Waste Management: There's gold in that municipal waste

The giant waste processing company forges relationship to turn waste into marketable organic chemicals.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Seeking to mine even more value out of the waste it collects, Waste Management has struck a deal with "sustainable" chemicals company Genomatica to turn the solid municipal waste into a revenue stream.

Genomatica is developing biological production processes that will create marketable chemicals from the syngas generated by municipal waste, which is harvested through anaerobic digestion, gasification or naturally occuring landfill gases. To do this, Genomatica is creating organisms that will interact with the syngas for the conversion process. Syngas is a substance that comes from natural gas or liquid hydrocarbons and it can be used to generate electricity or converted into liquid fuels. Genomatica's conversion process is much less energy-intensive than current alternatives used to turn syngas into marketable chemicals, according to the two companies.

An example of where Genomatic's technology plays: the company has already commercialized something called Bio-BDO. The total addressable market for this chemical is $4 billion market globally. It is used for spandex, automotive plastics and running shoes, among other things.

Says Tim Cesarek, managing director of organic growth at Waste Management: "Waste Management wants to maximize the value of the materials it manages. Genomatica's technology complements Waste Management's advancement of thermo-chemical conversion and fermentation technology platforms."

According to Waste Management, the deal will help it with its goal of doubling the renewable energy production and tripling the recyclable materials it processes by 2020. The company published its latest corporate sustainability report a couple of weeks ago. In that report, Waste Management CEO David Steiner says his company's focus on creating value from the waste it creates through sustainability measures (such as the just-announced Genomatic deal) is a high priority. He writes,

"They say that one man's trash is another's treasure. At Waste Management, this is literally true. An estimated $8 - $10 billion in value may reside in the waste we manage each year in North America. Our focus is on recovering that value -- and that's what sets us apart from our competitors. ... Waste is no longer something to get rid of -- it's a resource."

Here's a statistic that might startle you: right now, Waste Management produces more renewable energy from the waste it collects than the entire solar energy industry.

There are four sustainability goals outlined in Waste Management's report:

  • To increase waste-based energy production. Right now, the company produces enough energy to power 1.1 million homes and the goal is to double that amount by 2020.
  • To increase the volume of recyclable materials we process. Last year, the company processed approximately 1.25 million tons of organics. The goal is 20 million tons annually by 2020.
  • To invest in cleaner technologies. This applies in large part to the company's massive fleet. Over the  next decade, Waste Management hopes to improve fleet efficiency by 15 percent. By the end of 2010, it had close to 1,000 natural-gas-powered trucks in its fleet. In 2011, approximately 80 percent of the trucks it plans to buy will run on this fuel.
  • To protect more wildlife habitat in North America. Last year, the company earned Wildlife Habitat Certification at 100 landfills, protecting more than 25,000 acres.

For more about Waste Management's corporate sustainability progress:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards