Jim Fish, president and CEO of Waste Management, discusses the MRF of the Future, some of the company’s “big ideas and bold actions” and how the conversation around sustainability has changed.

Mallory Szczepanski, Vice President of Member Relations and Publications

January 31, 2020

8 Min Read
Fish Highlights WM’s 2020 Vision at Sustainability Forum
Waste Management Investor Relations Twitter

Waste Management held its 2020 Waste Management Sustainability Forum on January 30, where speakers discussed key topics in the sector and what can be done to make our world more sustainable.

Jim Fish, president and CEO of Waste Management (WM), kicked off this year’s forum by discussing the MRF of the Future, some of the company’s “big ideas and bold actions,” the company’s people-first culture, the “big, mighty Generation Z” and how the conversation around sustainability has changed over the years.

“Since our first [forum] 10 years ago, I think it’s clear that the definition of sustainability has expanded beyond just the environment; the movement is now inclusive of critical issues the world faces today like diversity, equality and food security,” said Fish.

“I’m excited because looking out at all of you, I realize that this event represents the key ingredient to success in the sustainability movement, and that’s people. It’s our family members, our neighbors, our coworkers, our community leaders, our government officials—all of us are going to be the reason sustainability works. As corporate citizens, we’re starting to reach adulthood in sustainability terms even though we may have gotten a few speeding tickets along the way.”

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Here are some key highlights from Fish’s keynote.

The “Big, Mighty Generation Z”

During his keynote, Fish, who had his two daughters in attendance, focused largely on Generation Z and how they are impacting the world today and how they will impact the world in the future.

He said what excites him most about Generation Z is that they have an unimpeded view of the world, and in their minds, there is nothing we can’t do and there is no “this is the way we’ve always done it” because they’ve never done it that way.

“I know all generations have made their own contribution to society and to the world as a whole … but this current generation is so much different than I was at their age,” he said. “This big, mighty generation known as Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse and largest generation in American history. It’s 27 percent of the U.S. population.”

“It’s a generation that’s very active and vocal about things that matter to them. It’s a generation that’s holding all of us accountable to a higher social standard in many parts of our lives, including at work. And while they generally do not understand my statement that sustainability has to be both economically and environmentally sustainable to be viable for the long term, they will eventually understand that. In the meantime, they’re helping us think in a different way—a way that’s a good thing,” he added.

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Waste Management’s People-first Culture

Fish has been the president and CEO of Waste Management for about three and a half years. And as a leader, he has focused on two main goals: make Waste Management a great place to work (or what he refers to as “people first”) and transition Waste Management from a best-in-class environmental solutions company to a world-class, purpose-driven thought leader.

In regard to the first goal, he said he feels most employees would say that Waste Management is a really good place to work or a really good company, but he feels there is “an ocean of difference between being really good and being great.”

He feels that if Waste Management’s 45,000-plus employees are taken care of, they will, in turn, take care of the company’s customers, communities and the environment, which will translate into happy shareholders.

“It just has to be in that order,” he explained. “If it’s not in that order, it all falls apart, so I hope my legacy when I leave Waste Management and retire is that I helped make Waste Management a great place to work. Providing a great place to work means giving our employees the voice, giving them the necessary tools to do their jobs and giving them a nice work environment. Whether that means trucks, a new training center, restoring a maintenance bay, maybe building a new recycling plant—all of that makes a difference.”

In regard to the second goal, Fish believes that transitioning the company from a best-in-class environmental solutions company to a world-class, purpose-driven thought leader will drive real, lasting change for the world we live in.

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“We think a better world is one with cleaner air, cleaner streets, cleaner cities … I could go down the list,” he said. “We think it includes reforestation and replanting of the trillions of trees that have been cut down over the last 200 years and finding solutions to clean up the oceans. Sustainability makes good economic sense for businesses and industries; it’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have.”

Later this year, Waste Management will move into its new corporate headquarters in downtown Houston, which Fish dubs as the most sustainable office building in the state of Texas. All of the construction materials for the headquarters were selected to embody Waste Management’s vision of a more sustainable tomorrow, and the space for the new headquarters is designed to host more than 1,000 employees and to be consistent with the company’s sustainability and wellness values.

MRF of the Future and Fighting Contamination

In 2019, Waste Management saw a 20 percent decrease in contamination at its single stream recycling facilities, and in 2020, the company will invest more than $100 million in recycling infrastructure for the third year in a row.

This investment comes on the heels of the company’s investment in its state-of-the-art Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) of the Future, which is located in Chicago and began processing materials in October 2019, according to Fish.

The MRF features 14 optical sorters, and Fish said it produces a much cleaner stream on the backend compared to one of the company’s standard MRFs.

“Our goal is to get contamination down to 10 percent in the next five years, and technology will play a big role in achieving that goal,” he said. “We must continue to target the source of recycling contamination, which is truthfully all of us in this room. We’re the source of that contamination.”

In a better world, Fish said the entire supply chain would use recycled materials, consumers would request that the products they are buying are made sustainable and brands would make products and packaging from post-consumer content.

At Waste Management, staff have taken a deep dive into the company’s supply chain to ensure sustainability is top of mind. The company also has signed on to the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ Demand Champions Program, committing to increase purchases of products made with post-consumer plastic.

Carts are one of our largest purchases at Waste Management, so we worked with Cascade, one of our cart manufacturers, to use 10 percent post-consumer plastic in our carts,” he said.

Waste Management’s “Big Ideas and Bold Actions”

Waste Management is aiming to make the world better, and it has developed some attainable goals to do its part to help solve manmade environmental problems. One of those goals is to reduce greenhouse gases that the company controls, like diesel emissions and landfill methane gases. To be specific, the company has a goal to offset four times the greenhouse gas emissions that it generates by 2038, and a big part of achieving that goal is reducing its fleet emissions, according to Fish.

“We have the biggest heavy equipment fleet in North America, and today, almost 65 percent of our collection trucks run on compressed natural gas (CNG). A third of those trucks are running on renewable fuel, which reduces our emissions by over 80 percent compared to diesel,” he said. “By the end of the year, almost 70 percent of our trucks on the road will run on CNG, and by the end of next year, it will be almost 75 percent.”

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Waste Management is also focused on changing the narrative around landfills. Although it’s the biggest landfill company in North America, Waste Management is also the biggest recycler in North America, according to Fish.

In 2019, the company took in 110 million tons of waste at its landfills. That waste, according to Fish, was generated by all of us, not Waste Management. And while the company isn’t creating the waste that goes into its landfills, it is continuously developing and refining the solutions for handling that waste in a more environmentally and economically viable manner.

“Our landfills play an important role in protecting human health and the environment,” explained Fish. “And as the largest recycler in North America, you would expect us to be engaged on complex issues tied to recycling, and we are. We talk about it all the time, but we have so much more that we can and should do.”

Fish ended his keynote by telling forum attendees that the work Waste Management does is very personal to him, and at the end of the day, it’s the only way the company is going to fulfill the challenge of leaving the world in a better place than it found it.

“While sustainability may be the right thing to do for business, it’s the only thing to do for our planet,” he stated. “I invite you all to make it personal and to get connected with your own passion. Maybe get a little angry. Get motivated. Get inspired for my daughters, for your daughters and sons, for your grandkids, for your neighbors, for your planet—all of us will thank you. And maybe 10 years from now, our kids will be up here on stage talking about how they and their friends helped solve ocean plastics or how they saved an endangered species … and that is what I call a better world.”

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Look for more coverage from the 2020 Waste Management Sustainability Forum on Monday.

About the Author(s)

Mallory Szczepanski

Vice President of Member Relations and Publications, NWRA

Mallory Szczepanski was previously the editorial director for Waste360. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago, where her research focused on magazine journalism. She also has previously worked for Contract magazine, Restaurant Business magazine, FoodService Director magazine and Concrete Construction magazine.

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