INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA — In a time of growing public awareness around climate change, resource consumption and pollution, the waste industry is at a crossroads.
This was the theme of a keynote speech kicking off the 2020 Global Waste Management Symposium (GWMS), by Tara Hemmer, senior vice president of field operations for Waste Management's southern tier. While her comments reflected themes that are becoming increasingly common among some of the waste and recycling sector's larger companies, they also underscored the unique moment the sector is in and the realities industry professionals are currently facing.
"Now more than ever, our industry is under a microscope," Hemmer said at the Monday event.
Much of that attention is due to external trends. Younger generations — millennials and "Gen Z" — make up an increasingly large part of the U.S. population. Data consistently shows these demographics care deeply about climate change, along with persistent problems like marine debris and plastic pollution. That heightened attention has led to increased scrutiny from lawmakers at every level, ranging from local governments to Congress.
In comments at last month's Waste Management Sustainability Forum, CEO Jim Fish told participants his children consistently scrutinize climate and environmental issues in the waste industry. Hemmer told a similar story this week, recounting her daughter's questions about renewable energy in the sector. In both instances, that personalization was paired with acknowledgements about emerging global themes, like the rise of cities and their relationship to waste generation.
"Climate change impacts are shifting where people are living," she said, noting U.N. data on urban trends and how the resulting growth of some cities will "naturally mean an increase in solid waste generation in certain areas."
Differing regulatory trends on local and national levels are also set to affect the industry. While the Trump administration is seeking to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, more than 300 cities, counties and states (along with companies such as Waste Management) have opted to "stay in" and keep to the agreement's stated goals.
With landfills still a critical part of U.S. waste processes and the core of many companies, emissions remain a nagging issue. Waste Management itself has pledged to offset four times its operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2038. The company currently owns or operates 249 landfill sites, "the largest network of landfills in North America," according to a recent 10-K filing.
And even companies setting climate goals may find themselves left behind as regulations and public sentiment move swiftly. Hemmer pointed to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink's recent decision to avoid investments in companies "that present a high sustainability-related risk" as a major moment for the business world.
"Businesses are increasingly taking a leadership role in how the world thinks about sustainability," she said, arguing the waste industry "must respond and we are in a unique position to do so."
What that response could look like is still unfolding, and in some ways the industry is at the mercy of public consumption. Hemmer noted an ongoing shift from brick-and-mortar retailers to e-commerce has fundamentally changed the waste stream as have items like smartphones, which contain lithium-ion batteries.
Flexible packaging and single-use plastics are also presenting waste and recycling players with new and still-unfolding hurdles.
Much like climate goals, governments at the state and local level are targeting plastics. Sometimes this comes with support from the recycling sector, which frequently deals with plastic bag issues in MRFs. Several states are currently considering bans on those products, along with some expanded polystyrene packaging. A number of cities are weighing similar legislation or have already implemented it, along with bans on plastics straws.
These trends are ones the industry can't ignore and should seek to tackle proactively, Hemmer argued. "How do we solve for that friction between the benefits of plastics and the harms they cause?" she asked. "How can we model the solution for addressing these challenges on a global scale?"
Other changes may only come as quickly as technology can advance. Speaking to the growing momentum behind electric vehicles, Hemmer hedged and touted Waste Management's shift from diesel-powered trucks to natural gas, which currently powers 65% of the company's fleet. While Los Angeles recently committed to 100% fleet electrification by 2035, other cities have been slow to follow, as have most companies. Waste Management has committed to reducing fleet emissions 45% from 2010 levels in the next 18 years, but has shied away from embracing electrification yet.
"We often get asked about electric trucks and we believe there's a future in this technology," said Hemmer. "Ultimately, it has to do the job for our customers." She floated a future where "wind, solar, and landfill gas" could potentially power a fleet.
In response to a question from an audience member about the potential implications of Green New Deal-style legislation on the industry, Hemmer also cautioned "it's still a little bit too soon to tell." Referencing cap-and-trade policies in Canada — where Waste Management also operates — she commented such national regulations aren't "necessarily bad" for the waste sector. Several states already have cap-and-trade programs and Hemmer encouraged landfill operators to prepare for the possibility of similar scenarios nationwide. "[We need to] ensure the policy folks understand what these facilities do," she said, adding "the devil's in the details."
GWMS programming this year reflects the waste industry's increasing efforts to get ahead on issues ranging from climate change to contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Hemmer's remarks set the stage for a symposium with a significant emphasis on sustainability through a waste lens, with treating leachate for contaminants and improving methane capture among the leading issues.
Amid all of the discussion about industry evolution, Hemmer still asserted the staying power of landfills for the foreseeable future. She encouraged seeking new ways to optimize and expand operational landfills in capacity-constrained regions such as the Northeast, and touted the sites as a necessary remedy in a world where waste remains a fact of life.
"For now, landfills remain the most cost-effective, scalable, and sustainable method for solid waste in North America," she said.