Waste Management Turns Trash to Cash

Waste is one of the things we want to minimize or even eliminate. The challenge is we generate tons of it everyday.  Steps on the consumer end must be taken to reduce waste, as the consumer is the waste producer. On the collection end, waste companies must find ways to recycle or reuse the materials collected.

Yesterday, Leon Kaye of TriplePundit reported on Waste Management’s investment in a plastics to oil company. It takes the waste of plastic and processes it to usable oil.  But how does this fit into the Waste Managements’ strategy? What are the missing pieces to this strategy?

Waste Management CEO David Steine hinted at his company’s strategies during the Fortune Brainstorm Conference 2011. His talk, entitled “Garbage In, Value Out” included steps his company is to making something of value out of the waste his company collects. He further says the beauty of business model is create diffent kinds of value from same trash: electricity and fuel.

One part of that strategy is harvesting landfill gas like methane and carbon. Steine claims that Waste Management’s current operation creates more energy than the entire solar industry combined. If this is true, that is quite a remarkable feat because it utilizes the current infrastructure that we have.

Waste Management is also making investments on startups focusing the conversion side of things. Conversion is the process of turning waste into a usable material or energy. This is similar to the plastics to oil investment.  Furthermore, one recent aquisition is Harvest Power. This start up “manages organic waste using advanced technologies to produce renewable energy and high value soil and organic fertilizer products.”

A big company like Waste Managememt, with all it’s resources, cannot do it all on it’s own. The company has its core strength. It knows what it is good at, managing the collection and disposal process. It is tough to innovate in such an environment, hence the strategic move to partner with smaller and more nimble startups.

The one key area, or as Steine calls it, the holy grail for Waste Management, is finding an efficient and effective way to decontaminate the waste components. For example, has yet to discover an easy and cost effective way to split up organic waste, plastics, metals, electronics.

Many times, these materials are all just piled into the same bin and thrown in the landfill. Steine already has investments and technologies that handle the conversion process. But it is the front end that needs the most work. All they need is the “clean” waste inputs. The conversion technology is there.

So, I will put this out to you. Do you know of any ways to decontaminate the inputs/waste on the front end? Do you know of any startups that are taking up this challenge? If so, perhaps there is a collaboration waiting not to be wasted with Waste Management or other waste handling companies.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.