In the Future, Will You Get Paid For Your Trash?

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Geoff Colvin and David Steiner at Fortune Green

David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, discusses the future of "trash" with Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large for Fortune. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911

LAGUNA NIGUEL, CALIF. – At the Fortune: GREEN Brainstorm kickoff Monday, Waste Management (WM) CEO David Steiner brought an intriguing case to light: Increasingly, waste companies are finding more and more valuable uses for our garbage.

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Take Waste Management’s organics recycling pilots, which are investigating end-markets for what we would typically consider compostables (yard waste, food waste, etc.) and turning the end product into new materials, from fuel to plastics.

Steiner says that with the additional value that WM is able to pull from ordinary household trash over its competitors, one day consumers may just get paid for their waste.

“If we can extract $100 to $200 of value out of a ton of material, we can start paying the customers,” he says. “It is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Four years ago, you wouldn’t have heard those words come out of my mouth.”

The innovation level here is key, and one that Steiner sees as a factor that could push his company past competitors. His comparison of the “trash” industry to the tech industry illustrates it best: “We could be the Apple iPod to the Sony Walkman.”

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