Why Waste Is a Profitable Thing to Mind

You don't hear much trash talking these days, given the intense focus of corporate environmental managers on climate, energy, water, and other issues. Managing solid waste, of course, hasn't gone out of style. It's become part of everyone's job, from office workers to those on the factory floor, as well as in warehouses, hospitals, hotels, and just about everyplace else.

In the 1980s and 90s, waste loomed large. We were told that we were running out of landfills -- a bit of conventional wisdom about spaciousness that turned out to not be specious. We glommed onto recycling as a cure-all for many of the world's environmental ills. The passion for the Three R's of waste management came in part from the Mobro 4000, a barge made famous in 1987 for hauling the same load of trash from New York to Belize and back before a way was found to dispose of the garbage. The Mobro drove home the fact that there was no "away" to which we could conveniently throw things.

Since then, managing trash -- from offices, manufacturing, packaging, and a wide range of other components of commerce and communities -- has become a "normal," even habitual, practice. And a profitable one: The tales have been well told of companies that have reaped millions in cost savings from reducing the need to sort, bundle, compress, bale, store, and ship waste materials to recycling or disposal facilities. For example, I've often told the tale of how General Motors eliminated wooden shipping pallets from its North American assembly plants, requiring suppliers to use pallets made from corrugated cardboard, which is both recycled and recyclable. In doing so, GM saves about $100,000 from pallet disposal and earns about $50,000 reselling used cardboard . . . every business day.

We don't hear such stories often, or often enough, but they exist inside most big and many smaller companies, tales of impressive savings and efficiency improvements from having to deal with less stuff. (You can find dozens of stories and resources here.)

I attended an event last week that reminded me of the growing sophistication of today's waste world. It was a private meeting convened by Waste Management and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (and facilitated by my colleagues at GreenOrder). The event, consisting of senior environmental professionals from 25 major companies and a smattering of academics and government types, aimed to shed light on some of the issues related to e-waste, construction waste, packaging waste, food waste, and other forms of detritus.

The event was also aimed at showcasing the transformation taking place at Waste Management, a 40-year-old company that is gradually morphing from one of the world's largest trash haulers to one of the world's largest recyclers to one of the world's largest materials and resource efficiency companies. That transformation is leading WM to rethink its operations and business model, including engaging in new kinds of conversations with its corporate and municipal customers, such as the conversation at Tuck. (My friend and colleague Marc Gunther of Fortune wrote an excellent overview of the changes at Waste Management earlier this year. I queried WM's CEO, David Steiner, about this on a panel at the Corporate Eco Forum in September, video here.)