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Towards a Restorative Economy with Waste Management?

By Alex Nichols on March 23, 2016 at 4:01pm.

Waste is an intensely frustrating issue. The throwaway society pervades all, washable nappy services are emergent at best, there’s an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, over-marketing and overconsumption seem endemic, packaging still appears wasteful, product design is still not immune to wastefulness, consumers appear slow in getting the recycling message.

But, while its prevention is a priority, waste is a resource! Energy and materials can be recovered. Environmental impacts can be avoided. The circular economy is an alternative to a “make, use, dispose” economic model. In it we maintain and extract maximum value from resources in use for as long as possible and recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of the product’s serviceable life. It’s also a state of mind, an attitude, and it supports the “Age of Purpose”, an intellectual campaign aiming to revolutionise what success in business really is.

From a technical point of view, waste management is relatively straightforward to resolve. Much of it rots in controlled landfill, some is burned. Toxic waste demands special treatments. National legislation in most countries is adequate. But can a revolution take place on this planet towards a more regenerative model of economic progress?

I have a long admiration for and fascination in the waste industry, from one of my first jobs promoting ‘waste min and EfW’ under the UK government’s clean tech programmes. Call me weird but I get a bit finicky about sorting for recycling. Tearing out the sticky part of an envelope before recycling and so on. And I always have admired the family that kept their annual household waste destined for land-fill to fit in a single dust bin. Let’s see if Waste Management’s Report can help put my mind at ease? With enough interconnected companies, with enough innovation and creativity, with renewable energy, perhaps a new cyclical system of financial, manufactured, human, social or natural capital building can be achieved?

Before we dive in, a quick quiz: what do bowling balls, garden hoses and electrical cords have in common? Answer is at the end.

First things first: the 2015 Report is a ten-page update of the 2014 report (which weighs in at 101 pages). So I read the 2014 report first, and this review looks at the pair together, mainly focusing on the 2014 report (this review is linked to the update, so please sign in to find the 2014 report). They look the same, they are meant to be closely related, and read together.

What’s in it?  The Full Report opening section shows the company, waste management operations (infographic), the concept of circularity. The business section describes the key issues such as reduction, recycling, extracting value, and energy recovery. This section starts with the technical and consulting services of the company, which makes sense as it aligns with a product life-cycle (concept - use -disposal/regeneration). Then the recycling and landfill business is described. The final section then shows how their own operations fare in terms of sustainability performance: people, safety, communities etc.

An online appendix online shows further information on sustainability for SMEs and households, for example, as well as some projects such as landfill gas monitoring and bioreactors in the US (information is not date-stamped). There is a section online that is home to the management detail (DMA content in G4 speak). The video on the main sustainability page didn’t work when I tried it.

The 2015 Update report of ten pages presents an executive statement and the circular economy bit in summary over four pages. A company profile infographic is followed by goals & progress, KPIs and awards. That’s it.

The personality of “the report” (Full+Update) is competent, professional, modern. If this report were a person s/he would drive an Audi A6, come across as a happy person, and be on the large side. Solid performance, with KPIs going in the right direction more or less, depending on markets and other economic conditions to a certain extent. 

The report describes the company and its role ‘serving the circular economy’ and its clients. It poses questions and explores the subject. Not too discursively, but just enough to ‘tell the story’ of its contribution. I think they have the balance about right, not too much techy stuff. They signpost to external content for detail (eg the Life Cycle Thinking report, p20).

They have five material issue areas:
• Customers’ sustainability needs
• Reducing and recycling wastes generated by others
• Converting waste into renewable energy, fuels and chemicals
• Managing our [operations] to exceed regulatory obligations
• Serving as responsible stewards of the land.

So the report then goes through the “reduce, recycle, reuse/extract value” logic. There’s lots going on here (eg expanding single-stream recycling capacity ), with some fancy technology, some urging of customers/consumers to “Recycle Often. Recycle Right”, e-waste recycling, construction waste etc., and they cap it all by an account of the Phoenix Open golf event in 2013 and 2014 – the Greenest Show on Grass, as sponsored by Waste Management (WM).

The “extracting value” section powers ahead with comments about the prodigious amount of food waste in the USA, and what WM is doing about it (go on, read it, it talks about “engineered bioslurry similar in thickness to cooked oatmeal”. Lovely). It continues on to a Waste-to-Energy chapter describing well-run and productive facilities providing 14,000 jobs (and referencing the study that calculated this statistic). This is followed by a chapter on landfill gas-to-energy, which is “part of the circular economy”.

Finally, the performance of Waste Management’s operations is covered, in a pleasingly different colour. Of course, the industry in the USA and Canada is highly regulated. So all is going ok for WM. But they do seem to be pushing too, eg, cleaner vehicles in their fleet. Also, for example, they are clear about why landfill gas yields change (eg, when the trash is dry during a drought, less gas is harvested). And they consider what GHG footprint would have been for the company without that distortion.

It seems a great place to work according to the ‘People’ sub-section. Turnover is steadily increasing but WM gives a reasonably cogent explanation. They are working hard on safety, because “despite a 40 percent reduction in industry fatality and injury rates between 2001 and 2009, the industry rates increased between 2010 and 2012”; WM’s TRIR has improved 65 percent between 2003 and 2013.

If I am honest I started skipping pages, glancing and skimming, at around p65. I don’t usually. I felt they’d convinced me that they are “on it”. I did try to find some “balance” (in GRI speak), some talk of challenges, and how they’d dealt with them. But, alas, none were forthcoming. They have their own natural gas filling stations for goodness sake! And solar powered compactors that wirelessly signals to be picked up when it’s ready! They’re plugged in to the NGO/institutional stakeholder networks in their sector and appear to showing leadership (eg p66). And they have a neat infographic showing the GHG emissions in the ‘value chain’. 

I got the same feeling by skipping through the community section and stakeholder engagement section. The latter is tied back into the circular economy content at the start of the report. There’s the usual piece about planting trees but that’s ok because they have a meaty bit on local economic contribution shortly after. 

And then you’re done. Suddenly it ends with a series of Endnotes. The usual end matter is in an Appendix which you have to hunt for (it’s on the website, and oh gosh, it’s 61 pages long!).

At last a pdf that is the same shape as my computer monitor! It’s as if they thought about how people read reports!
Readable style of language. Quite un-American if I am honest. American reports tend to be a little motherhood-and-apple-pie in style and content – talking about stuff with which few would disagree.
The grey – green – yellow navigation key at the top of the page (for Company - Business – Operations) is great. Nice and simple.  

Each chapter (eg Reducing Waste) is heralded by a clear Landing Page, to divide the last section from the forthcoming one. The chapter showing the performance of their own operations is a pleasingly different colour to the preceding ones.

They use ‘stakeholder voices’ boxes from time to time, which is a nice addition – a real person quoted, smiling in a mugshot.

The chapters are accessible and readable. The use of icons for subsection is nice. The chunks of States shown on p45 is perhaps not that useful but I see what they’re aiming to do (break things up so the reader takes a breath etc).
All in all, a well-designed report.

WM have been doing this stuff for 20 years, and it shows. The report content demonstrates a credible approach and strong results towards a circular economy. The report is aligned with GRI G3 level B.

The 61-page Appendix (online pdf) has loads of gubbins for geeks and GRI wonks. Everything from Sustainability governance to Codes of Conduct, Political contributions, Spills, Environmental expenditure, GRI DMA etc and more.
There are fascinating items in the Appendix document: it gets a bit academic when they describe the geography of their facilities according to ethnic class zone (p35). But, if you are looking for a certain piece of info on operation and performance outside the annual report territory then WM delivers it! I was worried that the Appendix was carpet bombing a bit. And it is. But the Contents page is clickable through to the sections, so it’s very navigable. And not in the main report document.

Things are clearly being revised and improved (I presume). For instance, trends and data restatements are explained, although it is often in the small print (eg, Update report 2014 Endnote no. 6 says, “In our calculations, we assume that, by recycling, we divert materials from the average landfill nationally, not solely from our modern landfills with landfill-gas-to-energy capacity. If instead our recycling were to divert materials only from our own modern landfills, the emissions reductions achieved by recycling would be less”). Seems credible.

One issue I note is that they claim to fully report against G3 3.13 on report assurance. But I checked where they index the information on this, and it was not provided. (They have loads of site assurance processes of course.)

1. Keep it up (and share your love of reporting with others around the world!)
2. Perhaps condense things somewhat – resist the temptation to over-do the Appendix
3. Calculate the value: I am interested to know how much the report costs and whether the company gets a return on its investment, and how it calculates it (they have probably done this already!)
4. Clarify the reporting regarding external report assurance.

Quick quiz: What do bowling balls, garden hoses and electrical cords have in common? They are examples of “odd and awkward nonrecyclables” (contamination in the waste stream) received by WM in 2013.

Alex Nichols runs international consulting projects for business on sustainability reporting, strategy, materiality assessment, stakeholder engagement, assurance and training. Alex is also Associate Director at Paia Consulting, Singapore, Senior Associate Consultant with IMS plc, Bristol, and a Senior Associate Consultant with Gorham & Partners mining strategy and research firm. www.alexnicholsconsulting.com   |  www.paiaconsulting.com.sg