Archaeologists and private eyes have long known that sifting through trash can yield juicy revelations. As the nation’s leading garbage collector, Waste Management has a unique vantage point into what’s going on in the country’s homes and businesses. As people quarantine—and eat more—in their homes, residential garbage bins are heavier; cardboard from all those Amazon boxes is filling the recycling stream. The company’s pickups at concert venues and stadiums, however, have largely dried up. Cardboard cutouts of fans don’t create trash.
The $15.5 billion company is also the biggest residential recycler in North America and the largest operator of landfills in the country. The waste business is capital-intensive and increasingly driven by technology and innovation. Waste Management has invested almost $600 million in startups and companies with next-generation approaches to throwing things away. The company has made dozens of investments in companies, some trying to turn plastic back into crude oil or cardboard into ethanol. Others deal with hazardous waste, medical waste or waste conversion. “There are a bunch of different investments that we’ve made, probably upwards of 50 different companies over a decade,” says Waste Management CEO Jim Fish. One of Fish’s most promising bets is on a company that turns junk mail into roofing board for big commercial buildings.
Some of the innovation is lower tech but equally transformative. For the past 15 years, the industry has been moving increasingly to side-loader trucks, which mechanically dump the large plastic green and blue curbside containers into garbage trucks. That shift has cut down on injuries and labor costs. “And by the way, it makes it easier to hire a driver,” says Fish. “If I told you, ‘Look, your job is to get out of the truck every 20 feet and dump a trash can in the back of an old-style rear-loader as opposed to running a joystick sitting in a truck,’ I think I can tell you which one you and I would choose.”
Fish, 58, recently joined TIME for a video conversation on how the pandemic changed what people throw out, who are the best recyclers, the surprising complexity of landfills and why people think bowling balls are recyclable (they are not).