Two years ago, at a sustainability forum hosted by Waste Management, a former UN climate official said the company "should actually change its name" to signal a shift away from the linear economy of production and disposal. Last week, CEO Jim Fish detailed why the company has now taken that step, dropping the title it has been known by since 1968.
“At WM, we’re always working for a sustainable tomorrow. It’s that focus on sustainability over many decades that’s helped WM become so much more than a waste management company," Fish said in a video. “Going forward, Waste Management will be known as WM,” he said. The company's slogan will now be "for tomorrow" as part of a broader rebrand.
Standing at a large landfill outside Dallas, Fish described the site as supporting a "renewable energy revolution" and "part of a circular economy" because of its gas capture systems. He went on to tout how the company is a "circular logistics operator" that's pacing ahead of its 2025 goal to convert at least 70% of collection vehicles to alternative fuels; it's on track to invest more than $700 million in MRFs since 2018; it recently expanded its stake in recycled product manufacturer Continuus Materials and more.
The company's annual sustainability forum — which often features prominent figures in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) world — is held in conjunction with the larger WM Phoenix Open golf tournament. WM has previously described the overall event as a high-value marketing opportunity to broadcast the company's brand to a national audience, and it touts the tournament's status as "the largest third-party-certified zero waste event in the world." Past forums have highlighted initiatives such as the company's greenhouse gas emission targets, use of recycled content in uniforms and charitable contributions.
This year, the company also partnered with Morning Consult on a survey about sustainability opinions ahead of the event. According to that survey, 72% of respondents had "concerns with the state of sustainability today" in the U.S., and 56% said "they equate sustainability with recycling," but confusion is still high about recycling, and respondents also underestimated the level of food waste in the country and were less familiar with the potential around landfill gas.
The company has also been increasingly engaged in social impact efforts in recent years, as the industry works through longstanding labor constraints, and it's continually working to stake its claim as a thought leader in the space. Through that lens, the speakers and topics it chooses to feature bear watching. Here are a few of the year's more notable quotes.
Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and co-author of "Net Positive," spoke with WM Chief Sustainability Officer Tara Hemmer about how his book defines net-positive companies as ones that help solve the world's problems rather than causing them. According to Polman, "the scale and speed we’re moving is simply not fast enough" to address the climate crisis. He also believes corporate ethics are a paramount issue, and he feels a broader rethink of economic systems is needed.
"If you have more cancer or medical costs, if you have more wars or conflicts, if you have more damage that you need to repair because of giant storms or floods or fires, if you cut down the trees and sell the wood, this is all economic activity that is measured in [gross domestic product]," he said. "What GDP doesn't measure is peace, is justice, quality of education, absence of mental health issues, air quality, and I could go on and on. So, interestingly, everything that makes life worth living for is not necessarily captured in GDP."
In a session with circularity experts, including one from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the former head of worldwide circular economy for Amazon, George Bandy Jr., said that "condemning materials is not what the circular economy is about" and called for a broader view.
“One of the questions is, who’s responsible? The consumer when they get a product? The manufacturer when they make a product? The store when it sells a product? The people who deliver the product? Landfills who receive the product? Waste Management? Who is responsible for that product at the end of life? We all are," said Bandy. “End-of-life disposition is the most complex component, but it’s the component that includes everyone, and so we have to create a platform that allows everyone to be able to contribute."
A later session on youth climate activism moderated by Matthew Tejada, director of the U.S. EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, touched on the topic of climate justice. Tejada and the panelists said they sometimes still feel climate justice isn't fully understood, even at the highest levels.
Vic Barrett, an activist and plaintiff in a landmark youth climate case against the U.S. government, said a lack of knowledge about intersectionality is one of the "massive blind spots" for people working on the climate crisis.
"[It's important to realize] that we are not just talking about the climate crisis in terms of every time there's a natural disaster that happens, but keeping in context that the people who are being impacted might also be at risk of eviction that month, or might also live in a food desert, or might have to deal with just the day-to-day struggles that already come with being part of a historically marginalized or a historically oppressed group," said Barrett.
A conversation between the CEO of Guild Education (WM's partner on employee education benefits) and the founder of consulting firm ReadySet touched on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as they pertain to hiring and leadership — an area still seen as evolving in the waste and recycling industry during recent years.
“We can talk about intent all day, and all of us mean well, and that’s great. But at the end of the day, there are some very real people whose lives are negatively impacted in a really harsh way for whom things aren’t going to change by the nature of our intention alone," said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, ReadySet's CEO and founder. "There are folks who still think of DEI as, like, a nice-to-have, or even kind of a must-have, and I always say, 'No, it's actually neither, because it has to be embedded in your DNA.'"
Finally, in a conversation with sustainability leads at GM and Marriott International about best practices for ESG strategies, WM's Hemmer said educating leaders within one's own company is also key, and doing so has accounted for "a significant portion of my time" recently. She said there's also been a higher level of inquiries from investors who want to know more about WM's ESG impacts and opportunities, as well as growing interest among customers.
"We have our customers that are all going through a decarbonization transition, and many of them, especially consumer products companies, are really looking at, 'how do we get the materials that we produce back into the stream so they can be turned into something else?'" said Hemmer. She called out the need for recycling investments to capture more material that is "presently trapped in our landfills" and noted that "you can't look at a company like Waste Management without acknowledging that a significant portion of our greenhouse gas emissions comes from our landfills."
WM's landfills, like those at other large companies in the solid waste sector, accounted for nearly 74% of its greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 (based on currently available modeling) and will be key to achieving its climate targets. As the U.S. waste industry adapts to mounting ESG pressure from investors and customers, and makes new investments, it's also experiencing a period of strong value for RNG and various recyclable commodities. Given that WM is North America's largest landfill operator and its largest residential recycler, Hemmer sees both of these areas as "ones that are going to drive significant growth for our company long term."