Jim Fish, Waste Management CEO

The leader of the nation’s largest recycling collector says the firm is continuing to push to strengthen its recycling business even as the industry shifts.

“We will continue to lead way in building a sustainable recycling business,” said Jim Fish, Waste Management CEO. “We’re making good progress there, but there’s more to do to make sure the recycling business is on [the strongest] possible footing for the future.”

In an address at the firm’s annual executive sustainability forum last week, Fish, the firm’s CEO since last November, said that recycling “is a business we want to be in, and we will be in.”

But he also pointedly noted for the attendees that “we’re not crazy about the [price] volatility” related to recycling, “but we’ve done a lot to smooth that out over the past two years.” He did say that among the firm’s services, recycling had the second best return, behind waste collection, but ahead of disposal.

The company executive noted the firm was trying to “de-risk” the recycling business, and reviewed how Waste Management has invested $600 million in recent years in non-recycling waste handling operations.

“We are literally circling the globe looking for technologies that could change the disposal landscape,” he said. “Frankly, the continued development of more recycling and organics solutions along with possible substitutes for landfills might be the single most important technology spend we do in my career.”

He noted that while loads of technologies have been developed, it is a challenge to find those that can be implemented on a commercial scale and in an economically sustainable manner.

Fish also laid out how his views on the evolving ton, where what is collected and sorted today is far different than what was handled a few years ago. He said a focus on greenhouse gas emission benefits should be considered when making packaging and waste management decisions. “Recycling should not be the goal in and of itself,” he said.

He asked the audience a key question about the preferred focus of materials management: “What’s the right goal? Is it to keep chasing that last ton to recycle, or is it to achieve the highest possible environmental benefit?”

Similar sentiments were outlined last year by David Steiner, who was then the CEO of Waste Management.