Waste Not

For business, government and consumers, the circular economy is more than recycling

by RaeAnne Marsh

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Waste Management’s tagline for the Waste Management Phoenix Open is “The Greenest Show on Grass,” and the details in the adjoining column give testament to its commitment to that goal. The company’s dedication to “green” also extends beyond its own operations, and it hosts a forum every year alongside the Open that “gives us a chance to investigate and think more deeply about all the issues and challenges in the whole world of sustainability,” says Michelle Grossman, managing principal of Waste Management’s Sustainability Services. “We welcome the opportunity to learn from our customers and allow our customers to share solutions and best practices.”

This year’s forum, the sixth annual Executive Sustainability Forum, drew nearly 300 corporate leaders from global companies; representatives from municipalities across the country; experts, innovators and influencers to discuss sustainability and the “circular economy.”

In his keynote address, Jim Fish, executive VP and chief financial officer with Waste Management, noted the importance of a life-cycle-thinking approach that considers recycling issues at each point in the chain and not just the product’s end-of-life. To that end, he said, “We work with our partners at every point in the chain, from the manufacturer to the end user/consumer.” Among the challenges are the dual hits of commodity prices being down while contamination is up (which results in a higher cost of processing), and the increasing popularity of flexible packaging to replace glass, paper boxes and other plastics but which cannot be recycled.

Recycling itself was the topic of the first panel discussion. John Tierney, author and The New York Times science writer, noted that, for many, recycling is inherently virtuous. However, although acknowledging that recycling can help lessen global warming by reducing carbon waste, he held that the actual impact has been exaggerated. Fellow panelist Adam Minter, author and columnist at Bloomberg, supported his observation that “we have always been recycling — because it’s economically efficient” with the examples of paper in 19th-century America being made with clothing from Great Britain and Paul Revere using recycled material to produce his silver tea sets. On the issue of landfills, Tierney held that space is becoming more valuable and governments can save money in that regard by recycling, but the labor costs of recycling are rising; his view is municipal governments such as New York City can find landfill space elsewhere. Minter noted landfill cost depends on its geographic location, and other liability costs include groundwater contamination. Minter also noted that there is general interest in recycling but it is important to educate consumers in order to reduce contamination in recycling, and also that there is extended producer responsibility regarding the choice of packaging materials.

Materials management was the subject of the second panel. Following are a few of the key points by participants:

  • David Allaway, senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality: In recycling for environmental outcomes, food waste and plastics give “the most bang for the buck.” Not everything should be recycled, and the focus instead should be on changing product design and consumption; for instance, reducing waste even more than recycling would be using thinner bottles for bottled water. “It’s important to look at the total environmental outcome,” he said, noting there is greater environment impact upstream than at the recycling end.
  • Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks: Recycling is a hyper-local issue, and can be hard for a global company because it’s affected by market conditions and the relationship with individual landlords. Toward the company’s goal of using recyclable cups, he noted problems to overcome include the coating used on the cups, sleeves and plastic lids, and the company went directly to the paper mills and not government to address them.
  • Keefe Harrison, executive director of The Recycling Project: Recycling is only one part of the circular economy, and there are different actions, drivers and economic models. Recycling is a supply chain for manufacturing. For local governments, it’s a service their citizens want, not necessarily a profit center. The circular economy involves economics, marketing, consumer behavior, water saving, energy, greenhouse gases — and is as much about what we don’t do as what we do.
  • Jeff Wooster, global sustainability for Dow: We need a more sustainable society because we are using resources five times faster than the earth can reproduce them. Use waste as a resource, and close the loop on resources to keep them in the processing cycle. It’s not one system but interconnected systems, and we can put materials back into another loop rather than in the ground. It’s the responsibility of industry and the government to use science to provide the best solution. Regarding packaging, the goal should be to design for whole-system performance: recycling, upstream impact and protecting the product.

Zero Waste

“We host the Open to showcase a lot of what we can do,” says Michele Grossman, managing principal of Waste Management’s Sustainability Services. Operating the tournament as “zero waste” since 2013, Waste Management — which has the largest amount of landfills in North America and is the largest residential recycler in the world — combines efforts of reducing, reusing, recycling, composting, donating and turning waste to energy to keep out of landfills a full 100-percent of tournament waste.

  • The tournament uses 100 percent renewable energy.
  • Compressed natural gas trucks transport the material collected during the tournament.
  • Wood scraps are delivered to a company that grinds them into mulch.
  • Compost and food waste is processed into compost and used as a soil amendment.
  • Carpet, turf and other materials are donated to Habitat for Humanity.
  • Unused food is donated to feed the hungry in the local community.
  • Vendors and sponsors are required to use reusable, recyclable and compostable materials.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open, attracting more than 500,000 attendees, is the largest zero waste event in the world. Nothing from the Waste Management Phoenix Open goes to a landfill. Planning consumes 10 months, and the event requires more than 25,000 labor hours for its 24/7 operation during tournament week.

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