Waste Management's sustainable solutions
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.
“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.”
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.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere