WM has ‘gobs’ of data on waste collection that it uses to help industries build circular economies

WM has launched a curbside collection project with Dow to recycle plastic film.
Tracy Wilcox—PGA TOUR/Getty Images

Between COP 27 closing last month and the global biodiversity conference, COP 15, convening this week in Canada, another momentous sustainability summit has passed by relatively unnoticed.

In Uruguay last week, a convention of over 3,000 delegates from 160 countries met to begin hammering out details for the UN’s first international treaty on ending plastic pollution, which is set to enter effect in 2024.

The meeting was the first of several scheduled to negotiate the treaty, following a UN resolution in March that determined the world needs a plan to tackle plastic pollution. But negotiations are slow going. Delegates are split over whether the treaty should set mandatory reductions in plastic production or allow countries to set their own voluntary limits, like in the Paris Agreement.

“Why on earth would we be trying to negotiate a new convention which is modeled on something that’s essentially been a failure?” Chris Dixon, ocean campaign leader at the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency NGO told Bloomberg, advocating for a binding treaty on plastics. 

Other contentious topics include how the treaty should balance targets to reduce plastic usage and recycle waste. Environmental campaigners favor cutting plastic production, and with good reason. Plastics are toxic pollutants that UN Secretary General António Guterres calls “fossil fuels in another form.”

Those who oppose plastic recycling as a solution to plastic waste also contend that building circular economies—systems in which waste is recycled and repurposed as new products—only incentivizes the production of more waste to feed these loops. 

I’ll admit, I’m much more in the “reduce waste” camp than the “recycle waste” camp, too. But given that plastics, like fossil fuels, will remain integral to our economy for years to come, recycling is an unavoidable necessity.

According to the UN Environment Program, plastic production is set to double over 2017 levels to 700 million tonnes of annual output by 2040. If left unchecked, roughly 29 million tonnes of that plastic will flow into the ocean as waste. Recycling, the UNEP says, could reduce that tsunami of plastic pollution by 80% while presenting new business opportunities for waste management companies. 

“We’re thinking through how we can take waste and not think of it as waste but treat it as a material that can be used for building other new products and services,” says Tara Hemmer, chief sustainability officer at WM (formerly Waste Management).

As one of the leading waste management firms in the U.S., WM already has access to “gobs and gobs of data” on where industries produce more than they need, Hemmer says. The company is currently “in the process of turning that data into deeper insights so that our customers can help manage their own businesses and platforms a little bit better.”

Some of WM’s solutions are already taking shape. In January, WM announced a partnership with construction company Continuus Materials, wherein WM provides the company with low value plastic and fiber waste, which Continuus converts into roofing boards.

Last month, WM partnered with petrochemicals giant Dow to pilot an initiative to recycle plastic film from residential trash—a common albeit hard-to-recycle waste item.

Film—like the clingy plastic that covers fresh food packages in supermarkets, or the thin type of plastic moulded into bread bags—is hard to recycle, Hemmer says, because the plastic often wraps around and clogs processing machines. But the company has invested in new robotic tech—optical sorters—that can identify the lightweight plastic and apply an air current to direct the film onto a separate waste channel. From there, the plastic is shredded, cleaned, and turned into pellets that Dow buys back to melt into new plastics.

For me, that’s not a perfect solution. But so long as the recycling tech is available today, it’s better to recycle the waste than simply chuck it in a landfill.

Eamon Barrett


EU plastic

Speaking of plastic....The EU released a draft proposal last week for regulations that would cut packaging waste in the bloc by almost a fifth by 2030. Under the proposed rules, manufacturers will need to ensure lightweight plastics are compostable while coffee shops will have to make 80% of takeaway cups reusable. Packaging and plastics manufacturers have opposed the rule change, arguing the document ignores the reality of waste management systems and the environmental impacts of producing reusable products. FT

Russian crude

Two complementary actions against Russian oil supplies took effect on Monday: the EU’s embargo on most Russian crude imports and the G7’s implementation of a $60 per barrel price cap on Russian oil. Allies agreed to the dual sanctions months ago so analysts expect markets won’t feel an immediate fallout. However, Russia objects to the price cap and has threatened to cut off supplies to countries that implement it. NYT

BYD, 2023

Berkshire Hathaway-backed electric vehicle maker, BYD, is on course to surpass Tesla in pure battery-powered vehicle sales within the first quarter of next year, Bloomberg reports, as the Chinese car maker lines up the release of two new premium brands. BYD, which also sells hybrid EVs, has yet to tackle the high-value luxury SUV and sports car markets—segments popular among affluent Chinese—but analysts expect the company to close that gap next year. Bloomberg

EV rig

Tesla delivered its first electric semi last week, five years after the electric vehicle company announced plans to enter the big rig market, anointing PepsiCo as the Tesla Semi’s first receiving customer. Analysts have been, and still are, skeptical of the economic viability of an electric rig. The Semi, a rig reportedly capable of hauling 40 tons (including its own weight) 500 miles in a single charge, is equipped with a battery that weighs the same as an elephant, dragging on power efficiency. But the current high price of diesel has helped make electric trucks look more affordable, especially for short haul distances of lighter loads. Bloomberg


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Pollution has a detrimental effect on people’s health; that’s well established. Roughly 9 million people die every year from air, water and land pollution, contributing one in six of all deaths globally. But new research has found that air pollution (the most lethal for pollution) can also increase the risk of suicide. According to scientists at the American University in Washington, D.C., when the volume of PM2.5 particles in the air increases one microgram per cubic meter, daily suicide rates rise 0.5%. Over a month of sustained pollution, hospital admissions from suicide attempts increase 50%. PM2.5 particles can cause inflammation in the brain, which some researchers believe leads to higher rates of depression.

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