WM manages more post-consumer recyclables than any other company in North America.
The types of materials we manage are changing constantly as a result of consumer behavior, education around recycling, disruptions such as the pandemic and legislation in the U.S. and abroad. For example, China’s prohibitions on imports of certain materials, more stringent contamination limits and a ban on imports of all recyclables, which took effect in 2021, have had ripple effects across the globe.
Materials Recovery Facilities
All of the residential plastic we collect for recycling is now sold to markets in North America and is recycled in North America. We focus our efforts on recycling materials with responsible end markets while educating consumers on what materials can and cannot be recycled. Cardboard and paper make up approximately 60% of the material processed at our single-stream MRFs, and the opening of new paper mills that rely on recycled inputs has created more domestic recycling opportunities. These changes give us reason to be optimistic about sustainable recycling in the future. WM has made record investments in new recycling infrastructure equipped with technology designed to reduce contamination.
Click each end market to see our Material Recovery Facility locations.
Managing Recyclables Responsibly
What does it mean to manage materials responsibly? First, it requires an understanding of what recycling truly means. Recycling is not just what happens when a consumer places an item in a curbside bin, nor when materials are sorted and processed by WM. The cycle is only complete when a material is converted into a new product to be used again. Because this process includes multiple steps, there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong. For example, consumers could forget to clean and dry their recyclables, or they could place unsuitable items in their bins. As a result, MRFs may have trouble sorting materials correctly and efficiently. Even if a material is sorted and baled, if it lacks a robust end market, there may be no one to purchase it, and it may still end up in a landfill.
Each of these challenges requires distinct solutions. WM is tackling issues at all levels—educating consumers to shape behavior, investing in advanced sorting technologies and infrastructure, and developing end-market demand that allows recycled materials to reenter the value chain by purchasing products made with post-consumer recyclables. Overseeing our efforts is a recycling Center of Expertise, made up of leaders from WM’s marketing, MRF operations and public-sector teams. This cross-functional group of experts meets monthly to exchange ideas, track progress on recycling-related programs and align on priorities, such as responding to changing market dynamics, limiting inbound contamination and developing WM team members as recycling ambassadors.
Changing Consumer Behavior
While individual and business behaviors have largely shifted to embrace recycling, many misconceptions remain around which materials can and cannot be recycled. Customer confusion leads to contamination, or unacceptable items being mixed with recyclables. While contamination is an ongoing challenge, we are making steady progress to address it. One of the most important ways we are doing this is by educating consumers on the right way to recycle through our Recycle Right program. In addition, we are making investments in multiple forms of technology and training within our collection and processing operations.
One promising initiative WM has developed to reduce contamination is our Smart TruckSM technology, where cameras mounted on collection trucks take photos of contamination in bins. Photos are then reviewed by a Smart TruckSM team, and customers are directly notified of any issues. These instances are recorded on the truck’s onboard computer so that WM can track contamination patterns using AI technology. Our research confirms that giving customers immediate, specific feedback about contamination in their carts is the best way to improve the quality of recyclables collected for processing.
As an example, in 2019, when a fleet of commercial trucks in Northern California was outfitted with Smart TruckSM technology, contamination among customers served by those trucks decreased 89% within three months. We are beginning to pilot Smart TruckSM among our residential customers. When we encounter contamination in these customers’ bins, we encourage behavioral change through cart tags, photos and other outreach methods.
Driver Recycling Education
WM collection truck drivers are critical players in helping us solve the problem of contamination. We educate drivers and introduce them to the basic rules of Recycle Right through a Guide to Contamination and a Recycling FAQ. The FAQ is designed to help drivers identify problem materials and to accurately answer common customer questions.
On a regular basis, we conduct surveys to assess drivers’ recycling knowledge and understanding of common contaminants on routes. The results of these surveys allow us to target educational materials around a problem contaminant or address barriers that prevent drivers from identifying and tagging contamination. Before we roll out a new tagging and enforcement campaign, we use training videos—posted on our intranet and available in English and Spanish—to ensure that drivers know how to correctly identify and report contamination. Reducing inbound contamination takes everyone’s help. Our efforts have helped reduce contamination levels at our recycling facilities to 16% at the end of 2020.
Developing Recycling Infrastructure
Beyond reducing contamination at the source, we are enhancing recycled material quality by improving technology within our MRFs. WM is investing $800 million through 2025 in our recycling infrastructure, resulting in the construction of five new MRFs and upgraded equipment at 26 facilities. These new and improved facilities have boosted recycling efficiency and quality. Based on our success at these facilities, we plan to retrofit, upgrade or construct new facilities across our fleet of MRFs. Each facility will be highly automated based on the typical material composition in that market, expected volumes and the types of recycled materials we plan to sell there. The result will be more materials processed to higher levels of quality.
Creating Demand for Recyclables
As part of our commitment to supporting sustainable demand for recyclables, WM committed to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program, pledging to increase the use of post-consumer resin (PCR) in products we purchase, starting with our residential carts. We partnered with Cascade Engineering to test and purchase EcoCarts, which are made with 10% PCR. This innovation helped earn a Design for Recycling Award from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in 2021.
Expanding upon this, in 2021 WM announced the nationwide debut of employee uniforms made from recycled PET plastic. One of the largest purchasers of PET from WM’s MRFs is Unifi, a company that uses PET to create a textile fiber known as . Together, WM and Unifi have recycled more than 20 billion bottles into new products such as shoes, clothing and bags. This program launched in 2021, with WM procuring over 330,000 new uniform articles made with 30% PCR.
Making Clothing Circular
We are working to develop a promising new market—the recycling of end-of-life textiles. According to the U.S. EPA, only 14.7% of used textiles are donated or recycled today. The rest are sent to landfills, due to a lack of convenient options for consumers, as well as a lack of awareness regarding the textile industry’s environmental impact.
This represents an opportunity for WM. Our existing collection and processing capabilities could potentially be adapted to the needs of textile recycling. WM’s Corporate Development & Innovation (CD&I) group built internal teams, assembled a portfolio of supply chain partners and tested the market through a variety of pilots to help encourage the growth of end markets for post-consumer textiles.
We’ve helped customers develop programs and solutions for recycling uniforms at end of use, including upcycling uniforms into different products and de-branding them for sale in new markets. Three municipalities now use WM’s Tracker mail-back program to manage the certified destruction and recycling into new fiber of their uniform apparel. WM is also a founding member of EON’s ConnectFashion initiative, a collaborative partnership that could help further improve the management of textile waste.
Emerging Sources of Demand
Over the past several years, domestic markets for many materials collected in curbside recycling programs have grown. This has helped stabilize recycling across the country.
One type of material that has seen robust end-market demand is post- consumer paper, or more specifically cardboard and mixed paper. Our reliance on these materials became clear during the pandemic.
U.S. paper mills rely on recyclable paper to make the products and packages we rely on every day. Without this supply, these mills could not produce the tissues, paper towels and cardboard packaging for medical and grocery items that have been essential to fighting the virus and keeping individuals safe at home. WM worked with regulators and municipal customers to emphasize the importance of maintaining this critical supply chain, and with mill customers to ensure the supply of clean, recyclable materials to manufacture key products throughout the pandemic.
As the economy began to recover from COVID-19, the markets for many types of plastics began to improve. This is primarily driven by the commitments that manufacturers have made to using post-consumer content in their products and packaging. By mid-2021, pricing for #1 PET (water and soda bottles), #2 HDPE (milk jugs) and #5 PP (yogurt and cottage cheese containers) reached an all-time high. Demand for these materials exceeded the supply of material collected for recycling. These robust market conditions have supported significant investments in recycling infrastructure, further strengthening recycling programs in North America.
Legislation can also help drive demand for other types of recycled materials. At the 2020 America Recycles Summit, the U.S. EPA announced a goal of increasing the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030, recognizing the importance of strengthening the markets for recycled materials in achieving this objective. Many states are considering minimum recycled content laws for certain products, which will further encourage businesses to make the shift.