The TH Interview: David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, Part 1

David Steiner of CEO of Waste Management speaks on stage at an event.

Fortune Live Media / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the morning that David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, announced the company's ambitious 13-year, four-prong environmental initiative at the World Business Forum, we caught up with the man himself backstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, home of those high-kicking Rockettes.

In the first part of our interview, we talk about what the triple bottom line means to him, how going green can also rake it in, and how landfill-gas-to-energy stands up to wind and solar. Check back for part two tomorrow to get the rest of the scoop.

TreeHugger: What precipitated these environmental initiatives?
David Steiner: What we're doing here is what we've been doing all along. What we're doing is good for the environment and is good for our shareholders, and so we decided to do more of it. For many years we've been taking waste and turning it into energy, but over the next 10 years we're going to double that amount. For many years, we've been the largest recycler in North America—we recycle more tons than anyone else in North America—so over the next 10, 15 years, we're going to triple that amount. For many years we've been taking our landfill sites and as we close them and cover them with natural grasses, we give them back to the community as a hiking trail or as a soccer field or as a golf course. We have a relationship with the Wildlife Habitat Council, where we give it back as wildlife space. So over the next 13 years, we're going to quadruple the amount we give back as wildlife habitats.

For years we've been driving over 20,000 trucks on the road everyday. We want to make those trucks more fuel-efficient, more emissions-efficient, so it's really taking everything we've done over the last 10 years and saying, let's pick out those things that are good for our shareholders but also have the added benefit of being good for the environment and let's do more of them.

TH: Are you taking a triple-bottom-line approach, then?
DS: Well I have two ways of talking about the triple bottom line. Everybody talks about the triple bottom line and absolutely these initiatives will meet the triple bottom line. But my triple bottom line is that I have three boys and I would love to be part of the first generation ever to give the planet to the next generation better than we inherited it.

They're 9, 10, and 12, and their generation cares about the environment—and I think it's incumbent on us. They always talk about my dad's generation as the "greatest generation" because of what they did in World War II, what they did for freedom around the world, and that's wonderful, but I think that we can be the next "greatest generation."

TH: With the increasing lack of available landfill space, has the cost of waste management changed much over the years?
DS: I think with simple supply and demand, you're going to see that as the supply goes down the demand is going to go up. But that is why when we looked at our business we say that we can't just look at landfill part of our business.

In the United States we generate about 300 million tons of trash every year, so there's no single solution to what we do with our waste. Everyone would like to say "let's recycle everything" or "let's burn it all to create energy," but there's no single solution when you have 300 million tons of waste. You've got to have a multifaceted solution.

We're the only company that can put it into the landfill and create landfill-gas-to-energy. We're the only company that can also recycle and can also put it into a wheelabrator plant that takes it and burns it to create energy. We're the only one that has that full range of assets so that we can do what our name says: manage waste.

TH: What potential does the waste stream have for producing energy and what does that mean for America's addiction to foreign oil?
DS: [Laughs] Look, I'm not going to tell you that the waste we all create is going to power every home in the United States. But today, every American generates about 4 1/2 pounds of waste every day, so the question is, what do you do with that?

We currently power about a million homes; again, we'll double that in the next 13 years. But those million homes we power gives us about the equivalent of 14 million barrels of oil, so when we look at it, every pound of that 4 1/2 pounds of trash has some value.

We talk about this a lot, that our name should ought to be "Materials Management," because we take the materials folks put out back and say, "What's the best use for them?" If you're putting cardboard out back, the best use for it would be to recycle it. If you're putting organics out back, probably the best use for that is to put it in our landfills to help us create methane gas to create energy or to bring it to a wheelabrator plant to create energy, because that organic waste is going to have a carbon content that's going to help us create more energy. So everything that comes out back of a business or a home, it's our job to understand what is the highest value for that.

TH: How do waste-to-energy landfill-gas projects compare to other renewable energy projects such as solar and wind?
DS: Everyone talks about solar power but just our company, just Waste Management, actually today creates more renewable energy than the entire solar industry in the United States. We do about half as much as the entire wind industry. So it's really the best-kept secret in renewable energy. We're a huge source of renewable energy compared with those other sources. And in my mind ... anytime you're going to help the environment, it's a combination of government and business.

So we need to make sure that when the government talks about subsidizing things like solar and wind power, that they're also talking about things like using waste to create energy, because, as you know, when the government subsidizes it, you'll find new technologies to make it more efficient. That would be a wonderful thing for us, to have a little bit of government help to help us subsidize technologies to make more efficient use of those carbon molecules in our waste.