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Solving Waste Together Recycling

Waste Management manages more post-consumer recyclables than any other company in North America.

This role poses challenges and opportunities that continued to unfold in 2019. Despite ongoing changes related to China’s restrictions on imports of recyclables, Waste Management made record investments in recycling facility upgrades and in the construction of new facilities. We continue to recognize—and communicate—that recycling happens not when a consumer places an item in a curbside bin, nor when materials are sorted and processed by Waste Management. In fact, the cycle is only completed when a material is converted into a new product. Closing this loop requires robust end-markets for recycled materials, which Waste Management remains committed to helping develop and promote.

The importance of recycling garnered significant attention in early 2020 when the coronavirus outbreak began. Many products such as tissue, toweling and packaging boxes for grocery and medical supplies are made from recycled materials, and therefore depend on reliable feedstocks. As such, Waste Management was deemed an essential business and worked closely with mill customers to supply clean, recyclable materials to manufacturers who were delivering these key products.

Recycling and Circularity

Recycling gives materials new life—even enabling them to be used more than once by the same household. For this process to remain circular, every step matters. Not only must goods be recycled properly, there must be markets for recycled materials that allow them to reenter the value chain.

The Circularity of Recycling

Hover over each section of the inner circle to reveal more information

1 Residential Home

Customers separate clean recyclables such as bottles, cans, paper and cardboard boxes before placing them in their recycling bins.

2 Recycling Collection

Where single-stream recycling is available, a Waste Management collection truck picks up all these items in a single pass.

3 Materials Recovery Facility

At one of our MRFs, we use advanced technology, as well as manual sorting, to organize recyclables by type before packaging them into bales.

4 Materials Processing

Depending on material type, baled recyclables are processed into new forms, such as pulp, pellets or sheets, that prepare them to be made into new products.

5 Product Manufacturing

New goods are created with these materials, such as boxes made from post-consumer paper or carpets with fibers made from recycled plastics.

6 Retail

Consumers purchase products with packaging or other components that are made to be recycled.

Building Value Together
Creating a Circular
Textile Supply Chain

Trends in global manufacturing and consumer behavior have made textiles, mostly clothing, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. waste stream. Few options exist for consumers to donate or recycle clothing, so it is often sent to landfills. As the largest post-consumer recycler in North America, it makes sense for Waste Management to engage in initiatives to create a more circular supply chain for post-consumer textiles. Much like recycling of other materials, this depends on a high-quality recycled product and viable end-markets for recycled materials.

Waste Management forms partnerships with a variety of organizations to leverage existing approaches to managing textile waste, while also creating new strategies based on advanced processing and recycling technologies and emerging supply chain collaborations. Below are a few examples of our objectives—and how we’re taking action:

Goal: Understand new approaches to sorting and processing textiles

What We’re Doing: Joined EON’s CircularID Initiative which will enable better sorting and grading of textiles, and partnering with others developing new processes for recycling post-consumer fibers

Goal: Create consumer awareness about the environmental challenges the fashion industry is facing

What We’re Doing: Working with Slow Factory, a nonprofit that educates fashion designers on the need to consider clothing end-of-use

Goal: Gain critical insights into logistics, economics, consumer behavior and participation challenges

What We’re Doing: Held a dedicated session on textiles at our annual Sustainability Forum to map the emerging circular life cycle of textiles

Goal: Identify third-party processors specializing in certain processes for managing textile waste

What We’re Doing: Working with a national retailer and a third-party supplier to repurpose 1 million retired uniforms into textile fiber that will be diverted into new products

Understanding the Recycling Market

After playing an important role in the global recycling market for over two decades, China implemented changes to its import policies announced in 2017 that have adversely affected market conditions for recycling. At that time, China notified the World Trade Organization of its intent to ban the import of 24 materials, including mixed paper and mixed plastics, resulting in 13.2 million tons of material that needed alternative markets across the globe.

Then, in early 2018, the Chinese government implemented a 0.5% contamination limit and banned all imports of recyclables by 2021. By banning materials, reducing import quotas and increasing quality specifications for all imports of recyclables, China’s policies created a ripple effect, impacting global supply and demand for recyclables while increasing materials recovery facility (MRF) operating costs. As the global recycling community has adjusted to this new reality, the result has been a redistribution of global market demand.

Commodity value impacts have been significant. Without China as an end-market, global supply has exceeded demand. By the end of 2019, commodity values were the lowest in over a decade, with the average commodity price for all recyclables sold from all our MRFs totaling roughly 70% less than the average two years prior. This resulted in increases to the cost of recycling for our customers, creating financial hardship for many municipalities.

There are, however, bright spots amid this period of shifting markets. For example, paper plays an important role in the health of our curbside recycling programs because cardboard and mixed paper make up almost 60% of the material processed at our single-stream MRFs. In 2019, there were several announcements of new domestic paper mills, and capacity began to come online by the end of the year. These mills are anticipated to have a stabilizing impact on paper markets in the U.S. Despite a downward trend in the value of recycled plastics due to low virgin resin prices, we saw the value of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic spike for several months in 2019, buoyed by goals that producers and brands have established for plastics. This was a reminder of the important role that corporate commitments to using post-consumer resin can play in ensuring sustainable recycling markets.

2019 Recycling Performance

What We Recycled
In Tons

8,079,346
paper

403,484
plastic

3,577,122
mixed organics

1,109,558
C&D/wood

1,149,000
fly ash

39,594
wood pallets

666,838
glass

9,110
e-waste/lamps

476,645
metal

15,510,697
tons materials
recycled

Materials Recovery Facilities

Graphic detailing Waste Management's Materials Recovery Facilities

Driving End-Market Demand

Waste Management has been a leading voice in the call to focus on creating domestic market demand for products made with post-consumer recycled content. From home delivery and pizza boxes, to soda cans and water bottles, to fleece clothing and carpeting, manufacturers across the globe rely on recyclables from our MRFs as material inputs for their products. But significant opportunity remains to expand these markets further, and Waste Management is looking for new ways to generate demand among customers and within our business.

Demand from Our Customers

In 2018, plastic recycler KW Plastics asked us to consider adding polypropylene (PP) to our recycling programs. Polypropylene plastic is used in products like yogurt cups and its use is growing, creating a demand for post-consumer PP resin. After auditing our available recyclables, we agreed and began to separate PP from other materials for recycling, even adding optical sorters at several of our facilities to efficiently sort this material. KW Plastics now has a reliable stream of PP that can be recycled into products such as paint cans. With our new capacity to sort PP, other markets for the material have the chance to develop as well. Watch video.

Demand from Our Collection Business

Waste Management purchases hundreds of thousands of residential curbside carts each year, which contain post-industrial recycled plastic. In 2019, we signed on to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program and pledged to increase the use of post-consumer resin (PCR) in products we purchase, starting with our residential carts. Waste Management teams from our supply chain, operations, marketing/branding and other functions collaborated with Cascade Cart Solutions to test the use of PCR in our residential carts, and purchase the resulting carts made with 10% PCR. Cascade’s Ecocarts are a first in our industry.

Demand from Major Events

The Waste Management Phoenix Open (WMPO) and concurrent Sustainability Forum are great opportunities for us to showcase recycling’s potential. During the 2020 golf tournament, fans could purchase apparel made from Unifi’s Repreve recycled fibers produced from plastic bottles. One popular style was Loudmouth Golf’s “WMPO Party Pants,” made from Repreve fabric with 50% recycled content. The importance of end-markets for recycled goods was also a focus of 2019 and 2020 Forum presentations. During the 2020 Forum, we organized a Circular Economy Showcase where we highlighted 15 companies using post-consumer recycled content to produce new products.

Plastics in the Spotlight

Plastics have become a ubiquitous feature of modern life, offering durability, versatility and lightweight options that make them well-suited for a range of products and packaging materials. But the same features that make plastic convenient also make it problematic to manage at end of life. Although it is lightweight, it can be expensive to process and transport. And the varied resin types that make plastic so versatile often confuse consumers because they cannot always be recycled. Plus, residual food or other products become contamination in the recycling process. In fact, only a small fraction of the plastic ever made has been recycled. And because it degrades so slowly, plastic that has not been recycled, or burned for energy, is still in the environment or in a landfill.

Businesses and the public are becoming increasingly concerned with this growing problem. In 2018, National Geographic published a cover story about marine plastic debris, which helped draw global attention to the problem of plastics in the environment. The story ignited a conversation that led to changing consumer behavior and increased pressure on plastic producers and brands that rely on plastic.

As the leading environmental services provider in North America, Waste Management has spent decades managing plastic for recycling markets and for disposal. Pressure to recycle more plastic, and more kinds of plastic, combined with constricting global markets, has placed our industry and company in the middle of the complex discussion of plastic waste and recycling. As we’ve embarked on our journey to better understand the many issues around plastic, we’ve developed our own knowledge base and perspectives, and have taken an active role in working with stakeholders along the supply chain to develop solutions for the complex challenges involved in managing plastic in a circular economy.

For example, we have examined the types and amount of plastic in the waste and recycling stream. The charts below are based on the most recent data available from the U.S. EPA. They break out durable plastic (e.g., carpeting or furniture made from plastics), non-durable plastic (e.g., medical devices) and plastic packaging (e.g., beverage bottles).

Curbside recycling programs in the U.S. recycle primarily plastic packaging. In 2017, 1.89 million tons of plastic packaging was recycled. Almost 90% of that was two types of plastic: #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to make water and soda bottles, and #2 high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in milk and juice jugs. The recycling rate for PET was 29% in 2017, and 31% for HDPE. There was very little recycling of other types of plastic packaging, for an overall plastic packaging recycling average of 13%. As part of this exercise, we also looked at the amount of recyclables we manage.

MSW Stream

  • 73% Traditional Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
  • 27% Traditional Recycling

Plastics in the Recycling Stream

Traditional Recycling (27% of Traditional Municipal Waste) consists of the following:
  • 95.3% Rest of Recycling Stream
  • 4.7% Plastic

Plastics make up 4.7% of the single-stream recyclables by weight and 2.4% of the GHG emissions reductions.

GHG emissions reduction associated with plastics is 2.7% of the entire recycling stream.

Plastic (4.7% of Traditional Recycling) consists of the following:
  • 4.1% PET /HDPE
  • 0.6% 3-7 Mix

A very small percentage of today’s solid waste stream is made up of recyclable plastic. We are supporting the growth of end-markets for more plastic types and investing in technology that will allow us to recycle more materials—and thereby, avoid more GHG emissions.

The pie charts above start with the entire waste stream. About 27% of the total waste stream is made up of traditional recyclables.

As the charts illustrate, recyclable plastic makes up 4.7% of all the recyclables processed at our single stream MRFs. Of the plastic that we recycle, the majority is #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastic, both of which have stable end-markets. Although #5 polypropylene (PP) bottles, tubs and lids are still a very small portion of the overall recycling stream, they are growing in use and end-market demand. To support these markets, Waste Management invested in technology to maximize efficient recycling of these materials.

Waste Management also compared plastic to other materials in the waste stream to understand their relative environmental impacts. Learn more about this research.

This research, combined with current global market dynamics, suggests that our greatest opportunity lies in properly managing plastic to keep it out of the natural environment. When China banned imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are poorly equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans. That’s why Waste Management focuses our efforts on recycling materials with responsible end-markets while educating consumers on what types of plastic can and cannot be recycled. All our residential plastic is recycled in North America.

Total GHG Reduction From Recycling
Driven by Specific Commodity Tonnages X GHG Reduction per Ton

Bar chart showing Waste Management's total GHG reduction from recycling

Recycling aluminum cans offers the greatest tradeoff in terms of GHG reduction benefits per
ton of material, while recycling HPDE, PET and mixed plastics makes less of an impact.

Waste Management does not weigh in on the value of using any specific packaging material; instead, we focus on the most responsible way to manage materials when our customers are finished with them. There is no doubt that nongovernmental organizations and shareholder advocates will continue to push for further corporate action around plastics. Late in 2019, shareholder advocates requested that Waste Management complete a report on plastic recycling. We will continue to focus on responsible management of plastics and other materials, including supporting the circular economy and development of new technologies that meet the needs of our customers while maximizing environmental benefits.

Building Value Together
Partnering to
Solve the Problems
with Plastic

Waste Management has worked to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities related to plastic waste. In 2019, National Geographic published a cover story about marine debris. The article and photos captured the attention of people and organizations around the world. In 2019, we focused the Waste Management Sustainability Forum on plastic debris, giving National Geographic center stage.

Valerie Craig, Interim Chief
Science & Innovation Officer,
National Geographic Society,
gave a keynote address.

She shared some alarming statistics:

9M tons
of plastic
enter the oceans
every year

60%
of ocean plastic waste
comes from countries without sufficient
infrastructure to manage it

40%
of plastic
is used only once
before being discarded

Her presentation set the stage for a moderated panel, where she was joined by:

Nicholas Mallos
Director of Trash
Free Seas, Ocean
Conservancy

Steve Sikra
Materials &
Technology
Manager, P&G

Jason Hale
Communications &
Recycling Professional,
SystemIQ

Their dynamic dialogue provided specifics on the investments and efforts being made to tackle the
problem of marine debris in Southeast Asia, where most plastic leakage originates.

During the Forum, Waste Management
announced a

$100,000
donation
to help National Geographic
create educational
materials on the plastics crisis

And was a lead sponsor at
National Geographic’s
Circular Economy Forum

where Waste Management CEO Jim Fish
participated in a fireside chat about the role
businesses can play in building a circular economy.

Improving Recycling Quality

To satisfy growing end-markets for recycled materials, we must ensure that the commodity products Waste Management offers are high in quality—clean and dry. This is no small task. While individual and business behaviors have largely shifted to embrace recycling, many misconceptions remain around which materials can and cannot be recycled. Consumer misunderstandings, combined with the shift to cart-based, single-stream recycling, have led to high levels of contamination, or unacceptable items being mixed with recyclables.

For example, a major source of contamination is plastic grocery bags and bagged recyclables, which cannot be recycled when collected in curbside recycling programs, but are often placed in recycling bins. These bags become tangled in recycling equipment. When this happens—up to six times a day on average—operators are forced to stop processing lines to extract bags and other forms of contamination from MRF equipment. Clearing contamination material can result in significant lost time every day. The irony in consumers placing items like plastic bags in their bins, hoping they can be recycled, is that less recycling ends up taking place. We call this practice “wishcycling”—and it’s not just bags. Waste Management facilities report a staggering variety of contaminants brought into MRFs, from holiday lights and garden hoses to tires and clothing.

Contamination is an ongoing challenge, but we are making steady progress to reduce and address it. Consumer education efforts have helped reduce contamination levels at our single stream facilities by 20% between 2018 and 2019. Learn more about how we educate consumers on the right way to recycle through our Recycle Right program. In addition to educating customers about the principles of correct recycling, we are making investments in multiple forms of technology and training within our collection and processing operations

Smart Truck

Waste Management’s Smart Truck technology drives our on-the-street contamination reduction program. As we collect recyclables along a route, we inevitably pick up nonrecyclable items that have been incorrectly placed in bins. To ensure that customers are better informed in the future about what can be recycled, external cameras mounted on a truck take photos of contamination in commercial bins. Photos are then reviewed by a Smart Truck team, and customers are directly notified of any issues. These instances are recorded on the truck’s onboard computer so that Waste Management can track contamination patterns. In 2019, when a fleet of commercial trucks in Northern California was outfitted with Smart Truck technology, contamination among customers served by those trucks decreased 89% within three months. We educate our residential customers using cart tags, photos and other outreach methods to let customers know when they have placed a contaminant material in a bin. This information is used to encourage behavior change.

As an additional enforcement for some of our customers, we find that charging for contamination serves as a strong deterrent. Using this “tough love” tactic, we take a two-pronged approach to contract enforcement: we review contracts and seek cost recovery or price adjustments, as allowed, for contamination.

Driver Recycling Education

Waste Management collection truck drivers are critical players in helping us solve the contamination problem. We educate drivers and introduce them to the basic rules of Recycle Right a Guide to Contamination and a Recycling FAQ. The FAQ is designed to help drivers identify problem materials and to accurately answer any customer questions.

On a regular basis, we conduct surveys to assess drivers’ recycling knowledge, uncover common contaminants on routes, identify Waste Management’s tagging practices and help drivers better understand barriers that prevent tagging. A Facilitator Guide helps site leaders administer the survey, including talking points to introduce the contamination issue and explain the driver’s role in prevention. Evaluating results of the driver surveys helps us target campaign 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—to ensure that drivers know how to correctly identify and report contamination. These videos, in English and Spanish, are also available on Waste Management’s YouTube channel.

Innovation in Our MRFs

Beyond reducing contamination at the source, we can enhance recycled material quality by improving sortation technology within our MRFs. In 2019, for the second year in a row, Waste Management invested over $100 million in recycling infrastructure. Those investments have gone toward technologies such as cameras that identify contamination as soon as materials leave a truck and land on an MRF’s tipping floor; optical sorters that use air and cameras to sort up to 600 items per minute; robotics; and ballistic sorters that separate material by weight.

These investments also helped us build a state-of-the-art recycling facility in Chicago, referred to as the “MRF of the Future.” Whereas a typical MRF has two optical sorters, the Chicago facility has 16. These sorters interact with conveyor motors and other equipment within the facility to help improve material quality and eliminate downtime. The MRF began operating in October 2019, and when it reaches full capacity, will process 1,000 tons of material per day. Its intelligent sorting capabilities will serve as a blueprint for future investments at other Waste Management facilities.

Recycling Partnerships

The types of materials we manage for recycling is broad, and the system varied. Recyclables are brought to our facilities in various ways: in our trucks, from city collection crews, from the public and our competitors. Because of the complexity of this network, and the relationships among commodity markets, policies and regulations, it makes sense to work with partners across the industry rather than trying to identify and solve business challenges alone.

Waste Management has several key partnerships, including industry associations that include the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). We are also actively engaged with the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (Ameripen), a trade organization for the packaging industry. Partnerships with regional organizations such as the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) and the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) support efforts in broad areas of the U.S. Other key partners include The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works closely with cities, counties and states to implement recycling programs; and Keep America Beautiful, which works with local communities to teach the fundamentals of recycling to a broad consumer base. Read more about these and other local partnerships.

In 2019, Waste Management participated in the U.S. EPA’s America Recycles Day effort, a multiyear collaboration among government, businesses and nonprofit organizations seeking to develop long-term solutions to recycling challenges. On this day, we reminded our federal leaders that greater adoption of recycled materials by the federal government would make a major difference in driving demand for post-consumer recyclables. We continue to work with EPA’s America Recycles team to encourage requirements for post-consumer content purchasing requirements at all levels of government.

Our national partnerships on recycling are important means to educating legislators, regulators and the public about ways public policy can maximize the environmental benefits latent in recycling or impede progress in this area. They are also important means to advancing the sustainability of recycling over time by serving as resources on recycling technology, end-markets and life cycle analyses.

How Our Efforts Add Up

Reducing inbound contamination takes everyone’s help. Thanks to ongoing customer engagement by our drivers and customer service agents, innovative technology and various partnerships, we reduced inbound contamination at our 46 single stream recycling facilities from a high of 24% in August of 2018 to 19% at the end of 2019. This contributes significantly to our new goal of reducing inbound contamination across all of our MRFs (excluding construction & demolition) to no more than 10% by 2025. To make progress toward this goal, we will continue to educate, inform and engage our customers on how to Recycle Right.

Inbound Recycling Contamination
%

Line chart showing Waste Management's Inbound Recycling Contamination percentage

Since August of 2018, we have decreased levels of inbound contamination at our single-stream recycling, and plan to further decrease contamination over the next five years.

Materials Recovery Facilities

Single Stream: 46 Facilities

Commercial: 30 Facilities

Other: 14 Facilities

C&D: 11 Facilities

Dual Stream: 2 Facilities

Total GHG Reduction From Recycling
Driven by Specific Commodity Tonnages X GHG Reduction per Ton

Glass:

Aluminum Cans:

Steel Cans:

HDPE:

PET:

Mixed Plastics:

Newspaper:

Mixed Paper (General):

Corrugated Containers:

Inbound Recycling Contamination
%