Waste Management's 20-year path to 'moonshot' climate goal: cleaner fleet, more recycling
- Waste Management has given itself 20 years to achieve a "moonshot" climate goal of offsetting four times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it generates from operations, according to a recently released 2018 Sustainability Report.
- Achieving this goal includes two new 2038 targets: reducing fleet emissions by 45% (compared to 2010) and recycling 2 million more tons of material. More broadly, Waste Management will also look for ways to reduce other operational emissions while contributing to avoided emissions through service offerings.
- The company's operational emissions totaled 15.93 million metric tons of CO2e in 2017 — with slight increases in the "process" and "energy use" categories. Avoided emissions totaled 54.49 million metrics tons, driven largely by recycling. Landfills were counted as a form of carbon sequestration.
At the 2018 Sustainability Forum last January, Waste Management announced its moonshot goal with a call for boldness akin to space exploration in the Kennedy era — but details have been limited in the months since. During an April interview, CEO Jim Fish told Waste Dive the company was still "unpacking" how it would achieve that goal beyond a continued focus on cleaner fleet technology.
The vast majority of new vehicle purchases in recent years have been natural gas. As of this report, Waste Management is running 6,536 natural gas collection vehicles comprising 38% of its routed fleet. Overall, these vehicles are fueled by 110 stations — including four renewable natural gas fueling stations at landfills. Other hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles are also being used in various applications. In total, the company has reduced its fleet emissions by 28% as of 2017.
Given broader industry trends in this direction, the emphasis on fleet was less risky than any recycling promises. That makes the company's new recycling targets in this report among the most notable.
Back in April, Waste Management had just come off a quarterly earnings call with significant questions about recycling viability. A previous goal to recycle 20 millions tons of material by 2020 already looked out of reach based on a 2017 update, and Fish's main message was to stop focusing on weight-based "diversion."
In contrast, the new goal to increase recycling from 15.3 million tons in 2017 to 17.3 million in 2038 is far more measured. Coupled with a parallel target to increase avoided recycling emissions from recycling 38% by 2028 (against a 2011 baseline), these adjusted expectations align more closely with Waste Management's frequently espoused sustainable materials management approach.
Beyond these two key areas, the company's full biannual report includes a long list of statistics on organics recycling, landfill gas capture, labor trends, community relations and alternative technology investments, among other topics. The climate angle comes up frequently — with extensive details about corporate strategy, risk assessments and infrastructure resiliency in the report's appendix — but is generally portrayed as a longer term challenge rather than an imminent crisis.
Aside from major fleet investments, one of the biggest potential areas for change would be the company's large landfill network. Multiple Waste Management executives indicated in interviews throughout 2018 they don't expect the current landfill-centric dynamic to change in the near future, barring unknown regulations. It's too early to say how any potential climate legislation might play into this, whether in the form of newly required improvements or a shift to whole new alternative technologies, but possibilities are on the horizon.
Per the report, Waste Management's policy team monitors regulatory changes at all levels of government and recommends "approaches that produce meaningful GHG reductions at reasonable cost." It also recognizes potential carbon regulations as both a risk and a business opportunity, depending on how they're written, and includes a prediction that federal carbon tax proposals could come up as soon as 2020 — presumably as part of the presidential campaign.
When asked about this topic in April, Fish outlined his regulatory philosophy.
"My view is that government sets a baseline, but business should be well beyond that," he told Waste Dive. "So I'm not waiting for government to tell us what to do with respect to GHG reduction or any type of environmental regulation. We pride ourselves on going well beyond what the government tells us we have to do."
The question now — not just for Waste Management, but for major companies in any industry — is what steps to take if that government baseline ever becomes more ambitious than the pacing of their multi-decade sustainability goals.
- Waste Management 2018 Sustainability Report
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