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Waste Management CEO places energy bets

The garbage hauler is investing in start-ups to wring valuable products from waste, including electricity, liquid fuels, and chemicals.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.-- Waste Management wants your waste for more reasons that you might think.

The company, which hauls garbage from 22 million customers, is in the midst of a strategy to invest in technology start-ups in an effort to get electricity, chemicals, or liquid fuels from municipal solid waste. Already, the company generates two to three times more energy than the entire solar industry.

"We took the venture capital route. We make lots of small investments because you don't know what technology will ultimately will win. We need to spread out bets," Waste Management CEO David Steiner said during a talk here at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference today.

Landfill operators, such as Waste Management, have been capturing the methane gas from landfills to make electricity for decades. Incinerators burn trash to make electricity.

But Waste Management is seeking to get more value from the "materials" that it collects, said Steiner. Rather than create a single product, such as electricity, the company's strategy is to invest in different technologies that give it flexibility in what collected waste is converted into.

With organic materials, such as yard clippings and food waste, the industry is only getting about 60 percent of the inherent value. Organics can be converted into biogas using a process called anaerobic digestion, which can be burned for heat or electricity. Nutrients can be recuperated as well from organics.

Another technology called plasma gasification converts wastes into a synthetic gas, a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. From there, that gas could potentially be made into diesel fuel or specialty chemicals, Steiner said.

"We think we can extract a lot more value both as a fuel and converting it to syngas. And once we do that, we can get to lots of different chemicals and fuels," he said.

One technology the company badly needs is a way to automatically sort waste so different streams, such as organic material and paper, can be separated without contamination, which Steiner said would "change the game for us."

The company is also investing in information technology, such as better Web sites and on-board computers for its haulers, to improve the productivity and customer service.

Changing the company culture to recycling waste for valuable products helps motivate employees since they feel they are improving the environment, Steiner said. The average American generates about four and a half pounds of waste a day and the industry collects about 350 million tons of municipal solid waste a year.

"Is this going to create energy independence in the U.S.? No, but I see it as creating lemonade from lemons," he said.