Waste Management, North America’s Largest Trash Hauler, Wants to Reduce Plastic Pollution

  • America’s largest waste hauler invests in a company that recycles shrink wrap.
  • Flexible plastic accounts for nearly a quarter of all US plastic waste, yet only 5% is recycled.

Almost all of that plastic shrink wrap around newly arrived furniture or boxes delivered to Costco, Home Depot, and other major retailers ends up in the landfill. The same goes for plastic grocery bags.

This type of flexible plastic represents almost a quarter of 32 million tons of plastic waste produced each year in the United States, but only 5% is recycled. An acquisition by North America’s largest waste hauler this week suggests there could be a path to reusing a lot more of it.

Waste Management, which works with local governments and commercial businesses to dispose of or recycle the things we throw away, announced on Tuesday that it would acquire a majority stake in the US operations of Avangard Innovative. The companies are not disclosing the value of the deal, which is expected to close this year.

“When only 5% of these materials are recycled, it presents a great opportunity for growth,” Jim Fish, president and CEO of Waste Management, told Insider. “It’s also an opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.”

Avangard, a Houston-based company that handles hard-to-recycle plastics, is three decades old but has seen renewed interest in recent years as major food and beverage brands and chemical companies pledge to use more of recycled plastic. States like California, New Jersey and Washington will require certain single-use plastic packaging to contain more recycled content in the coming years.

Avangard is expanding its operations in Houston, and Waste Management has announced that it will build another plant in the Midwest. Within five years, the company could recycle some 181,000 tonnes of plastic film, the companies said.

The material will come mainly from supermarkets and big box stores, said Tara Hemmer, director of sustainability for Waste Management. Currently, flexible plastic is not accepted at the company’s own recycling centers, but it is exploring ways to do so, Hemmer said. The agreement with Avangard, which will operate as Natura PCR, is part of the Waste Management program plan to spend up to $800 million by 2025 automate its recycling plants and expand into underserved markets.

For now, Waste Management is focusing on Avangard’s traditional mechanical recycling capabilities — sorting, cleaning and shredding — rather than emerging chemical recycling technology, Hemmer said. In February, Avangard announced a partnership with Honeywell build a chemical recycling plant by 2023.

The plastics industry invests billions of dollars to expand chemical or “advanced” recycling, arguing that it can handle more types of plastic waste. But environmentalists say it’s a false solution, citing research which revealed that most US factories in operation today are small and burn plastics for fuel, not turning waste into new plastic products.

Chemical giant Dow is investing in both strategies, with more than 50 “circularity projects and partnerships” underway, said Nestor de Mattos, North American commercial vice president of Dow’s packaging arm. The company has been a customer of Avangard’s plastic pellets since 2020, advancing Dow’s goal to help collect and recycle 1 million metric tons of plastic this decade – a figure that represents a fraction of the Dow’s overall plastic production.

Bryce K. Locke