It is common these days for companies to "go green." But Waste Management Inc. (WM), the largest U.S. waste firm, argues that it, along with the rest of the waste industry, was green long before green was cool. The Houston-based behemoth has decided to accentuate the green aspects of its business while building a marketing program around its particular brand of environmental responsibility. "We want to change the image of the trash industry," says Lynn Brown, WM's vice president of corporate communications. "We really aren't trash companies anymore. We're environmental companies."

To highlight that point, WM has set about proclaiming in its advertising that its environmental bona fides come from extracting materials from the waste stream and putting them to use. Useful materials include recycling commodities that provide raw materials for manufacturers; gas produced in landfills that generates electricity and powers motor vehicles; trash for waste-to-energy (WTE) plants; used electronic devices with components that can be recycled; and much more.

In 2007, WM generated 49 percent of its revenue from services that extract useful materials from the waste stream.

Recycling Now, Plus More To Come

WM processed or brokered (paying to tip at someone else's material recovery facility) 8 million tons of recyclable commodities in 2007. By 2020, the company expects to nearly triple that amount to 20 million tons.

Its subsidiary, WM Recycle America, recycles more municipal solid waste than any other recycler in North America, operating 105 material recovery facilities (MRFs) serving municipal, manufacturing, commercial and residential customers. Processing is handled at Recycle America MRFs. Alternately, WM hauls the brokered tons to MRFs owned by other waste firms for processing.

Recycle America will lead WM's recycling growth by increasing the number of advanced technology single-stream MRFs. According to company officials, single-stream processing produces an average increase in recycling amounts of 30 percent.

While manufacturers have voiced concerns about the quality of recyclable commodities recovered, advancing single-stream technologies are driving down rejection rates. WM Recycle America says its single-stream rejection rates are averaging 33 percent lower than recycling facilities using other processing methods, including dual-stream processing.

WM Recycle America also has introduced a nationwide electronics-recycling program in partnership with LG Electronics USA Inc. The program currently offers 150 e-waste drop-off sites across the country. Consumers can drop off LG, Zenith and Goldstar brands of televisions, monitors, audio equipment, VCRs, DVD players and recorders and other accessories free of charge. The program also will accept e-waste from other manufacturers for a modest charge.

According to Brown, the company is developing recycling programs for materials that have not previously been accepted by most recyclers. “We've invested in four facilities that will recycle compact fluorescent bulbs,” Brown says. “The plants will extract the mercury from the bulbs and recycle it along with the metal, plastic and glass. We also have a pilot process to recycle shingles into asphalt. In this case, we'll market the end product, something we don't ordinarily do.”