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WM: Largest natural gas garbage truck facility talks recycling, alternative fuel

Rush hour drivers can't help but notice the big, green trucks with "WM" stamped across them. They're not as visible in the City of Chicago, but around the north side area near Nagle Ave., headed in the direction of the I-90 Bryn Mawr Ave. ramp, there's a surplus of the trucks during the morning rush. Chicago has the Blue Cart Residential Recycling Program and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) services over 250 hybrid buses, but will the city soon jump aboard with the nationwide trend to invest in natural gas trucks with alternative fuel?

This is an informational sign on the side of a garbage bin from Waste Management (WM).
This is an informational sign on the side of a garbage bin from Waste Management (WM).
Shamontiel L. Vaughn
WM alternative fuel trucks service nationwide communities, including suburban Illinois areas.
Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Check out this interview with Waste Management's Illinois spokesperson Lisa Disbrow and the Chicago News & Events Examiner who talk about waste trends, the importance of recycling and how alternative fuel helps the environment.

Shamontiel Vaughn: One of the things that I found interesting on a press release on the front of your site was that in 2007 Waste Management's goal was to increase their fleet's fuel efficiency by 15 percent and reduce its fleet emissions by 15 percent by 2020. But you all were able to get a 20 percent reduction by the end of 2011, which was nine years before your intended goal. How were you able to lower your emissions before 2020? What'd you do differently?

Lisa Disbrow: I would tie it back to our investment into the compressed natural gas collection vehicles, which can reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 50 percent compared with the diesel trucks that the company is replacing. They have 25 percent less greenhouse gas, 80 percent less carbon monoxide and 64 percent fewer hydrocarbons. What we didn't know [when estimating this goal] was how the compressed natural gas vehicle would perform in the real world. Part of the reason that we reached our goal faster is because of the compressed natural trucks.

[Editor's Note: For each diesel truck that's produced in 2006 or earlier replaced with a natural gas one, the average annual reduction is 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 2,200 metric tons of greenhouse gas.]

SV: You have 50 fueling stations across North America. I see that 18 are accessible to the public. So are these regular stations where consumers can just pull up the way you do with a regular gas station where you have regular gas and then you have natural gas?

LD: They're natural gas fueling stations, and we do have some that are open to the public. For example, we have a location that's located in Stickney, Illinois. And this station is open to the public like a typical gas station. It has the pumps where you pull in, and you would purchase the fuel and you would fill your vehicle with natural gas. And it's only natural gas that we have at these facilities. It's an unmanned facility, and we have a partnership with a company called Petro Card who operates the retail stations.

SV: You all have been leading with natural gas since the 1990s and operating more than 2,200 alternatively fueled vehicles. It also says on your website that you all have the largest fleet of vehicles with natural gas in North America. What made you all start so much earlier than any other organization?

LD: Our company's always been focused on looking at how we can do our part to improve the environment and also what we can adopt as our own operating habits. The natural gas vehicles just seemed to be a, pardon the pun, but it's a "natural" step for us, too.

SV: Okay so your company was started with that in mind?

LD: [Waste Management] wasn't designed with that in mind, but we started to look at natural gas vehicles. They were cleaner. They're quieter, and they lower emissions. We looked at the natural gas fuel vehicles as something that would make our operation as efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible.

SV: There are locations everywhere. However, I was not privvy to your company until I was driving from Chicago to West Chicago. I started seeing these trucks on a regular basis in the suburban areas. Have you found that suburban areas have been more receptive to the idea of natural gas collection trucks?

LD: Our natural gas vehicles began in two locations. One was in Wheeling, Illinois, and the other location is in Stickney, Illinois. There's a lot of infrastructure, upfront costs that have to be placed when you're changing your fleet. That includes putting in fueling stations. What happens is when our vehicles return from the route at the end of the day they will plug into the fueling stations, and the hose will be connected to the truck. It'll fuel overnight. That's what they refer to as a slow fill station.

SV: Has the City of Chicago just been slow to come aboard or is it just a matter of money? The City of Chicago has a bigger population. It seems like they would benefit more from it.

LD: The City of Chicago collects their own trash. You will see over the last 10 years several companies are investing in natural gas vehicles. I think their buses run on natural gas.

SV: They do.

LD: The hurdle for either public or private fleets is the upfront investment that has to be made, which requires you putting in your own fueling stations for a fleet. I'm not sure how fast it is growing for the public sector. The private sector is probably making an investment quicker.

SV: Circling around to the recycling end of your organization, I noticed that there were two recycling dropoff locations. One at 3301 W. 47th Place in the City of Chicago and one at 550 Center Avenue in Carol Stream. As of now, it's been the norm to recycle paper, cardboard and cans. How do you feel about people getting more aboard recycling textiles? Are you finding that people are less receptive to recycle clothes and shoes? Those also have an effect on the environment.

LD: I think that shoes and clothing recycling options are limited in regard to the . . . they can't be handled through a curbside recycling program, which is what our company offers our residential customers. Textile recycling has to be managed in a different manner, which is probably somewhat of a hurdle for the growth of that recycling.

Check out: Behind-the-scenes with Salvation Army: Where does clothing donation money go?

SV: Right now the EPA says an estimated 14.3 million tons of textiles were generated in 2012, or 5.7 percent of total municipal solid waste generation. If people continue to throw things away that they can absolutely recycle, yes, of course, the garbage industry is going to be productive and proactive and discard them. But if they recycle as much as they throw away is it productive for both?

LD: [Consumers] have to do a better job of closing that loop. When you're out shopping, look for items that are made from recycled material. I think that is part of the big piece of the puzzle.

SV: Let's be honest. In this current economy, a lot of recycled items just cost more. And it makes sense that they cost more because it may cost more to reproduce these materials. But if they're unable to afford a recycled container of paper or paper plates [consumers may opt for the] $0.99 100 Styrofoam plates. Do you think that there will ever come a time when the garbage industry may decline on what they can pick up? Or, will they work together like TV and radio?

LD: I think that the economics of recycling must be sustainable. We have to understand that there is a cost to recycling. We have to work together to make recycling successful. I don't slice the waste management industry or the recycling industry. Companies like mine offer both services. Can it be recycled? Can it go to a compost facility? Should it go to a landfill? We look at it as recovering material and looking at what is the best way to handle that material.

SV: On your website, I see a lot of information on recycling everything: metal, cardboard, glass, plastic, batteries and electronics. And your site doesn't just say "Recycle these." [Waste Management] actually breaks down what is done to these products, like how alumnium sheets are recycled and aluminum cans and so forth. I notice that when I look at products like CFL lightbulbs that you all have a recycle kit for people to ship to you to recycle. But when I looked up older cell phones there was no extra charge to just mail it to you besides shipping on our own dime. What's the difference between the two? What exactly does that $19.95 cover for recycle kits?

LD: The package is going to us, and we will recycle that item. For example, the LampTracker, we'll recycle that item and we'll send you a recycling certificate. You're shipping the product to us. It's going to go through our facility. We still have people that are handling this material, sorting it out and making sure it goes to the right location. There is still a cost for handling this material. It has to due with what type of product it is to determine the cost.

SV: That was my last question. Is there anything you'd like covered that I haven't covered?

LD: One of the important things that I try to stress is that if you're recycling, make sure you understand what is accepted in your recycling program. Your recycling program can vary from suburb to suburb. We need to all share responsibility for effectively maintaining the recycling integrity and the quality. Contamination is an issue, and it defeats the purpose if we have a high contamination rate in our recycling. It's something that waste management is very focused on to try to increase awareness of what's recyclable and how to maintain that quality of recyclables being collected.

SV: What's been a bigger problem? Are people not recycling enough or are they adding more waste to recycle bins?

LD: What we're finding is the consumer is confused. For example, the recycling program says that we'll accept plastics. If you turn over your pop bottle you'll see a number. That does not mean that we'll accept [everything] made of plastic. We accept metal. That does not mean that we'll accept fencing metal. You need to look at the examples that are given.

SV: My advice to readers would be "Bookmark this page. Step 1."

LD: Thank you! We appreciate that, and I would tell them to check out their own city municipal webpage. See what is being allowed in their own program. If you live in the City of Chicago, make sure you check out the City of Chicago webpages to see what's allowed in their curbside program.

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Recommended Reading:

Chicago: Blue Cart & Recycling Drop-off Center Recycling: Accepted Materials

Chicago: Blue Cart Recycling Drop-off Center Locations

Waste Management Blog

Waste Management: LampTracker

Waste Management: Think Green from Home recycling kits

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