I took a quick trip to Las Vegas to attend Waste Expo and give a presentation on the BioCycle 2017 Residential Food Waste Collection Access in the U.S. report. On Tuesday (4/24/18), I attended a “Fireside Chat” with Jim Fish, the CEO of Waste Management. The previous Friday, Waste Management (WM) released its 2018 first quarter earnings, noting the company’s “traditional solid waste business” — collection and disposal — “is in exceptional health,” accounting for 90 percent of revenues. Recycling, on the other hand, has “significant challenges presented by external market factors,” most notably China’s National Sword, which limits importation of contaminated recycled commodities. Aggravating the situation, according to Fish, are high levels of contamination — between 30 to 40 percent — at some of WM’s materials recovery facilities (MRFs).
During the Fireside Chat, Fish stated he believes part of the problem leading to contamination is the “huge social pressure to recycle, which is aspirationally good, but aspiration to recycle is unrealistic.” This social pressure, combined with municipalities’ laser focus on diversion, results in materials being put in recycling bins that end up in the landfill, he added. “Diversion isn’t necessarily about recycling if it is only about keeping waste out of the landfill. Municipalities are so focused on that first [diversion] step away from the curb, instead of recycling, which is intended to result in saving natural resources.”
Toward the end of the “chat,” Fish explained that there is a lot of private equity in the waste management industry now: “It is a great business model, bar the recycling.”
At the end of the session, I couldn’t get Fish’s characterization of recycling as “aspirational” out of my head. Was he saying that recycling advocates are being silly for believing that they actually serve an important role in the management of solid waste? That their actions to recycle after consumption to minimize environmental impacts and retain resources is an “aspirational” wish, as a colleague aptly put it when I related Fish’s comments?
Fish’s use of the word “aspirational” felt like a put down, not just to recyclers, but to anyone in the solid waste industry who is working on, and investing in, alternatives to disposal. Fish could easily have attached the word aspirational to composting and anaerobic digestion. The bottom line is that it is very difficult to separate his comments on recycling and diversion from the reality that he is CEO of a company whose revenues for the first quarter of 2018 were $3.51 billion — of which 90 percent were derived from collection and disposal.
The definition of aspirational when used in this context is “a hope or ambition of achieving something,” and also a “goal.” In the world of materials recycling and organics recycling, if we don’t have aspiration, then what has been the point of even trying to develop alternatives to disposal? Our end goal is to recover and reuse resources versus throwing them away at their end of life. That isn’t just aspirational. It is essential.
Fish ended the Fireside Chat discussing WM’s Organic Growth Group, which has spent $500 million on new technology development. He explained that a new technology has to cross the following three hurdles to bring it to market: it works, is scalable, and is economical, i.e., there is a cost savings. “None of the technologies from our $500 million investment can show the cost savings versus the economically efficient landfill,” Fish said. “It is hard to compete with that.”
Thank goodness for aspiration. That is what keeps organics recyclers pioneering, innovating and yes, competing. For the future of our planet and all who live on it, let’s keep up the good (and yes, aspirational) work.
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