The Transformation of the Waste and Recycling Industry (Transcript)

February 12, 2020

26 Min Read

[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.


[00:01:34] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Tara Hemmer, Senior Vice President Field Operations at Waste Management. Welcome Tara, thanks for being on the show.

[00:01:44] Tara Hemmer: Yes, thank you so much for having me. It's a thrill to be here, I'm really looking forward to the conversation.

[00:01:50] Liz: Great. Well, thank you. I think to start it would be great for our listeners to hear a little bit about your background and how you ended up in this wonderful industry.

[00:02:00] Tara: It's an interesting story. I have an engineering background, I went to college, got a civil and environmental engineering degree, worked in consulting for a few years and ended up at a consulting firm called, "Camp Consultants" that no longer exists today. But at the time, one of their largest clients was USA Waste Services and I got put on the USA Waste account and really over a two-year time period they became my primary and really my only client.

I was working for the client representative man by the name of Greg Secondo, who's still with Waste Management today. He must have asked me about 10 or 11 times, "Would you be willing to come to work for Waste Management?". Really, at the time USA and Waste Management had merged in this about six months [unintelligible 00:02:56] and thought to myself, "Well, I'll give it a shot, maybe I'll last at Waste Management about five years and go on and do something else." I've been now with the company over 21 years and it's been such an interesting ride, it's a fascinating industry and one where there's so many different nuances and a lot of meat on the bone, a lot of opportunities. Really has been a great career for me like so many others in the industry.

[00:03:31] Liz: That's amazing. What a story and what a company. I had spoken to Susan Robinson a few months ago and she had a similar story. I think once people get there, it becomes home, doesn't it?

[00:03:45] Tara: It does. I was talking to somebody about this recently. I think going back over 20 years, there are a fair amount of people who either grew up in this industry, they were part of a family business that then was acquired by a larger company or they got into the industry by accident. That's one of the really fascinating transformations of our industry and I see it here within Waste Management, it really is now an industry that has evolved and is attracting a much higher level of talent. You're seeing people come to organizations like Waste Management or our purpose-driven brand and really trying to put their thumbprint on trying to change the world through some of our environmental platforms and really some of the social initiatives as well.

[00:04:41] Liz: That's great. The industry has changed so much, I know Waste Management was one of the first companies to refer to what the industry is doing or striving to do is sustainable materials management. I know you're somewhat in the field now, how does that get done on a daily basis and how do you see it progressing into the future? Since I know it is such a big part of the brand and you guys really helped coin that term, by the way.

[00:05:09] Tara: Yes. If you think about Waste Management, our company, we are the largest residential recycler in North America, it's something that our customers are really seeking, sustainable solutions for the materials that they generate and ultimately the materials that we manage, we've taken a leadership position in trying to think through the future of recycling. Obviously, there's been a lot of discussion around the recycling model today and that the recycling model is broken, but there are so many different facets of what's happening in recycling today, some of it's around education and just making sure that we get it right at the curb.

But there's a lot that ultimately goes into how we process those materials that we manage. Then also making sure that there are end markets for those materials, because, at the end of the day, you can put things out at the curb, but if it doesn't get turned into something, an end product, then it really doesn't matter. We've really tried to focus our efforts on driving more demand for recycled content, we've done a lot of interesting things, one of them with Cascade, the cart company, the carts that we put out on the curb, we've worked with them to use more post-consumer content and develop a cart, their new eco cart that we can use. That's a great example of closing the loop in sustainable materials management.

There's so many different things that we're working on, organics is another example and these are discussions and conversations that 10 years ago really weren't happening.

[00:06:57] Liz: Right, absolutely. I did read -speaking of organics- that you worked on a pilot program in Brooklyn. What are you doing now from an organic specific perspective?

[00:07:10] Tara: Yes, organics is something that we really look at on a local and regional basis. The projects that you mentioned in Brooklyn, this is a great example where the city of New York was really trying to think through how can they promote greater organic separation in their residential programs, and then, subsequent to that, they ended up passing legislation regarding commercial businesses.

We saw an opportunity to develop a technology that could take material, like organics, we could put it through a process that we call Core. It takes the organic fraction that comes out of food waste. We can create a bio-slurry that we can truck at very short distance to existing anaerobic digesters -in this case the anaerobic digesters at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant- and convert that bio-slurry to energy.

This is a great example of solving a problem with existing infrastructure and using excess capacity in digesters throughout the country. We've subsequently done that in Boston. The first core location that we had developed was in Southern California in Orange County and we've developed another facility like that in New Jersey.

We're also looking at more dynamic solutions on the West Coast, primarily in Southern California and Northern California. A lot of this is around looking at the specific waste streams, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, I think that's something that's really important. The waste streams on the West Coast are very different than the waste streams on the East Coast with green waste, so developing a targeted solution, understanding the technologies that might be out there that can help us solve some of these issues and really trying to solve some of these issues for our customers.

[00:09:16] Liz: I love how you're saying everything is born out of customer need, I think that's important to note because there is a need there. I know you talked about making it work with an existing infrastructure, which is fantastic, keeps cost down and efficiency. But I know that Waste Management has also recently built new facilities, are those in any parts of the footprint that you oversee? Can you tell us anything about those?

[00:09:44] Tara: Yes. When we talk about new recycling infrastructure, this is something that we're all very excited about. We've taken a leadership position and really thinking through how can we leverage technologies that exist in other industries, and translate them to solving some of our problems related to recycling. We've pilot in, and now it's out of a pilot phase robotics at several of our material recovering facilities.

We have robotics in place in our Houston MRF, some in the Colorado area. Subsequent to that, we've really taken a ground-up approach and we're building the MRF of the future -that's what we call it- in the Chicago area, which really relies on a whole host of different technologies, advanced sorting equipment, ballistic separators, put together and bolted together in a different way to ensure that we can positively sort material out of the stream. Ensuring that we have robust markets for them, that the materials that we're moving out of the stream are marketable.

Then, down the road, as more end markets change or further develop, we can set those systems to sort on different things. You can imagine. Today, for example, where that water bottle, we can sort out because there is a robust market for it on the back end, but in the future when we think about flexible packaging, which has limited to no markets today, if we can develop markets for those in concert with consumer brands and entities that produce their packaging, we could potentially pull that out and send it to its next best use.

[00:11:30] Liz: That would be amazing.

[00:11:31] Tara: Yes, it would. It's something that's evolving and we're planning on continuing those investments. The MRF of the future in Chicago is our first one, but we have several others in the hopper.

[00:11:44] Liz: Great, I can't wait to see what those are like.

[00:11:46] Tara: Yes, I'm sure we're going to get a lot of requests for tours.


[00:11:53] Liz: Yes, you know you will.


Speaking of plastics, I saw that Jim Fish recently talked about your focus on plastics and trying to get them out of the waste stream and -like you're saying- possibly work with brands in the future to continue to do that. Is there anything else happening on your end that you can talk about around plastics? Since it's such a concern really across the US and beyond, globally.

[00:12:19] Tara: It's a really interesting problem and it's one that we were fortunate enough to highlight at the 2019's Waste Management Sustainability Forum held in Scottsdale, Arizona in concert with the Waste Management Phoenix Open. We had National Geographic there, and they really painted a visual picture of the ocean's plastic problem.

Plastics really, if you think about it, they have transformed our lives. If you look around you, there are elements of plastic everywhere that have helped frame, shape and change how we live and how we work. I think what we have to think about is, how do we think a little bit differently about those plastics?

How they're produced? Thinking about the broader model, what are they used for? How are they going to be collected? What are the end markets for them? Can we do some things differently with what are plastics and what aren't? How do we think about the single-use model?

These are all difficult questions, there aren't easy answers, but it's one that I'm confident that if we partner with the companies that produce plastics, the consumer products companies that are selling their products, Waste Management, what we like to say is, "We don't create demand for our ultimate product, we are at the end of the chain, but we're trying to find solutions and serve our customer base". I think we're really well-positioned to really help connect the dots with all of these entities.

You mentioned Susan Robinson before, but we have a number of folks, not just Susan. We have a corporate development and innovation group that's looking at those next-generation technologies that could help solve the plastics problem and issue that we're facing and that the world is facing.

I think the sky's the limit here, I think we're in really early innings on trying to figure this out, and it's something that is going to continue to evolve.

[00:14:34] Liz: Definitely. It's nice to see having an eye to the future, because it's going to require the full supply chain in order to help this issue and this challenge, so that's great news.

[00:14:46] Tara: Absolutely.

[00:14:48] Liz: On a different note, it's really great to see so many strong women leaders recognized at Waste Management, and within the industry itself, yourself included. Do you see a shift as well, as far as the industry as a whole is concerned, as it relates to diversity? Because I know you must have seen a change over the last two decades of your work in the industry.

[00:15:10] Tara: Yes, I can give you the Waste Management view and the industry view, but certainly I would say the industry that I'm in today and the company I'm in today is different than the one that I entered in 1999. Our CEO Jim Fish, he speaks pretty often about how he proactively changed the fabric of our Senior Leadership Team, and our Senior Leadership Team is made up of nine people, three of them are women. If you go back just a year ago, prior to that, there really was never a woman on Waste Management's Senior Leadership Team.

Also, when you think about diversity, we have diversity beyond gender on our Senior Leadership Team. I think that also when you look within Waste Management as a whole, there are a lot more women in operating roles. When you think about the district managers that run our hauling companies, or our material recovery facilities, or they might be routing logistics engineers. That is a [unintelligible 00:16:26] change, I would say there's been a big evolution where you've seen a lot more women enter those roles.

Are we where we need to be with gender diversity and certainly minorities? Absolutely not, there's a lot more work that needs to be done within our industry and attracting that talent into our organizations and into our industry. I think this is something that obviously you can hear my passion for it, our entire Senior Leadership Team at Waste Management is passionate about ensuring that we continue down the path, because this isn't anything that has a finish line, it really is about creating an inclusive environment and diversity is one element of that, so we're definitely considering it a journey.

It’s something that I speak about a lot, I will often be asked to speak either inside Waste Management or outside Waste Management. I look out at the audience and think about how it has changed over the years and that's fantastic. I think that speaks to how our industry is becoming very attractive for Millennials and Gen Z. They really think about our industry as a purpose-driven industry where they can really make a difference, it's synonymous with ultimately, sustainability.

[00:17:55] Liz: Absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head, because it is starting to attract those rising stars who want to work for a company who is doing good. Just walking the walk, to not just talking the talk. That's right.

Speaking of that, there seems to be a real intersection between purpose and profit these days. It seems to be everywhere, the idea of being good global citizens of our planet, which is fantastic. Many companies are finding that doing good is actually great for business. Are you seeing that as well, in terms of real concrete examples of how doing good in this industry and for our planet is serving Waste Management well and its shareholders well?

[00:18:43] Tara: Absolutely. There are so many different examples, but the best example that I can use, it's an example around the environment and around sustainability, has to do with our conversion from purchasing primarily diesel trucks to purchasing primarily natural gas vehicles. This is something that has a clear environmental benefit when you think about the emissions profile of natural gas vehicles versus diesel; it's a fraction of what diesel trucks admit.

Beyond that, we found that there were other very unexpected benefits; one, to our employees, if you think about it our employees are drivers who drive those trucks every day, the trucks are quieter and that was a clear benefit to our employees, they love driving these new natural gas trucks. Also, there's a benefit to our communities, obviously the environmental profile. Also, they're not as noisy; you don't hear them as you would a diesel vehicle.

We've also seen the financial benefits. The financial benefits come in the way of- initially, when we got into purchasing natural gas trucks, you can imagine that diesel pricing was much higher. We were in the four-dollar per gallon range for diesel fuel, while that might not be the case today, we're seeing clear benefits on maintenance that we haven't necessarily expected, where our natural gas vehicles cost less to maintain and operate than their diesel counterparts.

Then, of course, we are seeing some fuel-saving benefit. That's an example where you can imagine when you think about stakeholders that I rattled off; there was a benefit to our communities, there was a benefit to our employees. Ultimately, there was a benefit to our customers when you think about the type of truck that's moving their goods and materials each and every day and then obviously to our shareholders because there was a clear economic benefit.

I think that is one of the definitions of sustainability if it works for many or multiple stakeholders, down the road, it's highly likely there will be a financial benefit.

[00:21:14] Liz: Absolutely, I believe that too. So many companies are starting to realize that, that's fantastic.

[00:21:20] Tara: Yes, there are different places where that's true, when we think about attracting talent into the organization whether it's drivers or equipment operators, what we offer from a benefits package perspective, and what that might mean then for turnover or retaining our employees.

Now, ultimately, we want you to walk in the door to Waste Management and make this place a long-term career where you're able to meet your goals, you're able to move up, progress, learn, develop and offering some enhanced compensation whether that's in the form of benefits.

One of the things that we're really proud of is over the last four years we have not passed on our health care increases to our employees, we've kept them flat. That's a huge benefit that our employees seem and we have been seeing the benefit and turnover where our turnover.

[00:22:25] Liz: I like that, that's huge. I know Waste Management has won multiple awards and I saw you've recently joined Fortune magazine's list of world's most admired companies. I think that's amazing from the standpoint of the industry as well, because to go from an industry that was looked at in a different way 20, 30, 40 years ago than it is now; it shows so much progress to the bigger world at large. How does it feel to work for a company like that?

[00:22:56] Tara: The word that comes to mind when I was listening to your question was, "Pride." I think you can really feel that if you walk the halls of our company. We're really proud of what we do, who we are, how we're trying to evolve our company and that speaks to our commitments and values, being a people-first organization, driving success with integrity, those are our commitments.

If you think about the values that we're trying to drive inclusion and diversity, taking care of our customers, taking care of our employees through their health and safety and then ultimately taking care of the environment. When you think about being an admired company, it speaks to those six things because those are things that we live and breathe each and every day, we're trying to continue to drive and foster that culture.

I think that's one of the reasons why, as I mentioned previously, on Millennials and soon-to-be Gen Z in the workforce, why Waste Management is an attractive place and becoming an even more attractive place for people to work. They're really thinking differently, it's not just about their paycheck. It's about what am I going to work to do today and how am I changing the face of North America.

I had a colleague who recently retired, his name is Steve Murphy. We were once talking about the work we do here at Waste Management, he said, somewhat provocatively, but it's true, "We make living in cities possible." We really do. We move materials and goods safely and efficiently from people's curbs each and every day, and move it to its next best use in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. We're continuing to evolve what that looks like each and every day. That's a vision.

[00:25:02] Liz: What a great vision.

[00:25:03] Tara: Yes. It’s something that we can really talk to our newest employees about too.

[00:25:09] Liz: Absolutely. The fact that everything that you're doing supports that, it's pretty special. Congratulations on that award and all the work that you're doing there.

[00:25:20] Tara: Thank you so much.

[00:25:23] Liz: You're the keynote speaker at our upcoming Global Waste Management Symposium, we're really excited to hear your insights there. Can you give our listeners and prospective attendees an idea of what they're going to walk away learning from your session?

[00:25:40] Tara: I think some of you may have seen the theme of the keynote, which is The Transformation of our industry: Looking Back and Moving Forward, we touched on some of these points through our discussion, Liz. Which is interesting, it's a common thread.

The concepts for my keynote is really for us to take a look back and really look at how our solid waste industry- how far we've come, what we've built, what we've developed, where we are today and really thinking about recycling in the state of recycling.

Then, ultimately, really looking forward and thinking about what are some of those big trends, in my view, there's four of them. Four big trends that we're seeing out there that are going to reframe and make us rethink, "How we build the solid waste infrastructure of tomorrow?” Those trends are around the rise of cities, a global versus local view, social responsibility, then, ultimately, us all being part of one planet in one world.

My hope is to really create a vision for the GWMS's attendees, so that they can have a view of what the solid waste industry of the future might look like and have a lot of hope and optimism about the roles that each and every one of them can play in shaping that vision.

I know that the Global Waste Management Symposium is not contained to just North America, there's so many international folks who are going to be in the audience, but so much of what's happening in North America. If you think about the developing world and other countries, if you think about Asia and Africa, many of those countries are on the same journey that we've been on, they're just at a different point. So much of what we've seen before and what we're going to see in the future is relevant.

I really hope that folks walk away with some optimism, and then going back to my word about Waste Management some pride in the role that they play in reshaping the future.

[00:28:03] Liz: That's great. I think they will walk away inspired, and could be a call to action as well to join and really try to take this vision to the next level and bring it to life. That's great.

[00:28:15] Tara: Exactly.

[00:28:16] Liz: Then, speaking of events I know that you mentioned too the Phoenix Open. I’m still stunned that, that huge event is a zero-waste event. Can you give us any insights on that? I know I saw you speaking about it on the website, but I would love to hear how you guys accomplished such an amazing feat like that.

[00:28:38] Tara: Yes, this will be our 11th period as title sponsor of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. This is another example, when you look back to your one or two and then fast forward to where we are today, I believe this is the 7th or 8th year that we will be zero waste and that has come with some really hard work and thinking about the entire event as a network.

We spend a lot of time working with our vendors that are going to be in the food and beverage space, or in the construction and demolition of the stands that are there, making sure that we're starting with sustainable products that could be composted in the food and beverage space, compostable plates, compostable cups.

Starting with the supply chain to ensure that anything and everything that then is out on course is in a position to be reused, or go to their next best views. That takes a lot of work, a lot of hard work by the Waste Management team, we have a lot of folks who are really dedicated to this. Especially when you come down the homestretch. October, November-ish there are a lot of folks who are really focused on it.

The other thing I'll say is, it's gone even beyond zero waste to really think through other aspects of the on-course experience. Phoenix, Scottsdale, they're in the desert, so water usage is really important, we got really creative when thinking about, "How do we solve for that? What can we do with the gray water that's produced on course? How can we recycle some of the water? What are some of the infrastructure challenges there?" I think it's a great example, we're always looking for that next example of closing the loop.

We have a team of people that is on course each and every day, we have volunteers that come from Waste Management Operations across the country, and even the gear that they use, that they wear every day from a brand perspective. That jacket that they're wearing or the shirt that they have underneath is made from recycled products. Often is from water bottles that have been recycled that are now made into a textile.

We continue to raise the bar and look for those other opportunities and examples for us to take that leadership position, this doesn't mean that this is something that is easy to do or is easily replicated, it's really meant to serve, as a model for what is possible.

[00:31:39] Liz: Definitely, I can imagine what it takes on-site to make sure that people know even where everything goes once they're finished with it. I can only imagine the undertaking, that's very impressive that it really is a [crosstalk] event.

[00:31:54] Tara: It is fascinating. We have education coordinators who are out on-site, zero waste ambassador as we call them. We try to make it fun, because the waste management Phoenix Open is- I will say, it is the best, not just golf tournament but sporting event from a fan experience perspective. We try to make everything we do, even when it comes to zero waste fun out on the court.

[00:32:21] Liz: That's great, good for you. We talked a lot about the industry and how exciting it is these days and Millennials, and Gen Z coming up. What advice would you have for people like that entering our industry our aspirational young professional?

[00:32:41] Tara: I'll go back to when I came on board I started with this in the beginning of our conversation, how I thought to myself, "Well, I'll come to work for Waste Management and maybe I'll stay there five years, and I'll go on and do something else." The reason why I've been here 21 years and hoped to be here for far longer than that, is one word, and it's, "Opportunity."

This industry is ripe with opportunity. It's ripe with opportunity for us to continue to serve customers, come up with new ideas, but it's also ripe with opportunity for folks who really want to learn, develop, and grow. What I would say to somebody new coming into our industry is, "First and foremost be a sponge, learn, as much as you possibly can about all facets of the business and then, of course, do the role that you hired on to do, perform really well in that role."

"Beyond that, look for an untapped or unmet need within whether it's your organization or your discipline, and take a risk, take a shot, build a business plan, a framework, or some other innovative idea and work with your managers and your peers, and see where it takes you."

If you ask anybody in the industry, how they got to where they are today, I can pretty much guarantee, it wasn't straight up a ladder, it was definitely more of a jungle gym. Being open to those opportunities, because there will be so many. The industry is in a transformative phase. Be open to the possibilities that are in front of you.

[00:34:33] Liz: That's great advice for anyone at any stage of their career, really. Tara, is there anything else we should be paying attention to in the world of waste recycling and organics?

[00:34:43] Tara: I feel like there's always something that we should be paying attention to. I would say the one thing that we didn't really talk about is technology. Technology- it really is within the fabric of everything that's going on, within the waste space, whether it's thinking about what happens on our collection trucks from a routing logistics perspective.

Our trucks might be changing the future of work that's ahead of us. What's happening in our material recovery facilities, the future of landfills, technology is such a thread. The digital experience is critically important and that's something that's I know top of mind for us here at Waste Management, and likely others within the industry.

It is something that when you think about attracting talent into our industry, digital talent folks that have strong data fluency really important, and something that's going to transform how we think about waste in the future.

[00:35:55] Liz: Definitely, great point, I'm glad you brought up technology. What keeps you busy outside of work?

[00:36:04] Tara: Well, I have a family, my husband Joe, I have a 13-year-old son, Julian, and my daughter Cassandra is nine. I travel quite a bit with work, and on the weekends or when I am in town, you will find me at one of Julian's swap meets or often at one of Cassandra or Julian's band performances because they are quite musical, as is my husband Joe. I joke with them, that I have no musical inclinations, I am like the band manager in the Partridge Family. 


[00:36:53] Tara: Beyond that, I do enjoy biking.

[00:36:55] Liz: That's great. Don't undermine the band manager, they really needed her. 


[00:37:03] Tara: I guess, I'm the one who makes it all happen and all gels together.

[00:37:07] Liz: Well, Tara, this has been a wonderful conversation. I can't wait for our listeners to hear it, so thank you so much for your time and energy today. I look forward to meeting you at Global Waste next month.

[00:37:18] Tara: So do I. It'll be fantastic and I really appreciate the time, Liz.

[00:37:22] Liz: Thank you.




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