Dec 18, 2013

Waste Management's sustainable solutions

7 min
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In North America millions of people share the same experience of rolling their forest green colored trash can to the curb in the evening once a week. The next morning, after a green garbage truck empties the can, millions of people roll it back into their garage and then head to work.

It’s a suburban ritual. It’s a chance to chat with a neighbor or take a few quiet seconds to survey the landscape and breathe in the crisp morning. Next week will be the same. And the week after and after that until, one day, it just stops. There is no reason to do it anymore.

What if a trash collection company worked to create a zero waste scenario in your community? That seems counterintuitive, right? Well, not for one company that is reimagining waste as a valuable resource.

Waste Management Inc. is the largest environmental solutions provider in North America. The company generates more than $14 billion in annual revenue and serves more than 20 million customers in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico.

As a major component of their ongoing strategy, they are developing new waste solutions that would assist communities and organizations achieve sustainability goals, including zero waste.

“You may think that a zero waste initiative is a threat to our business model, but we see it as an opportunity,” said Waste Management President and CEO David Steiner, during a presentation at the BSR Conference in San Francisco last month. “Every threat to a business is an opportunity to innovate. That’s what we are doing at Waste Management.”

The company, which has the largest network of recycling facilities, transfer stations, and landfills in the industry, is using sustainability as a central motivation for its transformation from a waste collection and disposal company to one that views and uses waste as a resource.

Broad based goals

“We are charting new territory at Waste Management,” Steiner says. “We’re no longer merely in the business of picking up the trash and putting it somewhere safe. Keeping the environment— and our people and neighbors — safe remains our most fundamental commitment.”

To drive sustainability the company created four broad based goals:

1.)    Recycle 20 million tons of material by 2020. In 2012 the company recycled 12 million tons of material.

2.)     Double the amount of waste based energy produced. “At the core we are a waste company, but we create two to three times more electricity annually than the solar industry,” Steiner says.

3.)    By 2020 decrease emissions from the trucking fleet by 50 percent.

4.)     Turn the landfill sites into wildlife refuges. Currently, 134 (more than 28,000 acres) of their sites have been certified as wildlife refuges.

“Environmental stewardship is linked inextricably to our business performance,” Steiner says. “As recycling volumes rise and the demand for recycled commodities grows, our revenues from this part of the business rise. Despite periodic dips in recycling and green energy prices, we continue to develop new ways to convert waste into valuable resources. We take a long-term outlook.”

Waste based energy

Waste Management is a pioneer in converting landfill gas to electricity, or to natural gas for use in vehicles. Like wind and solar, landfill gas is a renewable source of energy endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an alternative to fossil fuels. It’s produced as waste naturally decomposes inside the landfill. Once captured, the gas is piped to a processing facility where it is filtered, decompressed and then used to power either an engine or a turbine

In California, Waste Management collaborated to build the world’s largest plant to convert landfill gas to liquefied natural gas. The greenhouse gas emissions with LNG are 20 to 25 percent lower than those of diesel, and particulate emissions are 90 percent lower. The facility produces 13,000 gallons of LNG per day and helps to power the fleet in California.

“The same trucks that drop off the waste to the landfill then fuel up with the LNG that is produced from that waste at the landfill,” Steiner says.

In October construction began on a facility that will create 105 million British Thermal Units per hour of pipeline-ready natural gas from the company’s Milam Landfill in East St. Louis, Ill.  The processed natural gas will be injected into the pipelines of the local utility and withdrawn at other locations for use in CNG-fueled trucks, or other equipment.

In all, Waste Management has 134 projects on landfills that use landfill gas to generate electricity, produce renewable gas, or displace fossil fuel. Together with their 15 waste-to-energy plants, their landfill-gas-to-energy projects produce enough energy to power more than 1.17 million homes.

“As the demand for renewable energy increases, driven by governmental and customer sustainability goals, so do Waste Management revenues from green energy,” Steiner says.

Reducing fleet emissions

The company has the nation’s largest fleet of heavy-duty trucks that run on clean-burning natural gas – more than 2,500 of them working across North American cities. Going forward, 90 percent of their new trucks will run on natural gas. The vehicles powered by CNG emit nearly zero air particulates, cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 25 percent, and are quieter than diesel vehicles.

Waste Management constructed, owns, and operates 50 natural gas fueling stations in North America, 18 of which are available to the public.

As of this year the company cut fleet carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent. By 2020, their commitment to switch to a CNG powered fleet will pay off as a reduction of 350 million gallons of fuel, about 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions and $1 billion of operational costs.

Zero waste

“No one in our industry thinks zero waste is achievable or profitable. What is zero waste? But when we had a strategy session at Waste Management on our sustainable and zero waste goals, I said that we have to either ‘fight that tide or ride that tide.’ We chose to ride that tide,” Steiner said.

The company created a Green Squad – like the Geek Squad for Best Buy – that provides consulting services and audits for companies on how to reduce and reuse waste. These sustainability services are being used by major companies to achieve zero waste goals.

Recently, General Motors wanted to take its manufacturing plants and turn them into zero waste facilities. GM went to WM for a solution.

“We brought them down to zero waste,” Steiner said. “The way we got them to zero waste was not looking at their waste as waste; we looked at their waste as materials, and these materials that could be used as a revenue generating materials.”

At the Toyota plant in San Antonio, Waste Management’s zero waste solution was to take waste material produced at plant and turn it into pelletized fuel that could burn like coal, without the particulates associated with fossil fuels.

“If our common goal is a sustainable planet, then we have to find common ground,” Steiner said. “We have to listen to all sides.”

Public policies

Working with members of Congress, WM is promoting legislation to continue federal tax credits for electricity produced by waste-to-energy and biomass plants, as well as for electricity produced by landfill-gas-to-energy projects. The company is also promoting tax incentives for converting fleet vehicles to alternative fuels including compressed natural gas (CNG), along with tax incentives for development of fueling infrastructure.

 As part of broader energy policy discussions in Congress, WM is advocating for technology neutral policies that promote production of electricity and fuels from renewable sources. Production of renewable electricity or fuels would be rewarded based on the energy content of the product rather than on the technology that produced it (e.g., wind, solar).

“You can make things happen in a business if it drives to profitability,” Steiner said. “If you can get business, government, customers, and non-governmental organizations to work together you can get things done.”

Waste Management has also been working with states such as New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida as they develop legislative or regulatory mechanisms to encourage the development of new and continuation of existing renewable energy sources such as waste-to-energy, landfill gas-to-energy, and biomass facilities. 

“We all have the same common goal when we look at it,” Steiner said. “What mark is our generation going to leave?

“What has never been done before is a generation leaving the planet in better shape than how we inherited it. That’s what we want to do.” 

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May 13, 2021

All but two UK regions failing on school energy efficiency

Dominic Ellis
2 min
Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East are the only UK regions where schools have collectively reduced how much they spend on energy per pupil

Most schools are still "treading water" on implementing energy efficient technology, according to new analysis of Government data from eLight.

Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East are the only regions where schools have collectively reduced how much they spend on energy per pupil, cutting expenditure by 4.4% and 0.9% respectively. Every other region of England increased its average energy expenditure per pupil, with schools in Inner London doing so by as much as 23.5%.

According to The Carbon Trust, energy bills in UK schools amount to £543 million per year, with 50% of a school’s total electricity cost being lighting. If every school in the UK implemented any type of energy efficient technology, over £100 million could be saved each year.

Harvey Sinclair, CEO of eEnergy, eLight’s parent company, said the figures demonstrate an uncomfortable truth for the education sector – namely that most schools are still treading water on the implementation of energy efficient technology. Energy efficiency could make a huge difference to meeting net zero ambitions, but most schools are still lagging behind.

“The solutions exist, but they are not being deployed fast enough," he said. "For example, we’ve made great progress in upgrading schools to energy-efficient LED lighting, but with 80% of schools yet to make the switch, there’s an enormous opportunity to make a collective reduction in carbon footprint and save a lot of money on energy bills. Our model means the entire project is financed, doesn’t require any upfront expenditure, and repayments are more than covered by the energy savings made."

He said while it has worked with over 300 schools, most are still far too slow to commit. "We are urging them to act with greater urgency because climate change won’t wait, and the need for action gets more pressing every year. The education sector has an important part to play in that and pupils around the country expect their schools to do so – there is still a huge job to be done."

North Yorkshire County Council is benefiting from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has so far awarded nearly £1bn for energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects around the country, and Craven schools has reportedly made a successful £2m bid (click here).

The Department for Education has issued 13 tips for reducing energy and water use in schools.

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