Bill Caesar: Don’t let waste go to waste

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

Just ask Bill Caesar, who runs the recycling and organic growth units of Waste Management, America’s biggest trash company, which has $13.3 billion in revenues last year.

20120815-112349.jpgIt’s hard to get many cities and towns to embrace recycling.

It’s hard to get homeowners to figure out which plastics go into which bin.

It’s expensive to build out the infrastructure needed to separate materials, and ship them to customers.

And now, to make matters worse, the prices that buyers are willing to pay for cardboard, used paper, metals and plastics have fallen, on average, by about a third. A ton of solid waste used to yield about $150 in recycling revenues, more or less. Today, it’s closer to $100. Here’s a chart.

“The commodities are global in nature,” Bill told me the other day. “When the French stop buying things, the Chinese stop making things, and when that happens, they need fewer boxes and the price of recovered paper in the US falls.”

Who would have thought that the EU’s troubles would slow progress towards zero waste?

Bill and I met this week to after he spoke at Wastecon, the big convention organized by SWANA in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, where I cam across the recycling robot, above. (Of course you know SWANA as the Solid Waste Association of North America. Some time ago, garbage became solid waste and the city dump turned into a sanitary landfill.) Waste Management still takes most of the garbage municipal solid waste that it collects to dumps sanitary landfills–it owns more than 250 active landfills–but Bill’s job is keep stuff out of the ground. His unit looks for ways to extract more value from waste, either by recycling, or composting organic waste, or turning waste into energy. [click to continue…]

Genomatica: From Spandex to tires

Another step forward for green chemistry: Genomatica, a San Diego-based company that aims to replace chemicals that are made from oil and gas with chemicals made from renewable resources, said today [Aug. 2] that it raised another $41.5 million in financing and that it will develop a second bio-based chemical.

As part of the deal, an Italian chemical company called Versalis became an investor in Genomatica. Together, they’ll explore ways to make a chemical called butadiene, which is used to make tires, from plants.

Genomatic’s first product, a plant-based chemical called BDO (1,4-butanediol), is being produced in a demonstration plant in Illinois and will be produced at commercial scale by the end of next year at a plant in Italy. [click to continue…]

Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real

Zero waste is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve come across in nearly a decade of writing about business and sustainability.

In the short run, it makes business sense.

In the long run, it has the potential to transform the way we design and make things.

Garbage–and how to eliminate it from our lives–is more interesting than you’d guess. I’ve kept an eye on the zero waste trend since writing a story called The End of Garbage for FORTUNE in 2007. More recently, I wrote about DuPont’s efforts to eliminate waste. Walmart did so well at reducing and recycling waste that it turned what had been a cost (landfill fees) into an asset (revenues from recycling.). Even Waste Management, the nation’s biggest trash hauler, is remaking its business to extract value from waste. [See my 2010 FORTUNE story, Waste Management Earns Its Name]

Why is zero waste a radical idea? Because, as I wrote in Fortune, it leads to a new way of thinking:

Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.

They want industry to mimic biology, where one species’ excrement is another’s food. “We’re not talking here about eliminating waste,” McDonough explains. “We’re talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste.”

In two weeks, I’ll be in Costa Mesa, CA, at the first national business conference on zero waste, sponsored by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, a fledgling nonprofit set up to promote the idea of zero waste in the corporate world. The event begins on June 26, and I’ll be giving a talk (called “Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real!) on June 27. I’m also hoping to learn more about progress towards zero waste, as well as what obstacles stand in the way.  Toyota Motor Sales, SuperValu/Albertsons, Ricoh Electronics, Inc and Sierra Nevada are among the companies sending speakers.

If your company has a story to tell about waste, let me know in the next week or so (by email, please), and I will consider working it into my talk or my coverage. And I hope to see some of you there.

Recylebank: It’s not just trash to cash

Recyclebank is on a roll.

The New York-based company that rewards people for recycling their household garbage last week announced a $20 million strategic investment from Waste Management, the nation’s largest trash hauler.

As part of the investment, Waste Management said it expects to provide access to Recyclebank’s green rewards program to its nearly 20 million customers in North America.

Currently, Recyclebank has about three million members, so this is a big deal.

Jonathan Hsu

But there’s more to the story, as I learned last week when I interviewed Jonathan Hsu, Recyclebank’s CEO, at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco.

Recyclebank has bigger ambitions than turning trash to cash. It’s seeking to become a Internet marketing platform that will reward people for engaging in more environmentally friendly behavior. Its members will be able to earn rewards points by using energy more efficiently at home, reducing water usage, by buying greener products, even by walking to work instead of driving.

This makes Recyclebank a very interesting company to watch, because it is betting big on the green consumer–a risky but promising strategy. [click to continue…]

Trash talk, and the Internet

Incentives work. Every economist knows that, as do most parents (“clean your room and I’ll buy you an ice cream”).

Until recently, there have been few incentives to recycle. So recycling rates have been more or less steady for years.

That’s changing, largely because of the Internet and its power to efficiently collect, manage and distribute information.

In a column called The Internet of Trash for the News@Cisco website, I write about the ways a company called RecycleBank and a unit of Waste Management called Greenopolis are using data, the Internet and social media to  reward people who recycle.

Here’s how the story begins:

“Garbage,” says the character played by Andie MacDowell in the 1989 movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. We’ve got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Uh, no. Trash may have piled up in the late 1980s—this was the time when a barge called the Mobro carried 3,000 tons of solid waste from New York to Belize and back because there was no place to put it—but Americans lately have been throwing away less stuff, and recycling more.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Internet is a big reason why.  Digital music, for example, means fewer CD cases wind up in the trash. Email and online shopping, meanwhile, reduce the flow of letters and catalogs; mail volumes in the U.S. have fallen from 211 billion pieces in 2005 to 170 million in 2010, according to the annual reports issued by the U.S. Postal Service [PDF, downloads].

The Internet is also enabling innovation around recycling. Two ventures–a startup company called RecycleBank and a new division of Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler, called Greenopolis – are using digital technology to give people economic incentives to recycle. Both are pay dividends—literally and for the planet, by extracting value from waste that would otherwise be buried in a landfill.

Big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that have reputational issues tied to litter  are working with RecycleBank and Greenopolis to promote recycling. You can read the rest of the story here.

Now if only local governments would find ways to either (1) penalize people who throw away lots of stuff by charging them more or (2) reward people who recycle more, we’d drive up recycling rates further. That would move us just a bit closer to a zero-waste economy where nothing is thrown away and everything is made into somethings else. The idea here isn’t merely to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the concept of waste. Kind of like nature.

Waste Management earns its name

Big companies aren’t good at breakthrough innovation.  Disruptive innovation usually comes from start-ups or entrepreneurs. (See Big Business’s big innovation problem.)

Big companies are even worse at innovation when it threaten to cannibalize their existing business. Think about why newspapers failed to create a Craigslist or why the music industry missed the chance to invent iTunes. It’s scary to embrace a new venture that just might upend  your old way of doing things.

Yet Waste Management, the nation’s largest trash hauler, is doing exactly that–it’s embracing a new business model that is designed to erode its traditional business of collecting garbage and dumping it in landfills. Instead, the company wants to find the highest, best use for waste in an effort extract the value of what we throw away–value that’s estimated by CEO Dave Steiner to be worth as much $8 to $10 billion a year.

I’ve got a story about Waste Management in the current issue of FORTUNE. (Cover date: Dec. 6) It’s the latest in a series of profiles of FORTUNE 500 companies that I’ve been writing for the magazine. Here’s how it begins:

Reusable grocery bags. Online media. Concentrated laundry detergent in small packages. All are good for the environment because they reduce waste, but they’re a threat to the business of collecting and disposing of garbage.

No wonder executives at Waste Management (WM, Fortune 500), America’s biggest trash hauler, got nervous when Subaru’s TV commercials boasted that its Indiana auto plant sent nothing to the landfill. Or when Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) embraced the idea of zero waste. In a world where people throw less stuff away, the future of a traditional garbage company looks bleak.

That’s why David Steiner, Waste Management’s chief executive, is turning the company in a new direction. Instead of simply trucking trash to the dump, the Houston-based firm will look for ways to extract value — energy or materials — from the waste stream. When companies like Alcoa (AA, Fortune 500) or Caterpillar (CAT, Fortune 500) want to reduce their waste, the company has a team of consultants that will help — even if that means cannibalizing the core business of burying anything and everything in landfills.

“Picking up and disposing of people’s waste is not going to be the way this company survives long term,” Steiner says. “Our opportunities all arise from the sustainability movement.”

There’s a lot more to the story, including a look at a series of venture investments that Waste Management has made (alongside such VCs as Kleiner Perkins) in companies that are recycling organic waste, or trying to extract energy from waste in new ways. This company is very much worth watching.

Big business’s big innovation problem

To create a new green economy, industrial capitalism must destroy itself. Disruptive, radical, breakthrough innovation is needed, on a mass scale. Government isn’t delivering the change we need. Can business step up to the challenge?

Innovation is on my mind because I’m just back from the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, a two-day event devoted to “sustainable innovation.” The San Francisco confab brought together smart and dedicated business people who engaged in lots of stimulating conversation and did some fun stuff—like trying to build a tower out of uncooked spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. There’s video, photo and print coverage here.

I came away wondering whether the emerging orthodoxy of green business – one that is willing to settle for incremental changes by big companies, and clever but insubstantial breakthroughs by small ones—is going to get us where we need to go.

Two examples:

Procter & Gamble sets “carbon intensity” targets, meaning that it will produce its products (Tide, Bounty, Cascade, Crest, etc) with less energy. But because of the company’s growth imperative, it will pollute more, not less, in absolutely terms. [See P&G: A bold green vision but…]

Stonyfield Farm devises a corn-based yogurt cup, which gets us closer to a zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle consumption model. But the bigger challenge is to get  petroleum out of cars, trucks and planes, not yogurt cups.

These initiatives deserve applause, and their stories are worth sharing. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they are the kinds of innovations that will deliver the environmental change we need.

Tim O'Reilly

The GreenBiz event was a reminder that big, multibillion dollar corporations aren’t good at disruptive innovation, even when they try. They don’t attract the right people; inventors and creative thinkers are repelled by cultures with lots of meetings, process, politics, budgets  and bureaucracies. Big companies are slow to move. They aren’t about having fun—and as Internet mogul Tim O’Reilly noted in a lively and provocative talk at GreenBiz breakthroughs are often driven by people  (the Wright brothers, the hackers who started the computer revolution, the Google guys) who want to have fun or make something cool.

Even when facing existential threats, big companies don’t cannibalize themselves, as Clayton Christensen has written. Newspapers didn’t invent Craiglist, which destroyed their classified business. The record industry tried to fright iTunes. My cool new “barefoot” running shoes (below), which challenge the business of conventional running shoes,  come from Vibram, an upstart, not from Nike or Adidas. Ford and GM didn’t invent Zipcar, and BP ain’t going beyond petroleum. [click to continue…]

Take My TV…Please

I’m growing tired of reading (and writing) about companies that are “going green,” except if the company is named Wal-Mart or GE or has an outsized influence on its industry. Far more interesting is the question of how entire industries and markets can be transformed so they become more sustainable.

This is happening, albeit slowly, in several industries—fishing and forestry come to mind—but what’s caught my attention lately are some significant changes coming to the TV industry. I’m not talking about trends in TV news or programming (which I covered for many years) but about recyling old TVs.

Last week, LG Electronics USA, the North American unit of the big Korean electronics firm, and Waste Management announced a nationwide recycling program that should make it convenient for people to recycle, at no charge, tens of millions of unwanted TV sets, computer monitors and other products from LG. Here’s LG’s recycling website.

LG is following Sony Electronics, which last fall joined forces with Waste Management to launch the first national recycling initiative in the U.S. that connects a major consumer electronics manufacturer to a national waste management company, with its network of recycling centers around the country.

The consumer electronics firms are following computer companies like Dell and HP that have embraced the idea of producer responsibility—that is, the notion that whoever makes a product should ultimately be responsible for its recyling or safe disposal after it has outlived its usefulness. This is both a common sense idea and a radical one, because if we insist that producers take responsibility for recycling their products, they will redesign those products using materials that are easy to disassemble and reuse. Gradually, such changes will move us from being a throwaway culture to a zero-waste economy where everything turns into something else at the end of its life. Think about what cars might look like if the auto makers had to take them back when no one wanted to drive them anymore.

The LG announcement prompted Sony to release some results from its take-back program. Sony and Waste Management now have a network of more than 150 collection sites, and they have recycled more than 9.2 million pounds of Sony’s e-waste. Of that, 2.1 million pounds were collected through the program’s permanent infrastructure with Waste Management and 7.1 million pounds were generated from hosting 32 regional recycling events (of 70 planned for the year). Sony’s long term goal is to recycle one pound of e-waste for every pound of new consumer electronics products sold.

Early this year, meanwhile, Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba established their own recycling management company, caled Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, to spearhead electronics recycling and collection in the U.S. That was unexpected because Panasonic and Sharp have in the past lobbied vigorously against laws requiring producer responsibility.

As is so often the case, the aggressive efforts of a savvy NGO are helping to drive these changes. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (formerly known as the Computer Take Back Coalition) has been pressuring state legislatures to pass producer responsibility laws, and about 15 of them have. Meanwhile, the coalition of nonprofits has also brought pressure on individual companies to offer free recycling.

“It needs to be free and convenient because otherwise, let’s face it, people won’t do it,” says Barbara Kyle, executive director of the coalition.

The coalition’s next target is Samsung, another Korean firm which is running an Olympic-themed online scavenger hunt called “hunt for the gold.” The coalition respons thatolder TVs include toxic chemicals lead, mercury and cadmium as well as gold, and that many are collected for recycling and then “sent to developing countries like China by unscrupulous recyclers, where they are literally bashed open and melted down with few if any safeguards against toxic releases.”

You can be fairly confident that once industry leaders like Sony and LG offer free recycling, their competitors will have to go along. It’s probably not much of a burden to their business, either–rising commodity prices mean that the value of old electronics, formerly known as garbage, is also increasing.

The timing of these changes is fortuitous. Tens of millions of older TVs are expected to be replaced in the months ahead because of a government-mandated switch to digital broadcasting in February.

As Kyle notes: “It’s just the right time for the TV companies to step up and offer a solution on the recycling side. They’re certainly benefiting on the sales side.”

An update from Best Buy: I heard today (8/4) from retailer Best Buy about its recycling efforts. The company tells me that it has a program called “Smarter and Greener” which includes in-store recycling kiosks for cell phones, PDAs, rechargeable batteries, ink-jet cartridges, CDs, DVDs, etc. The company says that it collected and recycled 43,672 tons in fiscal 2008, and that it sponsored 90 recycling events in FY 2008. So there’s momentum building behind e-waste recycling at the retail level, too. You can learn more from Best Buy’s 2008 corporate responsibility report.