Investing in a Sustainable Future with Brent Bell

January 28, 2021

Brent Bell has been in the waste industry for over 20 years. Brent started at USA Waste in 1997 and worked at the corporate offices during the USA/Waste Management merger in the late 1990’s. Brent is currently the Vice President of Recycling for Waste Management responsible for operations of 100+ facilities and sales & marketing of 13M tons of recyclables and organics, which are sold to our customers around the world by the Waste Management export team.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am John Shegerian. I am so excited and honored today to have my longtime friend and also the President of the Waste Management Recycle America Program, Brent Bell on with us today. Welcome to impact, Brent.

Brent Bell: Thank you, John. I am so excited to be here and have this conversation with you today.

John: Yes. I wish we were together but it is still were living through this tragic COVID period and you are in Houston and I am in Fresno, but this is just good enough for now and it is just an honor to have you on because you are really one of the most important players in the recycling industry. But before our conversation begins, I really want you to share a little bit about your background leading up to Waste Management and how you even got here for our listeners who have not met you yet.

Brent: Yes, sure, John. So I am going to share a story of when I was a kid growing up. I had a fascination for Hot Wheels and for cars which I still do. I still have a passion for cars. At the time, I recognize that aluminum can, you could go and collect aluminum cans whether they are in ditches or either through schools and bag them up and bring them to a local metal scrap yard. They would pay you for those cans. And at the time, I had no idea about the environmental impact. I was doing it purely for the money to get my Hot Wheels, right?

John: Right.

Brent: So I looked at that and I thought, “Wow, that is so crazy. That people are literally throwing away stuff that is valuable that can be turned into cash essentially.” And so a year later, I went to school in East Texas and with the Stephen F. Austin State University. I graduated from there. One of the best companies at the time, I fell the great company is Southwest Airlines. I had a great experience at Southwest Airlines. That was perfect timing for them. Herb Kelleher was the CEO at the time that I worked there. It has been a few years there and then I went on to get a job at USA Waste which became quickly Waste Management. I started into the recycling group and work my way up over the last twenty-three years to become the President. And so now, I am looking at as when I was a kid, now I can do things that are making money for the company as well as in great for the environment. So it is a job that has both benefits.

John: So you were really a little recycler from the time you are a little guy up to all the way now. So you started very young in this whole thing.

Brent: I did not even know. It was just for a paper Hot Wheels.

John: Way before sustainability became a hot topic or ESG or Inconvenient Truth, you were the original recycler that I did not even know. I know you for years. I did not know that story. I know you love cars, but I did not know you were already recycling back then. That is a great story. Thank you for sharing that. You know, Brent, I have so much respect for you. I have learned so much from you over the years and you are in such an important position at one of the greatest brands in the United States and actually in the world, Waste Management. I want to get into some of the things that are going on right now. In terms of recycling, you are and I know we have had this discussion in person. If you were a standalone company split out from Waste Management, you are the largest, you run the largest recycling company on the planet right now.

Brent: Yes, so we are really big on the residential side and I think what is interesting, John, is it is a big burden of responsibility that comes with that. We manage fifteen million tons of recyclable material a year in North America. One of the things that a few people probably are not aware of because they think of Waste Management is being a North American company is we have a very large export group. And in the last five years, we have been in the top of the largest US exporters in the United States of any kind of material, any kind of product because we have a large group that shipped a lot of the paper over once was China. No longer China, but now to India and other parts of the world. And we have to make sure that all those customers are using the material, recycling material in a sustainable manner even to the point where if we question that, we pull it back. We actually had a policy on plastics where we no longer export residential plastics anymore just because we had concerns about where we going. And so we have to make sure that all of those folks or customers are managing materials in a responsible, sustainable manner that we can depend on.

John: That is so interesting. And for our listeners out there that want to find Brent and his colleagues and all the great work they are doing, you can go to www.wm.com. It is a little bit of a head fake and that your company’s name is Waste Management as a whole and that is your URL, of course, your online, but you run Waste Management Recycle America so most people do not understand that you really are making the world a better and greener place and you are running that division. So with regards to that when you say it is very important on where you are sending the material, does that mean that material that you send, the paper, for instance, you just mentioned or even plastic that gets recycled, that goes for some sort of beneficial reuse when it is getting recycled?

Brent: Yes, that is right. So it is important to our generating customers, and we kind of call that the inbound customers, it is important for them that they understand what their materials are turning into. And so for example, on the plastic side, we have some really great plastic stories on what we have done with our customer’s material. We work with various companies. They can manufacture plastic. I give a shout-out to KW plastic out of Alabama. They take material now. If you go into a Home Depot or Lowe’s and you pick up a paint can now, look at the bottom of the paint can. You will not believe it, they are usually nowadays made out of polypropylene. No longer they metal paint cans. They are made out of polypropylene. Our customer that takes materials, they will turn it back into a pellet and then turn that into a paint can for example. And what we hear from the retailers that they loved the polypropylene paint cans because they never could sell the cans. They were metal. They had dents in them. No one wanted a dented paint can for some reason and these polypropylene cans are resistant to dents. So it is happy all the way around on that matter in using recycled materials into another product. In this manner, it is the paint can. It is a great example of how these materials turn into things that can get reused.

John: The recycling industry is based on supply and demand. Are you seeing more and more pull from that side like you just used on the paint can example for more materials to be made out of recycled material therefore because the next generation of young constituents who vote with their pocketbook is going to want to buy products that are made out of recycled materials, that is sort of what is going on right now?

Brent: Yes, there are two things, John. I always say there are essentially now two steps to recycling. The first step is to make sure that all of our customers are putting the right items in the bin. We want to make sure that the bin is clean of good items, that they are quality recyclable material. The second step is for that same consumer that just stuck at recycled items in the bin, for them to go out and buy and support brands or manufacturers, they use recycled content in the product. That is so critical because for so long, John, as you can imagine, we had the supply and demand is almost constantly not in balance with each other. I kind of give the example of, going back to cars, if you are a General Motors and you heard next year, no one is going to buy any Corvette anymore, right? No one is gonna buy any Corvette. You stopped buying fiberglass and wheels for Corvettes and Corvette engine. You would not buy those anymore. We are in a unique situation where our inbound ton and in this case 60 or 70 thousand tons a day, comes in no matter how high or low the demand is for that material. We got tricked if you going to come in and drop off recycle material and those consumers do not care if you can sell that to inbound markets. We really have to make sure that supply and demand are in balance and so we have been focusing a lot of attention and effort on increasing the demand side. And it goes all the way back at the federal government during one of the EPA meetings we had in America Recycles Day. I was able to speak to the folks in the room and say, “Listen. It is whether you are the federal government, whether you are a small company or whether you are a consumer, that you are purchasing and your procurement practices include recycled content. That could be your carpet for a new building. It could be uniforms or clothes or uniforms.” And so one of the things we have done to walk on that one, to walk the talk anyway is to make sure that all the carts you see or trash and recyclable material are now made out of recycled plastics. And so we work with some carpenters[?] so that can happen now. We continue to push whether that is brand to use more recycled content. It helps that demand side.

John: That makes so much sense. Brent, just so our listeners get an order of magnitude, I know your footprint is massive in the United States, talk a little bit about how many recycling facilities you have in the United States and what kind of technologies you have deployed in these facilities to help you stay the leading brand in recycling in the world?

Brent: Yes, so we have roughly over a hundred traditional kinds of recycling plants. If you count the organics, it goes closer to a hundred fifty plants that we have that process organic as well. Of those hundred what I call Traditional Recycling Plants, John, they are broken up into what we call Single Stream which is primarily residential. We have commercial facilities which are primarily paper cardboard. And then we have also CND facilities as well. They handle CND recycling which has been growing in certain markets. Those facilities are important. They have different kinds of equipment. But one thing that we started doing and luckily for my bosses at Waste Management had been approving is additional capital on new technology in some of these facilities. As you can imagine, they are fairly labor-intensive which makes them somewhat inefficient in that manner. So what we did a few years back and we sit down with our engineering team in house and said, “We want to build a plant that is automated. It is as fully automated as it can be.” We want to make sure that the materials are very high quality and it can generate a lot of tons per hour. And so the engineering team came back and we went to the board, ultimately get approval for this facility, and that facility opened up earlier this year in Chicago. It is a town called Hoskins, Illinois which is within the Chicago area and that facility is going to be one of the largest in the nation. It can process 66 tons per hour which are doing just over twenty-two to twenty-three thousand tons per month. And that facility is very automated. It gets machines that essentially talk to each other. As you know, the optical sorters which identified different types of material. They can tell other parts of the plant, “Hey, I am seeing too much aluminum cans here and aluminum cans should be caught at another piece of the plant. So why do I see it over here?” And it could flag and indicate that there is an issue with different pieces of equipment. We even have a control center to manage all these different functions and the readout of this plant gives us. So it is really fascinating, the amount of technology that they were starting to see developing some of these facilities.

John: And as you dial that in, Brent, will that then become the norm, and then you will socialize that technology to your other recycling facilities?

Brent: That is right. We have kind of done that. When Chicago opens up, we built one similar in Salt Lake City. A little bit smaller scale just because the market was smaller. And then we have a new facility, we just opened up in Raleigh. So within about a twelve-month period, we have actually opened up four new recycling facilities. And for those that may not know, the recycling prices have been relatively low, pretty low the last few years. And so for Waste Management, it continues to invest in recycling facilities and the recycling investments we have done which has been about a hundred million per year of the last few years is really remarkable. It shows that “Hey, we are committed to recycling, and our bets on that are going to continue to grow in the future.”

John: Speaking of low prices, Brent, on recycled materials, China has also changed their policy dramatically in the last few years with regards to receiving recycle materials. How do you make adjustments and how do you keep your brand resilient and flexible to see these changes in the marketplace and make adjustments so you can still be the leading brand?

Brent: Yes, so China throws us for a loop. In 2017, they announced they were going to ban taking in a mixed paper which essentially mixed paper is non-cardboard stuff. That is kind of your junk mail, could be your high-grade paper. It kind of catch-all for the paper category. And so China announced that they were going to ban mixed paper. And so that put it back on our heels because, at that time, we were exporting about 30% of our material to China and they were a very large customer for us. When they stop that, then, of course, that took a hit on prices. And then heading into 2021, China announced that they were no longer going to take cardboard either, which cardboard has always been great money for China. And honestly, our relationship with China has been great. If you thought about it for the last ten or twenty years, it is a perfect backhaul. We send them empty boxes and they send the boxes back full with products, right? And so it has been a great backhaul relationship we have had back and forth. The Chinese government came out with these policies. I would say that our Chinese paper mill customers are very good customers. They expanded operations in other parts of the world like Southeast Asia. Even here in the US, John, we have had the Chinese paper mills had bought US assets. They essentially fill our customers just not going directly to China anymore. And so we have found the alternative market, but I would say the most interesting thing about all this and the action China has taken is that really made the US invest more within their own paper mill system. And so over the last, let us call it two to three years, we have seen more investments in the US in paper mills, more recycled paper mills open in the US we ever have in the last ten or twenty years, and more jobs here in the US. A lot more of our material, the material that your folks put on the curbside is going to end up staying in the US and getting turned back into boxes here in North America.

John: For our listeners who just joined us, we have got Brent Bell with us today. He is the President of the Waste Management Recycle America Program. Brent, with regards to COVID-19, we are all living through this very tragic and also strange period. As a leader of the leading brand in recycling and waste management in the world, how did you manage your team as a leader through this very uncharted, unprecedented period of business and commerce, and service?

Brent: The first thing we did, John, and I know you have the same criteria for your employees that safety is first. The safety of our employees takes precedent above anything else. And so we wanted to make sure that our employees were safe in coming to work. And as you know, most of them wear the proper protection to begin with. They have got a glove, they have got a mask, they have got glasses, they get a hard hat. This was somewhat an interesting dynamic because, in the past, we teach people to make sure that they do not strain themselves in a stretch and on-the-job make sure they do not have injuries. This was a kind of an invisible danger to us, right? They could bring something into the workforce if they went home and went to a party or event, they could bring that COVID back to the workforce and affect their fellow co-workers. We really had to make sure that what they are practicing, the safe distancing they were practicing at work applied to what they were doing at home as well so they would not bring it back in. And so one of the things we quickly did is realized we have got to redesign all the [inaudible] and make sure that folks can stay six feet apart while they are working. So we had install plexiglass like you see a lot of restaurants and facilities now. The safety meeting that we had which we normally all huddled up together and they had to be separated, breaks the part. We had to separate and stagger lunch breaks, the meal breaks to make sure that we did not have more people in a room that room could handle capacity wise. But ultimately for our employees, we want to make sure that, one is they felt safe coming to work, that we provide a safe environment for them and that they would also take this same practice at home to their families to make sure they were protected as well.

John: That is great. For our listeners out there, to find Brent and his colleagues at Waste Management, go to www.wm.com. Right here, I am on your website now and it is like you said, you just do not talk the talk, you walk the talk your organization and a great company does, Brent. Right on the landing page of your website, it is Recycle Right, the Greenest Show. You have so many links all about how to be a more sustainable and greener company, city, person, municipality. Can you share with our listeners if they want to now start becoming part of the solution and not the problem which I find more and more people do more than ever before, what are some action steps they can take to help foster good recycling practices at their home, at their business and then in the communities they live in?

Brent: Yes, so the one thing and I know you mentioned The Greenest Show is our Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament. That is remarkable. I think it averages like a hundred thousand people a day. It is one of the largest sporting events in the entire world and the fact that that could be zero waste always mind-boggles folks, right? And I will tell you, John, we have four thousand recycle and organic bins located throughout the tournament, and those were all proudly made from mixed paper through our paper mill partner Pratt Paper Mill. And so even the bins that you put the material into was once are yesterday was a mixed paper that was in your [inaudible] side cart. And so it starts with working with what materials you are bringing in, we got to make sure that all those vendors know that any material they bring in there has to be recycled and in the traditional recycling pile or in the organic pile. I would say the same thing for any business you are operating, right? It is what materials are you bringing in that you may have to dispose of and can you work with your vendors to make sure that those are made out of recycled material or easily recyclable materials. So you do not have big disposal, you have more on the recycling side. It starts there, but there are so many good stories around the Waste Management Phoenix Open. So even the clothes you can buy at the PGA golf shop, they are made from a plastic bottle. A lot of them are made from plastic bottles. We have a so-called Unified. They have a reprieve brand that sells into a lot of the brands you are probably wearing today. They made great first jackets, hats out of recycled water bottles, right? Who would have thought that?

John: I would not.

Brent: There are so many stories. It is just such a great thing to do with these recycled materials and we are really proud of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but as well as being a sustainable service provider to those customers, to those businesses, they are looking for those solutions. And there is a conversation we have with them is really get into knowing their business and how they can be a greener business.

John: Also, I love the alliteration that you have here, the Recycle Right Program. What do you mean by Recycle Right and what does that mean to your citizens at large that use your services and also the businesses that use your services as well?

Brent: Recycle Right is our education campaign. When we were looking probably in 2018, John, we had about a 25% contamination rate. If you think about that, I will just put that in perspective, and what most of our bail of material are way about 2,000 pounds. So what that means for every bale material, we have about 500 pounds of trash that did not belong in there and that trash is garden hoses, it is Christmas lights, it is bowling balls, it is basketball that should not be in your recycling bin. The Recycle Right mean put the right items in the bin. That is what is really important to us. When you look at all of the differences, and I know there is a lot of confusion on education in recycling programs, so that is why we try to stick with the basics. Paper, plastic, bottles, and cans. Those are accepted in every recycling bin, every curbside program and if we can just get those materials in there correctly and raise their recycling rates on those materials, it is a huge win. My concept with this Recycle Right is to let us stick to the basics. Let us just get the basics right first.

John: Let us go back to what you and I know to be a term of art in the industry, I want you to walk our listeners through that contaminated recycling material basically renders it non-recyclable, explain why?

Brent: That is right. So, John, I will give this example. Imagine if you have your perfectly clean recyclables, you put in your cardboard, you put in your mail, you put in your bottles and your can and that is in there and then and right next to you is let us say a person who is horrible recycling they can care less. They are going to put it in their garden hose. They are going to put in their motor oil. Their car batteries. And now, it gets dumped in the same truck, right?

John: Right.

Brent: But now all of that motor oil is all over your paper that the car battery could cause a fire or explosion at the recycling facility. And the tanglers would cause downtime which would mean that facility cannot run as efficiently as it should be running with all the clean materials. If you get these materials that do not belong in there, not only the dangerous for our employees, not only could it start fires, but it is also going to run the recyclables that are good in that same load.

John: That makes so much sense. You know, Brent, I know you are very humble when it comes to all of your achievements personally, but I know you helped also form the Recycle America Alliance. Can you share with our listeners what is the mission behind Recycle America Alliance?

Brent: Recycle America Alliance was one that was formed back in probably the early 2000s and it was a way for Waste Management to grow the recycling business through various acquisitions. And while we picked up a lot of great facilities during that time period, one of the things we picked up there is probably the biggest was what we call the Brokerage Business. So there is a lot of customers that you know that have materials that they can build their own material behind their stores, large retailers. And so to offer that service to these large retailers was really important to us. So as part of Recycle America Alliance, we get this Brokerage Business, and now we have grown the Brokerage Business into a really large business that they can cater sustainability goals to some of the largest retailers on the planet and we are happy to provide those services to those retail customers as well and I think they like to do business with us because of who we are and the responsibility we take and managing their materials every day.

John: That makes sense. You know, Brent, we are going through an interesting period. You and I have been friends for quite some time and we have seen the whole sustainability revolution grow and then a little bit weight and then now it seems it is like it is really back on. Now they are calling it not only sustainability but circular economy and then also ESG has become a very big thing. Share a little bit about your thoughts as we are going into a new administration that says they are going to now re-sign the Paris Accord and a congress that is very excited about a potentially a green deal. Is green and sustainability here to stay in America and is it going to continue to grow in the years ahead? What are your thoughts on what is going on right now both politically and from a social movement standpoint?

Brent: I follow up with a lot of the ESG conversations and companies and funds that are investing in ESG. And while there is clearly favoritism towards it, my only skepticism and this is where I feel like it is part of my duty is to make sure that as they invest in ESG type companies and let us say a [inaudible] management that falls in that category, that we can still make that profit for the shareholders. And so how do we do that? It is by increasing the demand, making sure that, John, that your business if I prevent you, it is the right thing to convert your business to a hundred percent recycling. I also want to make sure that you are saving money versus any alternative mechanism you have, right? And so that way if prices go down, then John, we have given you a service that will sustain and low prices into your [inaudible] and continue to do that. I guess going back to the retail example, while a lot of these retailers have recycled cardboard for a decade, in 2019, prices of cardboard, believe it or not, in the Pacific Northwest for fifteen dollars a ton which means the cost to collect that from a retailer exceeded the value of that material, right? But we did not see any retailers pull back on it, that was part of their standard practice was the baled cardboard no matter what and so they stuck with it because they knew there is going to be highs and lows. And so I say the same thing is as long as we can make sure that it is an economical benefit as well as environmental then I think that the green is here to stay. I question what some companies may do when the pressure gets put on them and the economic change. So that is where my viewpoint is more on let us continue to focus on driving for demand and making sure these materials have value moving forward.

John: Well, and you are so right, Brent. You and I have seen both a lot of the companies come and go who do not get that right, that responsible recycling costs money and you cannot save the planet if you are not a sustainable company. I get it, and you are so right. You are so spot-on. You know, Brent, my last question for you today because I know we have sort of a time limit here. What is next? You have done such an unbelievable job running as the President of the Waste Management Recycle America division. What is next in store? Hopefully, we are seeing the beginnings of science winning this tragic period of COVID-19. We are going to get beyond that sometime middle of next year hopefully. Where are you going to go next with Waste Management and this journey?

Brent: I think the one thing I would really like to see because I know that in the US we get a lot of pressure on let us call it the Recycling Rate, right? How do we make sure and drive the recycling rate for the right materials? And I will give you one example of where I see as we talk about the demand, John. This is just a great example. We talked about how pushing the demand for materials help and if you do not believe that, look at what we call natural high density, which natural high density for your viewers is you are like kind of your clear milk jug, your tea jug, it is a plastic material, the container that is usually in a clear or natural model. For the first time in the history of recycling, natural high density is more valuable than aluminum cans are, and aluminum can traditionally where the most valuable commodity. Why is natural high density is so valuable? Because some of these brands have said, “I am committing to using more recycled content in my product and I need to get as much as possible. ” Now, because natural HD can be dyed in many colors, it is essentially a universal donor so the demand is very high for that. But that is just an example of how do we get more polypropylene is. Another good example is an increasing commodity that we are starting to see that recycling great creep up and climb to where it needs to be. For some of these commodities, we would just like to see how can we work with the brand to make sure that their materials get recycled and to that rate continues to go up so that the US, essentially the leader in nowhere or along way away from it but being a leader in the world on recycling rates and materials that we can recycle. That is kind of I would say, the mission that we have going forward is how to increase those rates for those types of materials so that more and more consumers can see the benefit of using recycled materials and the product.

John: I love it and that is where we are going to end today. And I think that is a great call to action for all our listeners out there in the United States and even way beyond, around the world. You know, Brent, thank you for being here today. For our listeners who want to find Brent and his colleagues and all the great work they are doing in recycling, you can go to www.wm.com. Brent Belle, you are not only a great friend of mine, but also have been an inspiration and a teacher for all these years and I really value you and I am grateful to you for not only our friendship but for making the world a better place. Thank you for being on the Impact podcast today.

Brent: Thank you, John, and to all the listeners: Happy Holidays.