Episode 126: A Chat with WM’s First Chief Sustainability Officer (Tara Hemmer)

Liz Bothwell, Head of Content & Marketing

October 18, 2021

In this timely episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Tara Hemmer, SVP & chief sustainability officer, at Waste Management (WM).

We spoke with Tara about the power of partnerships to move the needle on sustainability, the role of next-gen technology, how people make it all possible and more.

The company recently released its 2021 Sustainability Report, furthering its agenda to propel WM forward and encourage its customers, industry, and others to make progress on sustainability.

Take a look at what we discussed:

Waste360: Your new role of chief sustainability officer really is the first of its kind among the larger public companies in the industry. What made you and Jim [Fish] decide this is the right time for the role?

Hemmer: It’s interesting for us because if you look at our journey, we’ve been producing an environmental report before they were even called sustainability reports—since 1993. So we’ve been on this journey for a while, related to transparency and measuring key metrics. But, when Jim and I talked about it, we are really at this crossroads when we think about broader trends happening in the world. And you look at the diversity of our customer base…all of them are asking for more sustainable solutions, not only today but 10, 20 years from now. So we took a step back and said, ‘we’re in a great position to offer these types of services in a consultative and collaborative way’…so, what better time to have a senior leader focused on it and really work very closely with the entire senior leadership team. This is absolutely a team sport. 

Waste360: Could you tell us more about WM’s recently released 2021 Sustainability Report?

Hemmer: When we were thinking about out how to frame the report, which covers the year 2020, we really [felt] that 2020 was about our people—and so the title is “The people behind our progress.” There were so many things that happened day-to-day, week-to-week, month-t0-month, thanks to our almost 50,000 employees in North America…in the most challenging year in our history…and the fact that we were able to drive significant change in our environmental framework and with our customers and communities, and of course from a social perspective with our people. [All of] that happened because there was clarity of focus around what we wanted to accomplish. Our people tackled challenges in 2020, and had to adapt to things we never really thought possible. So the fact that we made progress on inclusion, equity, and diversity; reduced fleet emissions; made progress on measuring landfill emissions; increased the recycling on plastics quite significantly with the backdrop of all the challenges…it just gives me such optimism for the future.

Waste360: Could you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing in recycling considering it has changed considerably since the last time we spoke?

Hemmer: What we started to see in late 2020 and early 2021 is that brands really wanted more recycled-content material. And some of the investments we made in our facilities let us look for those types of materials that companies were needing —such as polypropylene. Our polypropylene capture is up over 37% year over year, and we were able to sell that into markets. The other key piece in 2020 is that we increased our plastic capture by more than 25% and were able to help many brands make progress on their goals.

Waste360: We’ve spoken before about how this industry has been an environmental leader and that a lot of it is about communication and showing what you’re doing. Is that part of your plan as chief sustainability officer?

Hemmer: Absolutely. The work that we do each and every day is at the heart of sustainability. Sustainability is in our DNA, and once you have conversations with folks — whether it’s your neighbors or your customers — about the complexities of the waste industry and what happens to their materials when they discard them…it really opens peoples’ eyes to all of the things that happen behind the scenes.

Read the transcript here.


About the Author(s)

Liz Bothwell

Head of Content & Marketing, Waste360

Liz Bothwell is head of content and marketing for Waste360, proud host of the NothingWasted! Podcast, and ghostwrites for others to keep her skills sharp and creative juices flowing. She loves family, football, her French bulldogs, and telling stories that can help to make the world a more sustainable place.

Follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

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