Sorting Out the Future

January 15, 2020
December 2019

Jim is CEO of Waste Management, the largest environmental services provider in North America. Jim walks us through their 360 degree approach to solutions to inefficiencies in the recycling process. Upstream customer education, new sorting robotics and landfill methane-to-fuel technology are among the innovations that Waste Management is pursuing to meet ambitious sustainability goals.

Where does your interest in sustainability come from?

My mom grew up in Wyoming and it’s a beautiful state. My dad grew up in Colorado. We didn’t really call it sustainability when I was growing up, but we’ve always been lovers of the outdoors and the environment. For a long time, I have done what may seem like silly things; when I’m brushing my teeth, I turn the water off; when I was growing up we had a garden in the backyard which was pretty sustainable. Again, we didn’t call it sustainability, but our family has always lived that way. I think that’s something that’s been ingrained in me since I was a kid.

Was sustainability in the back of your mind when you started your career?

I started with KPMG and there wasn’t a whole lot to think about with respect to sustainability. Certainly, as I got into this business at Waste Manage-ment, it started to make sense to look at what we’re really doing here. Part of being the biggest recycler in North America is that we are leaders in an industry that is managing over 250 million tons of trash a year and trying to do something with it. I ask myself: what is the best thing we can do with it based on today’s technology? Is there anything we can do with it as that technology evolved? I’d always heard coming into this industry that landfills are bad, and I started thinking about that a lot as I was hired at Waste Management in 2001. There’s been a big shift in how we actually manage landfills from an environmental standpoint just in the last 18 years because so many of our landfills are in fast-growing Metro areas. As I got to Waste Management, I started thinking about how do we recycle more? How do we recycle better? And then what is it that we can do with landfills? Right now, engineered landfills are probably the best solution for large quantities of waste for the U.S. In some countries, landfills aren’t as numerous because you don’t have the amount of land availability. Now, is there another solution once these landfills come to the end of their lives? I read an article several months back that said “when you think about land-fills in the U.S., at least once that material goes in there, it is sequestered, not like in developing countries.”

You have spoken about creating the “recycling plant of the future.” What does this look like? How will it impact your business and the way we recycle?

Two things are worth touching on here: one is regarding our recycling plant of the future and the other is regarding a couple of other plants where we’re investing in robotics technology. The recycling plant of the future is not robotics, it’s optical sorters and we’re putting, for example, 14 optical sorters in this plant in the Chicago area. The number of optical sorters has been hugely increased in this recycling plant and enables us to do a much better job of sorting. We’ve also changed the process and flipped it on its head a from a negative sort to a positive sort and that just means instead of pulling those things that we don’t want from the conveyor belt off the floor, we are pulling the stuff that we do want. In theory, everything else that goes by goes through further sorting and comes out of the plant as a clean commodity. Unfortunately, the sorting equipment that is in many U.S. recycling facilities today just is not capable of producing the type of clean commodity that is expected by our customers. China has asked for 0.5% contamination, meaning only a half a percent of everything we process can be material that they’re not looking for — something other than cardboard, for example. Our current equipment at our single stream plant is not capable of producing that because there’s so much junk in there. I was looking yesterday at the stream of recyclables and it really is absurd what’s coming into these plants. It is ridiculous what you see in the recyclable “bin” that’s very obviously not recyclable. I mean garden hoses and stuff that actually is bad for our equipment and can actually cause it to shut down. The recycling plant of the future uses greatly enhanced optical sorting capabilities and it would make sense intuitively that the bin is much cleaner because what you’re doing is targeting that material and telling the optical or human sorter to pull it out and put, say, number one PET plastic bottles (soda and water bottles) and number two HDPE plastic (milk and juice jugs) in this bin. It’s then plausible that the amount of contamination could be less because really the only contamination possible now is if a sorter picks out the wrong mate-rial. That’s a 180 degree change in the process. It is also augmented by all the equipment we’re putting in. We bought eight robots that we’ve deployed at three different plants and we will bring all of that together under one roof and employ robots together with enhanced optical sorting technology and the new process I described.

Thinking more broadly about the recycling value chain, where are the current bottlenecks and where do you see opportunities for Waste Management?

Sorting is certainly a major bottleneck and education is obviously a huge piece of the puzzle so we do invest quite a bit in education. The one that I think has the greatest potential to really make a difference is alternative products or alternative uses of material at the back end. We can try and educate people all day long. I don’t mean to sound like a cynic when it comes to education, but people are just going to put stuff in their bin and some of it is incentivized by contract. The problem here in this example is that customers pay by the bag for their trash and they don’t pay for their recycling so there is an incentive for customers in this community to put everything they can in the recycle bin just from a financial standpoint. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how much we educate them on it.

What other waste to value innovations are you excited about?

While I can’t say a whole lot about this because we haven’t rolled it out, something I’m very excited about is a company that we’ve made a 35% investment in which is making materials out of a low-value plastic. It’s also not hugely expensive to build the type of plant which produces those materials. We previously made an investment in a company called Agilyx that turns various types of plastic back into a base oil, so when you do that, you’re going to end up building a plant that cost $300 or $400 million and it just ends up either not being competitive with oil itself or it forces us into a process that ends up being super expensive on the back end. I’ve always maintained that one of the solutions is going to be a low capital-cost process that creates something of value. Yes, Agilyx creates something of value, which is ultimately base oil, but it does it at a cost that’s far greater than the cost to oil companies to pump it out of the ground. But if I’m able to create something where I can compete with another product, I have something that’s sustainable at a competitive cost, then I can come to you and say, “look, we can sell materials to you that are fully sustainable and we can do it for the same price to you” then that’s a pretty enticing investment opportunity. Right now, materials without end markets go out the back door as trash because we can’t use all this stuff, for example giant sheets of bubble wrap. Yes, it’s made of plastic, but we can’t do anything with it. We are looking at solutions that could take all of this material and allow us to make use of it. Today, I feel like I’m saying “put less of your plastics in the recycling cart because I don’t want that bubble wrap. I don’t want the garden hose. I don’t want all the junk plastic that you put in your recycle bin because I can’t sort through it.” I can’t and there’s no market for it. But if I have a market then to me, that’s a pretty exciting alternative to the status quo (which is taking a bunch of that plastic with no end markets into the landfill).

Are Landfills becoming obsolete? How do you view that as a solution to the future of managing waste?

I don’t see landfills as being bad. In the U.S. trash goes into a landfill and this prevents it going into the ocean. Is there a better use for the trash or way of handling it? The question in my mind is really the definition of recycling: do you save the Earth’s natural resources? If all I’m doing is just diverting it from a landfill, which is how these municipalities look at recycling, it doesn’t ultimately do any good in terms of saving natural resources and I wonder what the point is. However, if it saves natural resources, then I am all for diverting waste away from landfills.

Following up on your thought regarding what recycling really should mean, is this a question that education can resolve? How else could we connect the dots between recycling and saving resources?

It almost always comes back to money. Many municipalities have set aggressive “diversion goals.” I probably sound cynical about this and I am because I’ve seen it, but it really doesn’t matter to them if they divert 50% of the material at the curb to something other than a landfill. If half of that material ends up going to a landfill in a 2nd or 3rd step, they don’t worry about that or count it against themselves. Therein lies the irony. If they were really worried about preserving natural resources, then they would care that this material that they’re “diverting” away really hasn’t done any good. In fact, it’s actually worse because it’s consumed a lot more natural resources in terms of electricity that it takes to process all of this through our single stream plants and then it eventually goes out the back door and to a landfill anyway. If we’re really concerned about the total footprint of natural resource consumption than I would just assume take it at step one to a landfill to save on electricity. They don’t care about that, they only care that in step one it goes away from a landfill.

As Waste Management is focused on North America, are there waste systems in other parts of the world that you could learn from and implement here?

We sold our international operations, but I have been to India a lot because we have 650 back office employees in India. I’ve looked at this out of interest, but I will tell you that a landfill in India is a much different animal than a landfill in the U.S. It’s not engineered well and you have a lot of material that escapes from those landfills and ultimately gets into sewers and finds its way into the oceans so I’m not sure they have anything that I’ve learned that we would implement here. I have learned some things over there that we certainly do not want to do. What I have seen as we think about becoming an international company again, as we’ve talked about, is that we’re not going to take our landfill model to Europe, for example. Europe is largely waste-to-energy focused and is much more of a self-sort model. They tend to have a cleaner commodity but their equipment is not really any different from ours. Coming up with this solution at the back end such as utilizing some of the low value plastics and paper would be something we could bring to other areas, particularly developing countries. As we think about ocean plastics, we ask ourselves, is there something we can do to help those countries that are contributing so significantly to this problem? In particular, India, China and South-east Asian countries contribute probably 95% of all the plastics that flow into the ocean every year according to National Geographic. Simply the use of a landfill itself could be a very sustainable and well-engineered solution that would be a massive improvement, so I think we could start there.

Is climate change on your mind when you look at your business model? Do you believe businesses have a role to play?

We think about climate change a lot. There are two places where we generate greenhouse gases, one is through our fleet and the other is through our landfills. In fact, we had a big meeting with our equipment suppliers recently and one of the topics was about electric vehicles and making the shift to reduce GHG’s in our fleet. We’ve made a very material investment to move to natural gas trucks, which is one step in a multi-step process to get to electric vehicles. Natural gas vehicles are better than diesel and in a very short period of time we’ve moved 60% of our fleet to natural gas which is way more than any other company out there. There are electric trucks out there, but they only have a 25 to 40-mile range, which is not where it needs to be because our average range for our truck drivers is anywhere between 100 and 150 miles a day. We would need to quadruple the number of trucks that we have or figure out how to work through the night and hire more drivers. Currently, our investment in natural gas is strong. We have a fleet of 1,200 trucks and continually expand our natural gas fleet and fueling stations. The second piece that I mentioned is regarding our landfills. What we’ve always been doing is to capture leachate gas and that is a requirement. We have over a hundred gas-to-energy plants that take that gas and run it through our Caterpillar or GE engines and turn it into pipeline quality natural gas. And because we’ve got a natural gas fleet that is consuming it, it’s a fully closed loop. The gas that we use in our CNG trucks is renewable when it comes from our landfills. We are becoming greener in both these areas of our company.

Who is your sustainable hero and why?

It would probably be my parents, but in terms of somebody in the corporate world that has done a great job, I don’t feel like there is anybody that’s truly synonymous with sustainability. I know there are some companies that do a nice job with it; for example, we visited Google recently and they said they’ve been carbon neutral for 10 years or so. Now, they’re in somewhat of an easier business to be carbon neutral but I don’t want to take anything away from them. I probably won’t give you a company, but there are some countries that have done some pretty impressive things. This summer I visited Denmark and I was pretty impressed with that country. They do a lot of conservation, which in my mind is the greatest avenue to true sustainability. I’ve been to Turkey, where they heat their water with solar. With almost 365 days a year of sunshine they do a lot with solar power. The Netherlands as well, they ride a lot of bikes and granted Houston, Texas is not really set up for that, if I wanted to ride my bike to work, I live 20 miles from my office, so I’d be a sweaty mess in July; but I do think there’s some things that those smaller European countries are doing from a conservation standpoint that I think is impressive.

Is there anything else you would like to add to sum up your leadership on sustainability?

Just to reiterate, I do think the natural place for Waste Management to flex our muscles on sustainability is in recycling. How do we educate and how do we change the process to create a cleaner stream? Producing a product out of the back end to me is both financially and environmentally motivating and attractive to me. I’ve said many times that sustainability has to be both economically and environmentally sustainable in order for it to reach that bigger, broader definition of sustainability. It has to be a win-win. People may just look at it as if we just have to recycle, saying, “I don’t care what you do with it; Waste Management, you figure it out,�

About Sustainable Heroes

Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown. In this issue, we pay homage to global leaders accelerating the sustainable transformation – all of whom share the goal of fighting climate change and creating a sustainable world that is more resilient and lower carbon intensive. We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations. We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to

Share This Article