Susan Robinson leads Waste Management’s Sustainability Team. In this role, she is responsible for the company’s policy, advocacy and sustainability reporting. Scrap News spoke with Robinson about Waste Management’s sustainability efforts, and how sustainability and Environmental Justice are intrinsically tied together.
What is sustainability, and what does it mean to Waste Management?
Historically, our industry has thought of sustainability as synonymous with the environment, but over the years, the term has evolved to encompass all parts of the environmental, social and governance aspects of sustainability, and we touch on all of those. For years, we’ve provided services to our customers that help them reduce their emissions and avoid disposal to help them achieve their sustainability goals. We’ve also worked really hard on our own internal governance over the years to make sure that we had a balanced Board of Directors and leadership team. I think all of our stakeholders expect us to take these steps to ensure we’re investing in the health of our own company, and the communities in which we’re providing services. Not only are our customers expecting this of us, but our investors are asking us to touch on all of these points as well. So that means being a good partner in our communities, being a good employer, and providing the environmental services that we have.
What are the goals of Waste Management Sustainability Services?
We have a piece of our organization that’s called Sustainability Services, and that’s our consulting group that works with a lot of our large customers to help them optimize their waste streams and reduce and recycle their materials. That’s one piece of our organization. More broadly, we have our entire sustainable suite of services. We recently appointed a Chief Sustainability Officer, Tara Hemmer, who reports directly to our CEO. With all the work we’ve done over the last 20 years to establish strong programs throughout the company, we’re now poised to take those programs to the next level.
We’re also creating renewable energy at our landfills. We use our biomethane to create renewable natural gas and renewable electricity. More than 50% of our collection trucks are Compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks, and over half of those are running on renewable and natural gas. Our fleet, our landfills and our recycling all make up the operating efforts that we take from the environmental perspective.
What’s the connection between sustainability and Environmental Justice?
We’ve been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the last 15 years as they’ve developed their EJ map and some of the policies and programs that started at the federal level. Very early on, we understood how important it was to work in the communities in which we provide services. Over the last year, EJ has become a key component from the federal level with the Biden administration. Almost every state has some sort of EJ language, whether it’s a law or regulatory requirement. Even down to the local level, we understand that as in all parts of our business, there’s an ongoing evolution.
One of the things we’re in the process of doing is providing more transparent information. Each of our sites uses EPA’s new EJ mapping and screening tool, EJSCREEN. That data is available, but we’ll make it more transparent and easier to find. We’re also looking at the best practices in those places that we’ve done a really good job, and we’ll use those practices to develop a guidance document that can be used across the country.
How important is community engagement and feedback when it comes to achieving EJ?
I think it all starts there. In my journey to better understand where we need to go, and what we need to do to get there, I’ve really grown to understand the role of making sure that we’re not making assumptions, and that we’re engaging in our local communities and meeting our neighbors where they are and understanding the needs that they have, which may be irrespective of the services of our operating locations. We are lucky to be operating in those communities. We need to find ways to help our neighbors with whatever they need. As we look towards the future, understanding the issues in the communities we operate in, and having that local community engagement so that we can take proper actions, will be crucial.
Why should the rest of the industry focus on sustainability and EJ?
For a company that’s not really engaged, sustainability and EJ are essential from a risk mitigation standpoint. You can look at it from a risk and opportunity perspective. Sustainability is both. If you don’t take the dialogue surrounding EJ seriously, and if you are not engaged with broader sustainability issues, you run the risk of not mitigating risk associated with likely regulations. . You’re also not meeting the requirements of your stakeholders. If you want to be a sustainable company in terms of operating in the future, it’s incumbent upon every single company to recognize the broader role that we play, and to take the necessary actions to make sure that we are resilient. I’m grateful that Waste Management is ahead of the curve. We’ve really understood how important it is to put systems in place. For those folks that haven’t looked at sustainability and thought about their role in it, there’s no time better than now to start, because this isn’t going to go away. It’s going to continue to grow as part of how we do our business and how we meet our stakeholders needs, and how we grow as companies.