Speakers sparked conversations on the state of recycling, plastics, climate change, manufacturing, the evolving role of CEOs and more.

Mallory Szczepanski, Vice President of Member Relations and Publications

February 3, 2020

13 Min Read
Insights from Waste Management’s 2020 Sustainability Forum

Last week, Waste Management held its 2020 Waste Management Sustainability Forum, where speakers came together to discuss some of the issues impacting the world today and what steps can be taken to resolve those issues.

The event, which drew more than 800 people, featured six keynote and panel sessions as well as three breakout sessions. 

"We are all here today to drive a conversation around our vision for sustainability," stated Tara Hemmer, senior vice president of operations at Waste Management, in her opening remarks. "Our progress will be our legacy for our people and for our planet."

Here are some insights from the forum.

The State of Recycling

Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, kicked off the “Recycling Demand/Demand Recycling” panel by discussing the state of recycling. He started off by explaining that contamination is the root cause of what happened in 2017 with the economic downturn and China and other countries cracking down on their policies for importing recyclables. Fast forward to today, he said Waste Management has been working to combat contamination by ensuring customers know what items to place in their recycling bins.

“In 2019, over 5,500 bowling balls and 50,000 propane and helium tanks went to our facilities,” he said. “There’s also about 30,000 pounds of batteries that come through every month and about 10,000 car batteries every year. However, the good news is on the contamination side, we saw a 20 percent reduction in 2019. So, some of our efforts are paying off.”

Waste Management has a goal to lower its contamination level to around 10 percent by 2025. Some of its efforts to reach that goal include investing in recycling infrastructure, upgrading facilities, adding technology and robotics to its facilities and continuing to invest in the communities it serves.

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The company has invested more than $200 million over the last 24 months into these efforts, and it opened four recycling facilities—one being the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) of the Future in Chicago.

“The facility in Chicago is designed to be the most efficient from a quality and labor perspective. … We’re excited about the future of recycling and about the technology that’s going to help us get to the next level,” said Bell.

Bell went on to say that in addition to safety, the movement of where the company’s material goes is one of the most critical elements of the business. A couple years ago, China was accepting nearly 30 percent of Waste Management’s materials (mainly mixed paper and cardboard), and today, according to Bell, that number is less than 3 percent.

“The good news is we’ve found some other alternative markets, and now about 80 percent [of our material] goes to North America,” he said. “What’s even more impressive is that 100 percent of recycled plastics from curbside programs stays domestically, so I think we’re going to see that domestic material movement grow as paper mills continue to invest in the U.S. That will provide more jobs domestically as well as an outlet for our recycled materials.”

Currently, the blended value of all the materials that go into Waste Management’s recycling stream is about $31 a ton. Old corrugated cardboard is about $20 a ton on average and mixed paper is about $0. Bell said in some areas, you have to pay to get rid of mixed paper, so it’s important the industry starts buying more material made from recycled content.

On the supply side, municipalities have set goals to increase diversion and recycling rates, and according to Bell, there are two steps to recycling. Step one is to put the right items in the recycling bin, and step two is to buy material made from recycled content.

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On the demand side, brands have set goals to use recycled content in their products. However, in order for those brands to meet their goals, Bell said we need to generate three to four times the amount of plastics we generate today.

“For the first time ever, something surpassed aluminum in the recycling stream with a higher price, and that’s natural HDPE [high-density polyethylene]. That happened because the demand is there,” explained Bell. “If we can do that with commodities like cardboard and mixed paper, we will see the economics come back and help the programs that need help today.”

Transforming Manufacturing

Shawn State, president of Pratt Recycling; Brent Heist, head of global packaging sustainability at Procter & Gamble; and JoAnne Perkins, vice president of Cascade Cart Solutions, shared how their companies are being more sustainable as well as some of the goals they are working to achieve.

State started off the discussion by sharing that Pratt recently opened a new 100 percent recycled fiber paper mill in Ohio, and adjacent to that mill, it’s building a state-of-the-art corrugated plant.

“In addition to that nearly $300 million investment, we’ve made investments over the last couple of years in California, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Virginia, with one of our most recent investments being a recycling plant in Texas,” said State.

“We built our first mill in the U.S. in the early 90s, and we now have five mills,” he added. “There’s plenty of supply today, and as the markets go up and down, we’re seeing more and more folks get into recycled fiber paper mills. So, we’re going to continue to grow, and we think the supply and demand imbalance will settle out. We also see e-commerce being a big segment of our business, as that continues to grow and creative packaging folks switch from material that’s more difficult to recycle to material that’s easier to recycle like paper.”

Insights from Waste Management’s 2020 Sustainability Forum

Heist shared that Procter & Gamble has a goal to have 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2030. As the company defines the recyclable system, it’s very specific about the fact that it has to include collection, processing and end markets for materials.

“Last April, we added onto our goal by committing to reducing our purchase of virgin petroleum derived plastic by 50 percent by 2030,” he said. “When we launched liquid Tide in the late 1980s, we launched with PCR [post-consumer resin] content, so there was recycled content in Tide bottles from day one. It’s now becoming a case where you have to have it because retailers are asking what’s in the packaging they are putting on their shelves.”

Procter & Gamble also has a long-term vision that its starting materials will be 100 percent from renewable or recycled sources, but, according to Heist, the company doesn’t have a timestamp on reaching at goal because it’s not sure when it will get there.

Perkins, together with KW Plastics, announced the debut of Cascade’s EcoCart, which is manufactured with 10 percent residential curbside plastic and bulky rigid plastic.

Insights from Waste Management’s 2020 Sustainability Forum

“We consume a lot of plastic, and we’ve sold Waste Management 22 million carts that are being rolled to the curb each and every day,” said Perkins. “Those carts have mainly been made from virgin HDPE plastic or recycled carts, but we’re excited that items like laundry baskets and kitty litter containers are now being used to create the recycling carts of tomorrow.”

This effort goes hand-in-hand with the company’s goal to use 25 percent recycled content in all of its products by 2025. To help fulfill its demand of recycled content, Cascade is working with its partners and customers to help clean up the recycling stream on the front end so that it can get the HDPE it needs.

How the Role of CEO has Evolved

Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow Inc.; Marc Benioff, founder, chairman and CEO of Salesforce; and Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management, discussed how the role of CEO has evolved and what they are currently focusing on as leaders.

One main focus is plastics and how different industries can work together to recycle plastics and use them again.

Fitterling said that consumer behavior plays a large role in the issue of plastics as well as trying to get people to buy post-consumer recycled material.

“For many years, brand owners didn’t want [post-consumer recycled] material because they were more concerned about the aesthetics of the products than the circularity,” he explained. “Now, companies like Nestlé, Sealed Air, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and others have committed to using post-consumer recycled content in their products, and consumers are saying they want that and, in some cases, are willing to pay more for that because they know they are making a contribution.”

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Benioff referred to the issue of ocean plastics as a “planetary emergency” and said there are two major issues in the oceans. One, oceans are getting much hotter because they are trying to sequester the carbon in the atmosphere, and two, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

In an effort to combat ocean plastics, he founded the Benioff Ocean Initiative, which will soon deploy advanced river-cleaning machines in the 10 major rivers known to be sources of dumped plastics that eventually end up in the oceans.

“We have to fund [the projects] and buy, deploy and maintain the machines, but we have to get the plastic out of the oceans,” he stated. “We’ve raised $1.5 million to do this, and the reason why we’re focusing on these 10 rivers (located primarily in Asia) is because we want to put business models in place in those countries where 75 percent of solid waste goes to an open dump often located within 100 acres of the beach.”

Fish discussed the importance of education and innovation. He pointed to a company called Continuus Materials that takes mixed paper and low-value plastics and turns them into building materials.

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He also shared how his parents’ generation didn’t really have single-use products except items like wrapping paper, which his mother always folded up and reused year after year.

“I do think we need to find alternative uses [for materials],” said Fish. “If it doesn’t go through our recycling facility and come out the back end as another water bottle or soda bottle, then maybe there’s an alternative use for it. That’s why I’m highlighting Continuus—because part of the answer is innovation.”

Adding to Fish’s point on innovation, Fitterling stated that the industry needs to give people and companies the data they need to make the innovations the world will need 10 years from now. He said 80 percent of what Dow does today has a sustainability aspect to it because a customer or someone in the value chain is trying to solve a problem.

“We have a platform called Seek Together that lets people know they don’t have to do things alone,” he said. “You can find alliances, technology innovation partners, whoever—sometimes it’s the power of coming together that helps solve issues.”

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“Radical Regeneration”

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, founding partner of Global Optimism Ltd. and convenor of Mission 2020, spoke about a new operating system that she calls “radical regeneration.” With this system, she said humanity must move away from extraction and toward radical regeneration because globally, forests and oceans need to be restored and replenished.

She explained that science says humanity needs to reduce carbon emissions by half by 2030 or the future of the world is going to “only be destruction, human pain and biodiversity loss.” If emissions are reduced by half by 2030, then humanity stands a good chance of creating a better world because there will be 20 more years to get to net zero by 2050, which Figueres stated we have to do.

She went on to note that the national government isn’t working up to par, and that while the last national negotiation on climate change was happening, Australia was burning.

Insights from Waste Management’s 2020 Sustainability Forum

“We know the burn area of Australia is half the territory of Germany and two times the size of Belgium,” stated Figueres. “One billion animals were burned to death, and the economic cost of the fires in Australia were at least A$100 billion (US$80 billion). Five percent of GDP [gross domestic product] went up literally in smoke because the government did not take measures on climate change 15 years ago when science told them it was coming.”

She said slashing global emissions in half by 2030 cannot be done by individual companies; it can only be achieved if everyone works together.

In regard to the waste management sector, she said that the sector is going to continue to grow exponentially and that the extract, use and discard operating system many people grew up with needs to be discontinued.

“This is no longer a linear economy; it’s a circular economy,” explained Figueres. “We have to circulate everything—food, packaging, fashion, building materials, manufacturing materials, you name it.”

“We’ve understood that one-use plastics are a no-go, but one-use anything is a no-go,” she added. “If we’re only using something once, we’re committing a crime against humanity because we’re deliberately impinging on humanity’s possibility to continue to grow and thrive on this planet. This is not about managing waste; this is actually about completely, radically eliminating the concept of waste and understanding we have to keep all our resources in a constantly evolving use cycle.”

World War Zero

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent 28 years in the Senate, spoke about his actions as an environmentalist. Throughout his career, he’s tackled acid rain and ocean acidification, advocated for growing issues that arise with climate change and worked on implementing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

He also attended Earth Day 1970, targeted what he refers to as the “12 worst votes in U.S. Congress” and helped create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Insights from Waste Management’s 2020 Sustainability Forum

Now, Kerry is focusing his efforts on the Paris Agreement, advocating for more and better use of artificial intelligence, encouraging people to push the curve of discovery in the U.S. and helping to lead the efforts of World War Zero, a coalition of people who are committed to addressing the climate crisis.

“If we were to push the curve of discovery in the U.S., the next Einstein, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates or Elon Musk is going to be the discoverer of a negative emissions technology where we can take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it to use,” he said.

In reference to World War Zero, he stated: “We want to try to change the discussion about climate change so we’re showing people that this is not ideological and not republicans versus democrats. Our purpose is to have millions of conversations with Americans through the internet, messaging, Facebook, Instagram, advertising, town halls, etc., to make a difference.”

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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