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Episode 137: How ESG, Emerging Pollutants & New Regulations are Changing the Face of Landfills (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:27] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Jim Little, Executive VP of Engineering and Disposal at Waste Connections. Hi, Jim. Welcome, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:38] Jim Little: Hi, Liz. Thank you. It's an honor to be on.

[00:00:42] Liz: Jim, we normally start at the beginning of the show, so I'd love to hear a rundown of your backup. 

[00:00:49] Jim: Well, Liz, I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. Grew up thinking that I was going to be in the oil business. I went to college and got a geology degree. Went on to grad school from there, and as it was in 1985, when I was finishing grad school, the oil patch went into a rough time.

I went back to Pittsburgh and got into the fledgling environmental business at that time. That was pre-Subtitle D, I joined a small consulting group there, and worked for companies that no longer exist. BFI, Waste Management, and several small waste management companies around Pennsylvania and that part of the country for a few years. I was recruited into a company called Chambers Development Company, which was headquartered in Pittsburgh in 1989.

In about 1994, that company became the root company that is today Waste Management. The smaller USA Waste company merged, and bought Chambers Development Company, and then there was a rapid consolidation in the industry where, I don't know how many acquisitions we did over the next five or six years, that culminated in the purchase of the old Waste Management company out of Oak Brook, Illinois, and then it was USA Waste for a brief period of time, and then rebranded into the Waste Management that we know today.

In 1999, I was invited to join Waste Connections. Is a very small company, I think we were about $60 million of revenue back then, in Sacramento, California. I moved my family west and became the VP of Engineering for Waste Connections back 22 years ago.

[00:03:05] Liz: That's amazing. You've really seen this transformation firsthand.

[00:03:10] Jim: Yes. As I noodled on how the keynote would go, really, I thought long and hard about how the rate of change is similar to what it was when I first got into the industry. As I said, I got in just before Subtitled D, but there were the discussions-- there was a lot of thought going into it, and it was imminent.

So many things were changing in industry at that point in time, it was a fast and furious period of years. Really other than Title V, and air quality changes that occurred in the mid-'90s, things were pretty quiet in the industry from a rate of change standpoint, up until the last couple of years. This reminds me of then with new technologies and regulatory schemes and regimes, and investor interest. It's all pretty exciting times to be in this business.

[00:04:15] Liz: It is. That's such a great comparison, because I think you're right in terms of the state of change and where we are now relative to back then. I want to ask you about the keynote at Global Waste, but I know you mentioned that you had a degree in geology. How has that helped you with your work within the industry?

[00:04:38] Jim: I would say that the hard sciences tends to probably make you a little more skeptical, if you will, than what I see in other trainings or what you would see in engineering, and other folks. I guess we're taught to be extremely skeptical about answers, approaches, results. I think that that's served me pretty well over the years.

[00:05:13] Liz: I bet. You are the keynote at our upcoming Waste360 Global Waste Management Symposium. I'd love to hear more about what your session will cover, and what you think will be some key takeaways for the attendees there.

[00:05:29] Jim: Yes. Well, it's interesting. Tara did a fantastic job of talking about mega-trends, and how the younger generation and all these other influences, ESG and climate change, are influencing our industry and our outlook about how we need to position ourselves number one, and then, what our duty is to develop infrastructure and facilities that we're going to meet the needs of the next 20, 30, 50 years.

I sit here now, having done this for 35 years, and it's almost like a blink of an eye. You don't tend to think in terms of 10 years or 20 years, but having looked back on it now, it all happened very fast. 

[00:06:25] Liz: I bet.

[00:06:26] Jim: Yes. I think what the audience could expect from a practitioner, a technical person, regulators, and policymakers that attended. It's probably going to be more of a blue-collar discussion than Tara's keynote where she talked about climate change and macro-environmental issues.

I think I'd like to focus on the things that we're really doing at the site level, the planning, and development level as a corporation, not just talk about what Waste Connections does. I think more as an industry, what we do to prepare ourselves for things that are happening very rapidly around us.

Not just ESG, but obviously packaging responsibility that we've got new stakeholders that are emerging, and involved in the industry. Our outlook on what infrastructure and what services we need to provide is changing and evolving with that.

[00:07:45] Liz: Absolutely. I know you talked about possibly covering emerging pollutants as well. 

[00:07:53] Jim: Yes. I want to remind people why we have landfills. It's an interesting thing as we've spent the last couple of years with a very renewed interest from investors on ESG to remind them that we're in the E business.

We're an environmental company, and the reason that we have landfills is to sequester hazards or pollutants or things that we don't want in our environment. 35 years ago, that might've started out as benzene, toluene, and other simple compounds that you didn't want this from a gas station clean up. Now, today we're talking about some very significant emerging pollutants. Obviously, PFAS, and the fluoride compounds.

There's a great deal of interest around sulfide compounds, and not just nuisance level problems, but health problems that can come with those. The designer and permitter of these facilities is challenged at a much higher level than what we were two decades ago for sure.

[00:09:17] Liz: Definitely. Well, that'll be great to hear about. I just read that PFAS, and PFOA is being categorized as hazardous waste now. Will you cover that as well, Jim?

[00:09:32] Jim: Yes. I think give enough of an introduction to the [unintelligible 00:09:38] will walk away understanding what the challenges with it. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the science of it, but certainly, we'll address it. Yes.

[00:09:49] Liz: Okay, great. Then, like you said, talk of ESG and sustainability it's everywhere now, especially with the renewed interest from investors in Wall Street. How is that guiding your work, and how Waste Connections is operating now? Like you said, we've always been the E, we've been the first environmentalist. How do you think the renewed interest and spotlight is changing things for everyone?

[00:10:16] Jim: Again, it's a rate of change sort of thing that's occurring right now. There are numerous disclosure vehicles out there right now, and some investors want you to disclose in one fashion, other investors want you to disclose another way. We're navigating right now what we feel is the most important thing to do, and be responsible in doing it. Tara touched on that a little bit, as I recall, in her keynote as well.

It's imperative now, it's part of our everyday. It's not something that is going away anytime soon, and it impacts both our capital planning and just the-- I'll call it the tactical operation of picking up trash, recycling it, what we deliver to landfills and what we don't. 20 years ago, or even a decade ago, those things weren't so much part of the conversation or considerations for us.

[00:11:31] Liz: Right. So true, and like you said about technology, that's really sped up this process, and I know with the pandemic, a lot of people said the waste industry went ahead 10 years instead of two. I know you've personally seen that, and Waste Connection recently installed robots in your Pennsylvania facility. How's that going? What do you think about the way the technology has evolved, and how it's working for you guys?

[00:11:58] Jim: We have seen game-changing technology in the last few years and certainly, as it impacts recycling. I think we're up to 36 or 38 robot installs now across our fleet, not just in Pennsylvania. They're working amazingly well, and they perform quite well. There's also advancements in several other areas within the recycling plant itself, to the point where the plants are becoming very close to autonomous, and it's a pretty neat thing to watch.

The single stream, or co-mingled going the front end, and really the quality of the backend is just amazing now, compared to what it was even four or five years ago. Optical sorters have become much better. Our new screen technologies are pretty exciting. Much like the discussion around emissions monitoring with satellites and things like that. I mean, these are things that we never would have imagined 10 years ago.

[00:13:15] Liz: Absolutely. It is astonishing if you look back on it like that. Wait, you grew up near Pittsburgh. Are you a Steelers fan? I have to ask.

[00:13:25] Jim: Yes, I am. I'm regretting that they're going to Kansas City on Saturday though.

[00:13:31] Liz: [laughs] I can't believe Big Ben said what he did. He was being honest, but that's not a way to round up your young guys. I feel like he should be motivating them, but it's his [unintelligible 00:13:43] song, I guess [laughs].

[00:13:45] Jim: Yes, I guess we'll give him a pass for his last game. 

[00:13:48] Liz: [laughs] Exactly. Well, good luck. I'm rooting for Kansas City because my son's a huge Kansas City fan, but I will always love the Steelers. Tomlin's great. I just think the organization is amazing, and a lot of other franchises could learn from them.

[00:14:04] Jim: Yes. It's pretty easy to be a fan.

[00:14:06] Liz: [laughs] Big time. I don't know, maybe you'll get Aaron Rogers next year. Let's see. 

[00:14:11] Jim: I'll keep my fingers crossed.

[00:14:13] Liz: [laughs] Totally. You've seen a lot, Jim, over the years, like we've talked about, and I'm sure you've had your share of mentoring good people, and the state of change is just evolving and moving quickly. We always like to give advice to young people entering this industry, especially since we just announced or about to announce our 40 Under 40, what would you tell people coming into this industry now relative to when you started?

[00:14:43] Jim: That's interesting. When I entered the industry, it was a dichotomy of you had a lot of very old school managers, and they ran landfills and ran operations. I don't want to say they were unsophisticated or uneducated. Most of them were very smart, and resourceful people, and certainly they worked very, very hard.

The industry, now I see what I'll call a much more professional management of the industry, and for young folks getting in, it gets in your blood and it's really hard to get out once you're in. There are so many challenges and so many different ways of doing what we do, that it's absolutely a different challenge and different adventure every week, every month, there's always something different to do. I would say, probably, chosen well, and you probably won't get out.

[00:16:00] Liz: [laughs] I love that, and that's a good thing, right? [laughs]

[00:16:06] Jim: No, it's a wonderful thing. So many of us old-timers looking around and laughing at each other about how we managed to venture into the industry, much like my story. Then 30 years later, there's an enormous amount of camaraderie in the industry, not just in the engineering space, but also among operators.

It's amazing how we get to know each other, either through conferences like GWMS, or other events, whether they're [unintelligible 00:16:46] events, and it's just a really cool thing to spend 20 or 30 years and get to know so many people so well, and it's like every event you go to it's like old home week. I can't imagine other industries being like this. I just can't.

[00:17:07] Liz: No, it's certainly special. I haven't been in nearly as long as you have. I'm going on 10 years, and when I first entered, I said, "Okay, it might not be glamorous, but it's certainly recession-proof, and boy, did I-- not only is that true, but beyond the glamorous part, there are so many interesting pockets, right around sustainability, around recycling, around entrepreneurs and grassroots people who at heart are brilliant thinkers, and they just get things done, and the connection like you're talking about is amazing.

[00:17:42] Jim: Yes. Well, there's something in it for everybody. When you think about the business we're in, it touches everybody. From our customers, to communities, obviously investors, obviously the folks that work for the companies. There's so many different facets to the business, and as I said, no one way of doing all of those things. So it provides a cornucopia of opportunities for people. I think it's very unique.

[00:18:26] Liz: It is, and I think there is something to be said today about people looking to be part of an organization that has purpose, and cares about the environment. I think it attracts younger, smart people now too.

[00:18:40] Jim: Yes. I've got to tell you our next generation that here is a great group of young people. I mean, we spend a lot of time as a company celebrating, and I'll call it being family, and it's really cool to see this group, and imagine what they're going to be doing 20 or 30 years from now.

[00:19:02] Liz: I can't wait to see it; it's going to be amazing. Jim, because you are such a pro, and expert in landfills, I have to ask because people outside of the industry often say we're running out of land. What do you think? What solutions are helping?

[00:19:18] Jim: Well, look, there are obviously people out there working on evolutionary-revolutionary technologies that may allow us to make fuels out of a lot of the cellulosic material that's out there. We as a culture have been able to convert those materials to liquid fuels for almost a century now, or maybe a little more than a century. Somebody is going to crack that nut, and figure out what's inside it.

It's not going to be the answer to everything. I do think that there are some technologies out there that at some point will get enough legs to take some of the pressure off of the landfills. The landfills will still be needed and still be there for sequestration of hazards and pollutants that we don't want in our environment. Tara talked about the regionalization and urbanization and she's spot on. Even in a COVID world, that's what's occurring. The remote small landfills, they're struggling to keep up, and so regionalization is continuing to happen is the cost of operating those smaller sites gets higher and higher.

[00:20:49] Liz: That's a good point. Then, how do you feel about the political acceptance of it? Do you think it's worse now? Or people have come around considering that we're educating them around being a safe landfill?

[00:21:05] Jim: I think it depends on the group, on the receptor. I will tell you that the investor, since we have started talking about ESG, and what the landfills mean and sequestration of pollutants like PFAS, or carbon for that matter, and the impact that they have on society. I think, even among the youngest of the investors that come and talk to us, they walk away with a little bit of a light on. Like, "Wow, I never thought of it that way", it's all part of the same ecosystem that is recycling, whether it's election and separation of organics composting, there's no one answer that solves the whole problem of waste management.

[00:22:04] Liz: Right. That's so true. It is an ecosystem, and we have to pay attention to all and treat them all. I love the way you think about that. Then Jim, what else are you paying attention to in waste and recycling? I know you have your eye on a lot.

[00:22:21] Jim: Well, I think the regulatory environment is moving very rapidly with the packaging industry. Now, as I said, getting involved as a stakeholder. We're keeping our eye, I think, on a more larger processing facilities, more automation in the processing facilities to try to drive costs down in that part of the business.

It seems apparent to me that in the next five to 10 years, a lot of pop-down regulation from the federal government is going to drive a much healthier conversation around recycling. What is recyclable water? What are we using in society that isn't recyclable? Those are healthy discussions, and I think folks will become naturally more educated as we have those honest discussions about what's recyclable and what isn't.

[00:23:40] Liz: Absolutely. I know you guys are pretty aggressive in your sustainability targets, and your reports that you put out. How are you tracking to those?

[00:23:51] Jim: Very well. We're still a very acquisitive company, we're growing fairly rapidly still, which is a good thing for the return-oriented investor, but almost all of the acquisitions that we're doing these days have a recycling component in them already, which is sort of unique. Even dialing back five years ago, you didn't find that higher frequency of companies having their own recycling capabilities. It's definitely the feeling of change in that regard. I think, again, as the federal government pushes a top-down regulatory regime on packaging and recycling in general, it's going to put more legs under the recycling community, which is great. It's a great business.

[00:24:57] Liz: It is, and if that is what helps spur that in that infrastructure, that's fantasy.

[00:25:02] Jim: Yes, that's what's given us the-- it's pushed us along to look at some of our larger markets, and construct our own processing capacity. That, and just frankly, the technology improvements have helped perform us, help us see where our capital investments will payout.

[00:25:28] Liz: That's great. Then Jim, I have to ask, because you're in Waste Connections, and you've grown up in this industry. I've always been so impressed with the way that Ron viewed Servant Leadership, and the way that your whole company embraced that. Is that part of the ethos that you see and that you try to put out to your team?

[00:25:50] Jim: Absolutely. The most important thing that we can do people-wise right now is retain good people, and it's hard to do in this environment. Young people, in particular, have a lot of options available to them, and so the culture, and having them come, and feel like they're part of something bigger, and part of, again, we maybe overused the term, but family, is very valuable and very important in retaining young people who, as we've seen statistics, they expect the young professional to change jobs eight times now, and their career, whatever that math is.

That's pretty daunting when you've got to think about the time and effort to train, and develop, and make them an important part of your system, to have them just pack up and leave. That goes for our drivers, and our blue-collar workforce as well. Finding drivers, finding folks to do virtually any job. Mechanics is difficult. We really put an emphasis on culture, and having our managers understand that they need to have an open-door policy, and treat everybody like they want to be treated.

[00:27:20] Liz: Absolutely. I think it's the only way to succeed now. I love that you guys have done that, and I've always lived that. It's amazing to watch, quite an example.

[00:27:32] Jim: Yes. I don't think most people understand how intentional you have to be to make it work. It is work, it would be great if it was just one big party, and you didn't have to fly all over the place, or have folks fly here to do things, meetings and trainings where we spend a lot of time as a management team with as many people in the organization as we possibly can.

[00:28:06] Liz: It's amazing, but that's why it works.

[00:28:09] Jim: That's why it works. Yes. Exactly.

[00:28:11] Liz: Kudos to you guys. I know beyond the work that you're doing, you also are on the board of ERF. Can you tell me a little bit about how you help them and your thoughts on that wonderful organization?

[00:28:26] Jim: Yes. I think it was 2008 when I joined the board. I had been on some of the technical review committees, and helped review proposals and that sort of thing. I was asked to come on board, and it is an incredible group of people. I think the board composition now is somewhere around 16 or 17 people, most of them are executives from around this industry and a few other vendor service-related industries, but the dynamic is an amazing thing when you get all these people in a room and there's virtually no self-interest. We're all of the mind that we want to promote what Lonnie Poole and others in the industry envisioned back in, I think, 1990, or maybe a little before that, when they first founded the Corpus at ERF.

ERF now has a corpus and investment vehicle that's around $12 million. The balance sheets as high as it's ever been. Our outlays for education, our outlays for scholarships and for research are all running at the highest levels they ever have, which is how I measure the success of the organization, not just in what we see at events where Brian and his team, Caitlin and others get out, they promote the organization so well and represent the organization so well, but it's really on the accomplishments themselves.

[00:30:28] Liz: Absolutely. Like we talked about earlier, they're evolving along with the industry, and really leading with science backing it, which is amazing, and just what the industry needed.

[00:30:41] Jim: Yes. Brian, and that team, as you probably know, Brian was [unintelligible 00:30:48] scholar before he became our CEO of the organization, and just couldn't have picked a better person to lead, and lead change. He does an amazing job.

[00:31:03] Liz: Love that. Well, thank you for the time that you give them and the help, it's awesome that you're doing that. Jim, I know we're running out of time, but is there anything else you want to share before I let you go?

[00:31:15] Jim: I look forward to seeing all my comrades at arms. As I said earlier, we don't get together all that often anymore, but when you know so many people, it's really a fun time to get to see everyone. So I can't wait to get together again, especially post-pandemic or whatever we are right now.

[00:31:36] Liz: Exactly. Well, it'll be great. We're still on, the numbers are looking good. People are coming and I know they're really looking forward to seeing you, so thank you again. I look forward to meeting you in Palm Springs soon.

[00:31:49] Jim: Yes. Thank you. Same.

[00:31:51] Liz: All right. Thanks, and good luck to your stealers.

[00:31:54] Jim: We're going to need more than luck.

[00:31:57] Liz: [laughs] You never know. It could be the upset of the weekend.

[00:32:01] Jim: It would be, believe me.

[00:32:04] Liz: All right. Thanks, Jim.

[00:32:06] Jim: Thank you. Take care.

[00:32:08] Liz: You too. Bye-bye. Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast, and if you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun, Nothing Wasted Podcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.

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