There are many companies and individuals who present themselves as champions for the environment. However, most thinking people realize it is making green alternatives, not only economically feasible, but preferable, which will transform how we live and work. Nowhere is the viability of green economics a more practical reality than with Waste Management’s George Geletko, who also serves as the Chairman of the National Solid Waste Association. When we think of what this multibillion dollar company does, most people’s minds automatically gravitate toward garbage collection and landfills – a paradigm that is as antiquated as thinking AT&T is still in the telegraph business. Instead, to sight just one example, their recycling efforts save the equivalent of nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a year in Brevard County alone.
SCB: How did you get started in the waste management industry?
GG: I graduated from Emery Riddle in the 70’s, when Vietnam was winding down and the aviation industry as a whole was struggling. After working in management for JC Penny’s for a decade, I started looking around and found Waste Management. At that time, it was owned by Wayne Huizenga. Of course, my perspective on the scope of their operations was as limited as most people’s but once I began examining it and the growth potential it held, I became more and more enthusiastic. Though I didn’t have a background in sales, I gravitated toward that arena, primarily because the revenue potential was so enticing.
SCB: What did you discover about WM on the inside that most of us don’t see on the outside?
GG: When I thought of this industry, I pictured a guy riding on the back of a garbage truck. Waste Management is in fact a transportation company, moving discarded items from homes and businesses to processing facilities; a raw materials producer, turning used materials into usable materials; and an energy production company, capturing fuel that once was released into the atmosphere, but is now being used to drive trucks and power homes. In the not too distant future, we will also be a mining company, as the materials that were buried in landfills become more and more valuable. We are currently the largest recycling company in North America.
SCB: What is the biggest change you have seen since you entered the industry?
GG: The Solid Waste Acts passed back in the 80’s mandated that 30 percent of solid waste be recycled, by rapidly approaching target dates. Some things, like recycling cardboard were not only immediately profitable, but with balers installed in most large retail stores, it was a relatively easy transition.
Recycling home and office waste was the biggest challenge. Initially, everything had to go into separate bins; you even had to take out the glossy inserts in the newspaper. This was time consuming and cumbersome. With the introduction of Single Stream Recycling, all the recycled materials go in one covered bin, which provides privacy and can easily be rolled out to the curb. This includes plastic and glass bottles, paper goods like cardboard, news and office paper, phonebooks and all types of metal cans.
SCB: And the impact of this process?
GG: Since Single Stream Recycling was introduced our recyclable volume, in those areas where the 64-gallon containers are used, has doubled; in some communities participation is close to 75 percent. WM can, in turn, sell these materials. For instance, most of our aluminum goes to Anheuser Busch, our plastics to PepsiCo, our paper to mills on the East Coast and our cardboard is exported to China. These profits enable us to keep our collection costs down, which in turn mean savings to the consumer – if for no other reason, that should be a strong incentive for everyone to participate.
SCB: Globally, where does most of the current waste management technology come from and where is the greatest future market?
GG: It is difficult to say, but I think many of the initial innovations came out of Europe. They ran out of space for landfills, like we have in the U.S., long ago, so they were much more aggressive, early on, about finding alternatives. In terms of the future, everyone is going to be doing what we are doing eventually; it only makes sense, both environmentally and economically. The market that we are focusing on to export our expertise and form partnerships with now, is China. Their rapid industrialization and unbridled growth has produced environmental problems of epic proportions. These are problems that we are now able to address.
SCB: Next to the Single Stream Recycling, what are the other innovations that are coming on line?
GG: Perhaps one of the most innovative new technologies is a disposal and recycling unit we designed for parks and high traffic areas. These are the size of a conventional garbage can, but they are tamper proof, so the problem of animals getting into the garbage is eliminated. Plus, they have built-in compactors that dramatically increase their capacity. No more trash on the ground around the bin. When the compactor is filled to a certain level, it sends a signal to our offices and we dispatch personnel to empty it. Not only that . . . they are solar powered! We have been installing these in some of the local parks and the return on investment figures are pretty impressive; currently, there are twenty in Palm Bay and fifteen in Melbourne.
SCB: I can tell you are excited about that piece of technology. What else is coming?
GG: It is exciting; there are new innovations and applications being developed all the time. For our recycling goals, there are certain benchmarks set by the Legislature that serve as targets. The next one is to move residential recycling to 19 percent, commercial to 52 percent, and construction/demolition to 29 percent. Right now, construction is down, so our primary focus is on the commercial market, where the biggest source of recycled material is paper. Even though we would like to see “paperless” offices, records are still kept on hard or paper copies. These records are kept for 5 to 7 years, which means every year, another year’s paper records are disposed of. Imagine the paper use of a county municipality or a large hospital – it is staggering. Another area that people don’t see is the potential for selling farm waste. Every day, huge amounts of organic materials are disposed of by grocery stores. We can take that waste and turn it into high grade compost in 30-60 days and then sell it at the local lawn and garden store. Plus, we are able to capture the methane gas released in the process.
SCB: Capturing gas from waste processing is becoming more common, is it not?
GG: Yes, at one time landfills simply vented the methane into the atmosphere, now we capture it. There are over 100 gas-to-energy plants in the country and three here in Florida, with more coming on line all the time. Currently, this methane gas provides power to nearly one million homes in the U.S. In California and Texas, this gas is also being used to power the trucks that do the collections.
SCB: I’ve noticed a new fleet of collection vehicles. What do these trucks cost?
GG: Each one runs about $265,000, along with a registration fee of $102,000. Since the new trucks have mechanical arms that pick up and deposit the trash or recyclables in the compactor, the risk of one of our employees being injured by lifting cans or being hit by another vehicle is eliminated. Thus, the collectors are more highly skilled and can work much longer; it also opens doors to people with certain handicaps and for women to operate the trucks.
SCB: Your company represents a very successful partnership between municipalities and the private sector, outsourcing if you will. Why does this work so well and do you see it as a trend for the future?
GG: I think privatization is inevitable. Though some cities are hesitant – and of course they enjoy a tax free status – they are designed to move slowly, often with layers of bureaucracy. When governing, that is a good thing; it is that series of checks and balances that are built into our system that we all appreciate. However, business has the ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently; innovation isn’t usually based on weighing political repercussions or perceptions but on the information and technology that is available. The profit motive causes you to look for solutions to problems that not only work, but make economic sense.