This is the second half of TreeHugger's interview with David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management. Read part one here.
TH: Are you also educating consuming on reducing their waste?
DS: When you look at what we do, we have about 22 million customers throughout the United States and Canada. And we have an upstream business unit; the entire business model of that entity is to go to industries and help them understand how they can put less into the process and get more out of the back-end.
On the consumer side, we really do work with the local communities, because local communities are only going to recycle if the local governments either mandate it or subsidize it. We absolutely work with communities to provide things like recycling plants. In order to make recycling work with the community and to work for Waste Management, we've taken a technology called single-stream recycling. If you remember when recycling first started you had to put your bottles all in one box and cardboard in another, newspaper in a third.
Single-stream recycling allows you to put all of your recyclables in one bin, so it makes it more convenient for the consumer. We found that with single-stream recycling, we can see recycling rates go up by as much as 30 percent. We did it for the city of Denver [Colo.] and it did just that.
For us, from an economic point of view, if we have a single-stream recycling facility that can run about 3,000 to 5,000 tons a month through it, we actually have higher margins and higher returns that we do on the solid-waste side of our business, so it's a good business for us.
TH: What about electronics recycling? You recently partnered with Sony to create designated e-waste drop-off sites to recycle Sony products. Will you be expanding that program?
DS: We'd love to partner with all the other electronics manufacturers to do just that—create one central repository. If you have to bring your Olympus tape recorder to an Olympus, your Sony products to a Sony station, and your iPod to an Apple station—not very efficient and it uses up a lot of fuel. We can be that single repository, where the consumer can bring their electronics to be recycled at no cost to them, because the manufacturer subsidizes that program, we can bring more types of products into the recycling stream.
We just started a company that we call LampTracker, which takes fluorescent light bulbs to be recycled and makes sure the mercury is taken out and recycled, rather than being put into the environment. We'd love to work with light bulb manufacturers ... right now you buy your fluorescent bulb in a package. What if that package had a return stamp on it? You buy it, you put your old light bulb into that box, put it in the mail, it comes to us and we can recycle it.
What we're doing is looking at what materials aren't being put into the recyclables stream and how we can bring them in.
TH: Something we've heard repeatedly from the big thinkers of our country is that we need to look to the private sector for new and more efficient technologies, rather than wait for the political will to develop.
DS: I think it's a combination of both. One of our goals—we put 20,000 trucks on the road every day—we want to get a 15 percent improvement from a fuel-efficiency point of view and from an emissions point of view. We don't build trucks. Now, when I look at the technology that's being used from a hybrid point of view in the consumer-automobile industry, I say, "Why can't we do that in the truck industry?"
Then I look back and think how did we spur the change in hybrids in the automobile industry? It was two-fold: First we had CAFE standards that the government imposed on our automakers and so now they have to come up with new technologies to meet those standards. And so the government spurs that research. But the automobile companies didn't just move to hybrid technologies, they first built smaller cars, they did a lot of different things.
And then the consumer came along and said we don't just want smaller cars, we want hybrid cars, we want cars with less emissions—we want cars that get better fuel efficiency. And so you had a combination of the government acting and then the consumer acting. In our business, there are no CAFE standards for heavy-duty trucks. What if we could get the government to do that? That's going to require those manufacturers to do something different than they're doing today. And then we come in as the consumer, if you will, and spend $5 billion over a 10-year period. Then we say we want a dual-fuel truck—we want a truck that's more efficient, we want a truck that's more lightweight. So if you have the government and businesses working to achieve the same goals, that's when you see breakthrough technology.
TH: How do you feel about biofuels?
DS: We have a number of trucks that run on biofuels. When I think about biofuels, I [also] think about any fuel that you might think of as waste—in this case it might be oils—in other cases, it might be the technology we're using right now to try to take landfill gas and convert it to diesel.
So when I think about alternative fuels, I also think about [liquefied natural gas (LNG)]. If we can take the landfill gas and create LNG or diesel out of it, I call that the environmental closed loop. Think about it: If we could go to your house and pick up that 4 1/2 pounds of trash that we all create everyday, we bring it to our landfill, and then our trucks—using the gas we create by putting that garbage into the landfill—get refueled to go out and pick up more garbage. I call that the environmental closed loop. So it's not just biofuels, it's all the alternative fuels that we actually have the feedstock to create.
TH: A lot of Americans' waste is actually food waste. Is building compost facilities and collecting food waste on the cards?
DS: You hit the nail right on the head. There's a lot of things you can do with a compost pile and one of them, and one of them, we have to realize, is that a compost pile, in and of itself, creates carbon dioxide. The concept is, you create this giant compost pile and folks come and take the compost and take it into their gardens. One of the things we found is that ... we did a program like that and folks put it in their gardens and six months later, weeds all over the garden because the compost was basically organic waste coming in and wasn't cleansed in order to act as compost in the garden.
So it goes back to what I said earlier, when we take a waste stream, what is the best way to get the most beneficial use out of it? We can do one of two things. We can create a giant compost pile that creates methane gas—and we can hope that the public comes in and uses it for compost. Or we can take it ... we actually cover our waste everyday to trap in odors and trap in the waste, and we put as much as 1 to 2 feet of cover on our waste everyday.
And if you put organic material over that waste, it speeds up the decomposition of that waste. It basically sequesters the carbon—the carbon dioxide that would normally come out of a compost pile gets sequestered into our landfill and helps create methane gas and that's how we create landfill-gas-to-energy.
So the most efficient use of organics is generally to use it to cover the waste in our landfills to create more methane gas—in other words, trap that carbon dioxide that would otherwise go into your environment; trap it, use it to create energy ... you're getting a double benefit for it, rather than have the carbon dioxide out of it. I always make a joke: If a tree falls in a forest, does it create carbon dioxide? And that tree that falls in the forest does create carbon dioxide. So what we're trying to do is to sequester it.
When you look at our landfills, it's a pretty amazing statistic, but the carbon we sequester in our landfills—in other words, the carbon that would otherwise go into the environment—is more carbon than is created by 47 of the 54 categories that the EPA tracks for carbon emissions. Then after you sequester it, you burn it to create energy—you get that double benefit for it.