Over the past two years, we’ve focused on raising awareness of the urgent need to get serious about recycling — its economics and its well-established environmental value. This year, it’s no different.
Waste Management is North America’s largest residential recycler and, as such, we strongly believe we need to lead change to put recycling on its strongest possible foot for the future. As noted in this report and talked about broadly in the media, with our customers and numerous other stakeholders, recycling must evolve. We’ve started to see progress on this front, and steady progress is what we need — for the good times and the bad.
Change starts with first acknowledging some very real challenges facing the recycling industry, including a changing waste stream, slowing global demand, low commodity prices and rising processing costs, all of which collided to place the entire recycling industry on its heels. Let me elaborate just a bit.
A Changing Waste Environment
As a society, our waste stream is changing. We’re seeing more — and more complex — plastics and less paper. Complex sorting systems, designed for a largely paper-driven input, are not perfectly suited to process what is today a very different waste stream. Significant shifts in the global market in recycled commodities have also had to be reckoned with. As foreign economies slowed, so slowed the demand for U.S. commodities and the price of commodities plunged — dramatically and for a sustained period. The value of plastic, for example, parallels that of oil — and that value nosedived in 2015. To add to all that, we were seeing more and more non-recyclable materials coming through our recycling processing facilities, causing processing costs to rise.
In 2015, we tightened our belts on our recycling operations, increasing our efficiencies and lowering operating costs, all of which translated into corresponding benefits to our financial performance. Our teams did a magnificent job in this regard! We also collaborated with our municipal and business customers to find much-needed efficiencies in the system and we’re pleased to report that, for the most part, we have found willing partners. Collectively, we embraced the notion of “recycling right” as a critical message and took steps to ensure that message translated into meaningful action. Reducing contamination — loose plastic bags and other “tanglers” that wrap around the recycling equipment, bagged trash in the recyclables, and food and liquid waste — reduces processing costs and raises the value of the clean recyclables that can be sold. Our customers appreciate the transparency in our approach to recycling service contracts as we clarify both the costs of processing and likely returns from commodity sales. Our work with many partners on recycling education has brought contamination down significantly for many cities, including cities like Springfield, Massachusetts, Elgin, Illinois and Siler City, North Carolina, and for our material recovery facilities.
We’ve endeavored to lead the change to more sustainable recycling, and we are pleased to be able to say we see real progress. We’re not done. We will continue to work with our customers, communities, the U.S. EPA, many states, the National Waste and Recycling Association, the Solid Waste Association of North America, Keep America Beautiful, The Recycling Partnership and many more recycling industry groups, as well as through our own campaign, Recycle Often. Recycle Right.®, to get the word out on contamination. We feel confident that our efforts are reinvigorating the spirit of environmental stewardship.
Toward “Life Cycle Thinking”
Recycling is about the environment as well as economics. We recycle because of environmental benefits from resource conservation, reduced energy and water use, and reduction in release of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In the past decade, there’s been a great deal of focus on often costly, sometimes abstract, and frequently difficult to achieve weight-based goals. And we’ve perhaps lost sight of the concrete environmental impacts that come from recycling. The way we talk about recycling — getting to 50 and 75 percent, and even 100 percent diversion — while noble, decouples the action of recycling from the purpose of recycling.
That’s why in this report we’re focusing on the language and tangible benefits of “life cycle thinking.” When we reduce and recycle waste, we reduce the generation of GHGs and use of energy. We can track these physical benefits specifically, using well-accepted methodology developed by U.S. EPA. Throughout this report, we’re using life cycle analysis to project the benefits for our waste reduction consulting services, recycling and renewable energy production. In the section on recycling, we talk about how we used what we termed the “Spectrum” project to inform ourselves, our customers and the broader public about how recycling drives GHG reduction and energy savings. Knowing, at each stage of the management chain, the environmental benefits and the economic cost of those benefits helps our customers understand where they get the greatest “bang for the buck” in materials management.
A Focus on GHG Reduction
We realize we are only one link in the sustainable materials management chain. Our residential customers are another, doing their part to send the right materials to our plants. Our business customers are rethinking product and packaging design to reduce life cycle impacts. Federal and state policies and regulations that support life cycle thinking in materials management have their own important role in reducing GHGs and energy use. But we’re not waiting for a framework mandating reductions; we’re framing our sustainability goals in terms of opportunity to reduce use of carbon and to preserve natural resources.
We are thinking of our entire service portfolio in terms of the life cycle benefits we can provide. Our environmentally protective landfills secure materials that cannot be reused in another way. We are focusing on maximizing the value of those assets, for example, by providing safe and logical disposal options for our customers’ industrial wastes. We look for energy value in the landfill and continue to lead in generation of renewable energy from landfill gas. In this report, we described two new projects that convert landfill gas to carbon-free fuel.
As a company, we are a net GHG reducer — and by a lot. In 2015, our GHG-reducing services — recycling, landfill renewable natural gas projects, landfill gas-to-energy projects and carbon sequestration in landfills — saved over three times the total GHG emissions Waste Management’s operations generated all year!
We are continuing our focus on resource preservation as well. We manage 25,000 acres of land as wildlife habitats on 95 properties, and we were active in 2015 in promoting the use of industrial property to help support the health of pollinators.
We like to think of ourselves as pragmatic optimists — looking over the life cycle of materials management to reduce waste, and ready to handle our customers’ wastes safely, as the process of finding alternatives evolves over time. When we encounter roadblocks like those we’ve seen in our recycling business, we see our role as leading change to overcome them. We hope you’ll
President & Chief Executive Officer