Trash Talk with Waste Management CEO and Booth Alum, Jim Fish, ’98

Trash Talk with Waste Management CEO and Booth Alum, Jim Fish, ’98

While it’s something most people don’t think about, I, like Jim Fish, ’98, have always seen value in waste. In fact, my obsession with recycling and garbage began in high school when I started Green Campus Initiative, my high school’s sustainability and recycling program. This Winter Quarter, I was fortunate enough to hear from Fish, a Booth graduate and icon in the industry who serves as president and CEO of Waste Management (WM). He spoke at a Perspectives in Sustainability event hosted by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

During the fireside chat, which was moderated by Caroline Grossman, ’03, executive director of the Rustandy Center and a Chicago Booth professor, I learned that Waste Management is leading the charge into the future of the waste industry by pivoting its business model, leveraging new technology, forging partnerships, and more.

Refocusing priorities
Waste Management celebrated its 50th year as a company this past June. The company spent its first 40 years collecting trash and has spent the last 10 as the largest recycler in North America. I was incredibly reassured when Jim Fish expressed a belief I’ve held for a long time – that landfills have a finite life; especially as previously abandoned spaces are becoming sprawling metro areas.

“The voiceless constituent is the environment. It complains in decades, not in minutes. The environment isn’t calling me on the phone to complain. I don’t want to lose focus on the environment,” Fish shared.

Leveraging new technology
I loved hearing about Waste Management’s sustainability strategies, and the technology they’ve started to leverage to further reduce their environmental footprint. For example, they have big plans to reduce their operational emissions by converting traditional gas powered garbage truck vehicles into vehicles fueled by natural gas captured at their landfill sites.

Grappling with economic impacts
During the session, Fish explained the economics of recycling – it turns out not all trash is created equally. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has caused us to resort back to using single-use plastics. In the “before times,” Fish summarized that we had made so much progress on banning single-use plastic bags, and to now think these efforts had regressed was disheartening, but I recognized he was also right.

Fish touched on the regulatory oversight governing the waste management industry, as well as the tension between the business models seeking to reduce waste. As a Booth alumnus classically trained by economists, I wasn’t surprised when Fish dove into the supply and demand side of virgin plastics, and discussed the opportunities that producers have to increase recycled materials in their packaging.

Examining how decisions are made 
After the conversation, a smaller group of students joined in to participate in a case study where we discussed a hypothetical investment in new recycling equipment at a Waste Management Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). For an estimated $1.3 million in capital requirements, and the goals of reducing waste and maximizing commodity capture, we had to decide whether Waste Management should invest in a new optical sorter to recover plastic PET (also referred to as PETE or polyethylene terephthalate) bottles.

During the case study portion of the event, we had the opportunity to try on the shoes of top Waste Management executives.  In Zoom breakout rooms, we each took the role of executives responsible for this facility and discussed what other information we would need to make a “go” recommendation for this project. We also discussed a number of factors and risks that should be taken into consideration when making this type of investment across all facilities. Learning about the business implications of this decision making process was fascinating. I loved being able to evaluate a new opportunity specific to the waste management space and getting to hear my peers’ perspectives and questions about implementing this new technology.

As the session wrapped up, I was inspired by Fish’s vision. He sees sustainability as an opportunity for differentiation and to gain a competitive advantage—and I couldn’t agree more! I’m looking forward to seeing how Waste Management continues to innovate and differentiate itself for years to come. I’ll certainly never look at a garbage truck the same way again.

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