David P. Steiner, President and CEO, Waste Management

David Steiner Waste ManagementQ: How have you experienced the power of networks in achieving a sustainable future?

We have a responsibility to preserve the environment for future generations, and this commitment and our continued success in the recycling business are highly dependent on alignment of three critical dimensions: consumers, business, and government.

While we help customers maximize their recycling rates, there is a natural upper limit to what can be achieved by recycling only four types of materials (aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper), particularly when the price of materials like glass has fallen so low that recycling it is no longer profitable.

Businesses—specifically manufacturers of everyday goods—must change the way they view consumption and find a profitable second life for their products. That’s why we have recently partnered with Bill McDonough to create the Waste Management-McDonough Sustainable Innovation Collaborative. We will work with producers, manufacturers, retailers, and suppliers during the design phase to lessen the environmental and human health impact of products and packaging and improve recyclability.

The role of government is also important. While research shows that mandatory recycling requirements and disposal bans are cost-effective ways to increase recycling, these policies require careful planning to ensure that markets have the capacity to support additional materials.

We can’t do this alone. We work with businesses and local governments to raise awareness about recycling through consumer education and network-building, and we encourage every contribution that creates a more sustainable world. Ultimately, recycling is a personal decision—it is up to each of us as a consumer to decide how to contribute.

Q: How did you begin to reimagine the waste stream as providing something of value?

Sustainability was at the very core of our transformation from a waste-collection and disposal company to one that views and uses waste as a resource. In 2007, we announced new goals that set us on course to achieve more sustainable environmental solutions for the company and our customers. While we have been in the recycling business for decades, today we are determined to expand our efforts into more challenging venues and waste streams.

Waste Management’s goal of achieving zero waste—reducing waste and reusing as much as possible—has played a huge role in our evolution as a business merely known for hauling trash. We have a stake in finding the “next big thing” in sustainable waste, recycling, and green-energy solutions, and leaving the landfill as a last resort after extracting all possible value. Whether it’s collecting, processing, recycling, or converting waste to fuel or power, our goal is always to “do something” with waste—like finding new ways to convert it into valuable resources.

Hear more from David Steiner during his plenary address at the BSR Conference 2013.