'Don't let waste go to waste': WM shifts approach

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

Just ask Bill Caesar. He runs the recycling and organic growth units of Waste Management, America’s biggest trash company, which had $13.3 billion in revenues last year.

It’s hard to get many cities and towns to embrace recycling.

It’s hard to get homeowners to figure out which plastics go into which bin.

It’s expensive to build out the infrastructure needed to separate materials, and ship them to customers.

And now, to make matters worse, the prices that buyers are willing to pay for cardboard, used paper, metals and plastics have fallen, on average, by about a third. A ton of solid waste used to yield about $150 in recycling revenues, more or less. Today, it’s closer to $100. Here’s a chart.

“The commodities are global in nature,” Bill told me the other day. “When the French stop buying things, the Chinese stop making things, and when that happens, they need fewer boxes and the price of recovered paper in the US falls.”

Who would have thought that the EU’s troubles would slow progress towards zero waste?

Bill and I met this week to after he spoke at Wastecon, the big convention organized by SWANA in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, where I came across the recycling robot. (Of course you know SWANA as the Solid Waste Association of North America. Some time ago, garbage became solid waste and the city dump turned into a sanitary landfill).

Waste Management still takes most of the garbage municipal solid waste that it collects to dumps sanitary landfills –- it owns more than 250 active landfills -- but Bill’s job is keep stuff out of the ground. His unit looks for ways to extract more value from waste, either by recycling, or composting organic waste, or turning waste into energy.

Photo of waste in blue storage bags provided by Parys Ryszard via Shutterstock

Next page: A shift in approach