waste it would be the equivalent of getting a third of all cars off the road.”
About $43 billion will be spent in 2024 on food waste management, Caesar said, but it remains a perplexing problem. He gave an example of the Harvest Power Inc. and its anaerobic digester in Orlando, with Disney World as its major food waste supplier. The highly touted facility ceased operations in 2020 and the assets were put up for sale. “I don’t know why it failed,” Caesar said.
Conversely, Generate Capital is operating a successful anaerobic digester in the Toronto area. “Communities willingness to pay has absolutely changed,” he said. “Corporations have set strong sustainable goals.”
Technology improvements have made picking out valuable materials easier. Officials determined that food expiration dates are often arbitrary, so that material can be used.
He said he’s getting three to four times what fossil fuels are getting, and overall he’s tripled his investment in the facility.
“There is a way to make this work.”
Ways include capturing methane from landfill gas generated by organic waste. Composting from green waste then can be used as a soil amendment. The material can be converted to biogas or renewable natural gas (RNG) or bio-based chemicals. And certain materials such as expired milk are valuable products for animal feed.
Generate Capital also is successfully operating a commercial-scale food waste digester in Fremont, Mich. He’s learned better about what needs to go into the digester than five years ago. He’s considering generating gas from the facility and adding the production of lactic acid from feedstocks.
“We basically bought it idle. It was going to be scrap. The game has fundamentally changed.”
Answering audience questions, Caesar said inertia is the biggest challenge the waste industry faces to fully taking advantage of sustainability opportunities.
Knowing the material you are taking in is critical to success. “Guys going after mixed waste will be more successful than those going after one item. It’s hard to get only one thing.”
A major variable is trying to change consumer behavior. He said viewing success on that in the past 10 years, it’s been measurable but not considerable.
“I’m a little doubtful about how successful we’ve been and how much we can be. The system needs to be robust enough to handle contamination. But were much better at sorting that material.
“Economic incentives will drive this rather than doing the right thing. My view, it’s truly sustainable only if it’s economical.”