Fitting the Pieces Together: Waste Management’s 2017 Sustainability Report

By Susan Robinson, Senior Public Affairs Director, Waste Management; Co-Chair, SWEEP Steering Committee

Last week, Waste Management released its 2017 Sustainability Report. This is an annual update to our biannual full report and indicates our progress toward our sustainability goals, along with other key metrics.

Thirteen years ago, we began to report on our overall GHG emissions. Over the years, our reporting has been refined to include more details, and next year we will change our sustainability goals to support our customers’ emission reduction targets.

We’re starting from a strong position. The greenhouse gas reductions enabled by our services are now three times greater than the GHG emissions caused by our operations.   Three times.

This got us thinking about our role in the environmental services industry. We are a service provider, and our impact on the environment is largely a reflection of our customers’ priorities. The more environmental services that our customers request, the more services our company can provide. From recycling, to alternative fuel for our fleets, to landfill-based renewable energy programs.

Our customers cover the gamut. They include municipalities, small and large businesses, large manufacturing companies, and individual households. And we also supply feedstock to end markets that rely on our material in their production operations. This makes for a complex mix of priorities.

The fact is that the various goals of our diverse customer base do not always match up cleanly. Our municipal customers would like to recycle everything to achieve their weight-based recycling goals. Brands care primarily about recycling their own products; our end markets care about receiving high quality feedstock to use in their manufacturing processes; and, of course, everyone wants to keep their costs as low as possible. In addition, the timing of these conflicting goals can be challenging – the supply from our municipal customers just keeps coming into the bins regardless of the constraints the end markets put on what they are willing to receive.

Along the value chain, we have our central goal of “recycling often and recycling right,” while trying to balance these other goals of the collective whole to make the process continue to work. And herein lies our challenge.

I was reminded of this recently during an internal discussion about organics diversion in California. The State of California has set a 75% waste reduction and recycling goal and is in the process of implementing programs to achieve their goal. As a result, our contracts with several large municipal customers reflect this goal and require significant investment to ensure they meet the state’s goals. Seventy-five percent diversion isn’t easy: expensive technology plays a key role in extracting the last drop of organic material from the stream to meet city and state goals.

At the same time, the state is rightfully concerned about quality, and is establishing regulatory requirements on collection and processing to ensure that the quality of organics sold to market remains high. It’s a great approach. Except…how do you reach truly aspirational levels of diversion without dealing with the dirty stuff that makes it through the system?

Does this conflict sound familiar? There are definite similarities between this dialogue and the curbside single stream versus paper/container dual stream debate that continues today.

And organics are not the only problematic part of the waste stream. What about glass? Higher volumes diverted require more convenient collection, which leads to more contaminated glass. And paper? Mix it with anything wet, and a certain percentage becomes unrecyclable.

How do we find the right balance?   For some materials, such as organics, glass and paper, a focus on convenient, commingled collection can cause some real problems with quality downstream. You get more material, but you also get more contamination.

To make things even more complicated, changes in global markets are demanding a shift in our approach to recycling. The experience with China over the past several years shows that we should have tipped the scale more toward quality than quantity if we hoped to get recycling economics that are sustainable. I hope that we learn from this as we continue our new focus on organics. Maybe we can get it right this time and concentrate on upstream materials reduction and not just expensive end-of-pipe diversion.

We’re going to need partnerships for this. The companies that make and sell products can be tone-deaf to integrated economic drivers as they push to add more material to curbside carts in the name of convenient recycling for their customers. Our collective attempts to improve curbside recycling is a case in point. Over the years, we’ve tried to expand recycling by collecting various types of recyclables in plastic bags:

  • We tried “Bag the bags” programs for film in several large cities years ago. Not surprisingly, the bags didn’t always make it into (or stay in) a bag, which clogged the processing systems.
  • At least one large city tried collecting bags of recyclables in the trash to keep collection costs down. Well – that didn’t work either, and the program was abandoned after several years.

We now are seeing see color-coded bag programs for non-bottle plastics, for food, and for textiles. They might work for individual types of material, but are they going to work within the context of system as a whole?

In some ways, these separate bag examples are indicative of the individual material approach that brands have promoted, and that cause broader programmatic challenges to recycling. A focus on solving for one unique material may achieve a very narrow goal for that product. But how do the individual solutions benefit the entire system? Or more importantly, the environment as a whole?

We have talked a lot about moving away from weight-based goals. Now it’s time to just do it. Lifecycle Thinking and strategies based upon specific environmental benefits like greenhouse gas and energy reduction are critically needed if we are to move to the next level of environmental performance. We have to see the whole picture: how does each component align with the goal of improved environmental benefits at a cost the customer is willing to pay?

Studies of the municipal waste stream consistently show the need to focus on reducing material use, and on recycling certain types of materials to achieve the greatest GHG emissions reductions. In looking at Waste Management’s emissions reduction impacts, fully 60% are from recycling, and 85% of the recycling reduction emissions come from paper alone.

When it comes to food, we are seeing an increasing focus on preventing food waste upstream, because Lifecycle Thinking tells us this is where we find the greatest environmental benefit. Both Oregon and New Jersey have developed food reduction goals. The Province of Ontario has a new organics plan that highlights the need to reduce organic waste upstream.

Finally, plastics. Plastic products and packaging are complex and demand more focus on product and packaging design, processing technologies, end market development and consumer education. Lifecycle analysis of the impacts of the combination of the products and package simply must be part of this discussion. As plastics packaging grows in a time of poor end market demand and cheap virgin resin, plastics solutions must be evaluated in the context of their impact on the rest of the system.

Next year Waste Management will announce new sustainability goals. As we have been developing these goals, we recognize and appreciate our reliance on our customers’ priorities and efforts. We will only succeed when we engage with our customers to prioritize the efforts that have highest environmental benefit. This will require fully integrated collaboration with ALL of our customers – those from which we remove material, and those that we supply with a feedstock for their products. We’ll also need to work together with other stakeholders along the value chain, rationalizing our individual goals around convenience, volume, quality, and price, in order to find common ground.

We expect the next year to be challenging as we work towards a new equilibrium with our export and domestic markets as China implements its new policies. Finding the right balance means keeping our eyes on the ultimate prize – a sustainably cleaner environment.

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