A Rotten Waste Merger

Lead Editor at Waste Dive, Cole Rosengren, explains how the Waste Management and Advanced Disposal merger further consolidated the $90 billion annual waste and recycling industry, the pushback it faced from local entities, and how it impacted communities across the nation. Kirstie Pecci, Executive Director at Just Zero, shares her journey that led to the fight against polluters in her hometown and sheds light on the strategies employed by Big Waste to target low-income communities and communities of color for landfill expansion.

Tracking Waste Management’s acquisition of Advanced Disposal, divestitures to GFL Environmental

Waste Management completes $4.6B acquisition of Advanced Disposal, following regulatory approval

Tracking the waste and recycling industry’s M&A boom

Just Zero: Advancing community-centered Zero Waste solutions

Southbridge Residents Make It Clear: They Don’t Want Casella’s Polluting Landfill Any More

Fighting Monopoly Power: Waste – The federal government has turned a blind eye to the monopolization of the waste industry and the high costs it imposes on communities and the environment. But local governments possess significant authority to break up landfill and garbage monopolies, reenergize our stagnant recycling sector, and germinate local composting efforts.

Opposition to Casella landfill expansion in Massachusetts grows

Books:

Giants of Garbage: The Rise of the Global Waste Industry and the Politics of Pollution by Harold Crooks

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome back to another episode of this season of Building Local Power, which we are calling How To Get Away With Merger. I’m your co-host Reggie Rucker. On the last episode, we looked at how mergers and acquisitions in the beer industry put local breweries and brewers at a severe disadvantage and threaten the existence of these institutions that through the nature of their product and place can really bring communities together.
Today, we go downstream and look at the industry that deals with the beer cans and bottles when we’re done with them. Consolidation in the waste industry and its convergence with recycling is having dramatic effects for the health of our communities and our planet, and we have two great guests to help us understand it all. To get us into the interview, let me throw it over to my co-host who has to put up with my garbage just about every day, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thanks, Reggie. Well, one man’s trash is another woman’s treasure. Today, we are talking about Waste Management’s largest acquisition to date. In 2019, Waste Management or WM bought Advanced Disposal for $4.9 billion. The lead editor at Waste Dive, Cole Rosengren, explains what led up to this merger and the ensuing consequences. Let’s jump into the show.
Reggie Rucker: Cole, thank you so much first for being on the show and bringing us your wealth of knowledge on this topic. It’s really great to have you. First, I’ll be the first to admit that for as much as I care about the preservation of this planet, and in fact, I recently did a presentation in my ethics class on why curbside community composting is not just a practically good policy, but a morally good one, I still couldn’t tell you the first thing about the waste industry, other than it’s too concentrated with a few big corporations dominating the industry, like many industries in America.
But that’s really where my knowledge ends. Can you carry this forward? Educate me, for sure, and then perhaps the rest of our audience about the waste industry, like who are the big players, how much of the market do they control. As we talk about the market, even just break down what is the market. I know there are people who pick up the trash. There’s the place where the trash goes. Just walk us through what the waste industry is and what it looks like.
Cole Rosengren: Sure. In the United States, the solid waste and recycling industry is roughly a $90 billion a year industry. Very corporate now. It has a big history in mergers actually, which is, of course, a good fit for the topic today. It used to be a pretty local business, family companies. Cities would provide service. It started to change ’70s and the ’80s in part due to federal regulations that put higher standards for landfills, and it made it more expensive to operate these landfills. Business saw an opportunity there.
Major names such as WM, formerly known as Waste Management, among others, came in, became publicly traded companies, and went on a huge acquisition spree. There’s quite a few stories. Really there’s many deals per month, per week. Execs flying all around the country just to go buy the next thing, the next thing. A lot of roll-ups happened for many decades. Where we are today is the industry is predominantly run by three major companies. WM is the largest, Republic Services is number two, and then Waste Connections is number three.
The way to think about market share, the greatest source of power from a business standpoint is who controls the disposal capacity, this being landfills that we’re talking about. Those three companies, according to some recent research, control about 56% of the disposal market in the US. The public sector is only about a quarter, and then other smaller players from there.
The services they provide range from the collection we see at the curb, collecting from homes, businesses, institutional and industrial settings, processing for recycling facilities, locations known as transfer stations, which may come up later in this discussion. If you pick up the trash, but the landfill is many hours away will go to a station in between, get moved on after that. They do provide other services, but that’s the main scope of it.
Luke Gannon: Cole, you lay out these three major companies that primarily dominate the waste market, but there still exists a small independent market for waste. Can you talk a little bit about what that market looks like for these services and what challenges that these smaller independent services face?
Cole Rosengren: Yeah, so it’s interesting, there is in some parts of the country more than others, there’s still a fairly robust market of family companies, small independent companies. They tend to be more focused on the collection just in terms of the barrier to entry. They may not have the capital to go out and buy a landfill, or it’s just very complex to own and operate one of those sites. But not uncommon to see a small independent business with two trucks, 10 trucks, even more out competing in the market.
The challenge though is, as we mentioned earlier, the disposal is key here. That’s the moat. That’s the competitive factor. Even if you are a local business and you’re going to go out and start picking up recycling or try to bid on business services or city contract, you still have to pay for it to be disposed or processed at someone else’s location at the end of the day. That’s a big challenge. Another factor, I don’t know if I’d call it competitive factor, it sort of is, private equity is playing an increasingly larger role in the waste industry, definitely within the last few years, say at least the last 10.
In some cases, smaller local companies have decided that’s a benefit to them and they’ll team up with these private equity firms and can grow faster because of that. But on the flip side, if you’re trying to compete against someone who has that private equity money or is part of one of these large private equity platforms, that’s a real factor. None of them are quite as large as WM or the other companies we mentioned, but they’re billion dollar waste platforms now backed by private equity. They’re not insignificant.
Reggie Rucker: Cole, when I hear you talk about the disadvantage that the smaller waste companies are at because they still need to access these landfills, which are very expensive to operate or they need lots of big trucks, I immediately start thinking about the work that we do around community composting and how they don’t have that same need for landfill space because we’re finding better use for those food scraps.
Similarly, they don’t have the need for lots of big trucks because there’s better ways to move those food scraps and the organic waste around. Can you talk a little bit about how the smaller community composters play into the landscape of the waste industry?
Cole Rosengren: You’re right, if we’re focusing on organics specifically, and then we’ve seen some good examples of that. Even here where I’m in the Boston area, there’s a pretty robust little network of subscription services, folks in vans, bicycles, other ways to pick up your organics in the buckets and such. Even they will run up, and I’m sure from working with folks in your network, finding the land, dealing with permitting requirements, all this stuff, to have a compost site is not always simple once you get to a scale.
Or depending on what kind of market you’re in, there could be franchise requirements for where stuff is supposed to go or how that works. Just some of the technology is getting harder as PFAS chemicals, for example, become something that composters need to be more wary of. That’s complicated and expensive. Pre-processing to get microplastics out, all of these things. Though it does seem to be one of the areas where it is I don’t know if easier is the right word, but we’re seeing more ingenuity from small…
Folks will get in and start a local organic service in part because the big players aren’t focused on doing that nationwide. They will do it in areas where state or local policy drives it or customers are asking for it. But WM does not offer composting to every customer in the country right now. If you’re in a market where they’re not doing that and you can start a whole service, that’s an opportunity.
Luke Gannon: Cole, you’ve done a great job of laying out the industry, so we’re going to turn now to the merger that we’re featuring today, which is Waste Management, WM for short, and Advanced Disposal. You mentioned earlier that there have been a number of mergers and acquisitions in this industry. How did we get to this point where these two massive conglomerates are merging? What was the market like and what were the factors in the market that made these companies believe that this merger was the only way forward?
Cole Rosengren: There had been already a lot of large what we call public to public mergers, public waste company buying another one. I’d have to triple check this, but I would say there used to be probably at least twice as many publicly traded waste companies back in the ’90s, for example, and that shrunk through mergers over the years, including some very large ones.
And with WM being the largest in terms of what’s really a way to move the needle, what’s going to be a big deal that’s out there, this was considered a logical fit essentially in terms of where can we really go and make a big move and grow through this. On the flip side, and I’ll admit this, I don’t have this directly from the companies, but in their SEC filings that laid out the deal history, Advanced had been approached by buyers before this that were not WM, which is not uncommon.
They all talk. They’re all looking at options. This was happening in looks like early 2018, Advanced was approached by some folks. Deals didn’t work out, and then WM entered the mix in fall of 2018 and said, “Oh, we actually have an offer that would work.” For context, at the time, WM was the number one in the market, Advanced was number four. It was a big deal to be able to get them.
As far as why they thought it made sense, Advanced had a very large network of disposal facilities, these landfills that we mentioned, transfer stations as well, going back to the competitive advantage, and just a large hauling business too. It was probably viewed as a way to move the needle pretty quickly to them.
Reggie Rucker: So then can you tell us about what the public reaction was to this merger? I think particularly with the federal government, were there any agencies or officials that attempted to block or significantly alter the terms of the deal? I think from the public, was there a sense of public awareness about how this merger might impact service in different communities?
Cole Rosengren: Yeah, it was a very protracted process. It went on for about 18 months. They went into this expecting certain amount of divestitures would be required from DOJ, which is not uncommon in deals of this size, of course, but they ended up having to renegotiate the deal because DOJ asked for more divestitures than they had even envisioned originally. The COVID pandemic started at this time as well, so that maybe dragged things out a little bit, but it was a messy timeline on this.
There was some public pushback, most notably, at least, in terms of what we could get on the record of the time around the Chicago area. A couple local entities, Solid Waste Authority of Lake County and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County got very involved. They hired attorneys. They met with DOJ. They flew into DC to raise their concerns about what this would mean for their market, and that was just one snapshot.
But the reason they cited was basically Chicago area would go from four major players to three, and they were concerned about what that would mean as an entity that has to contract for these services, would costs go up, would things be as competitive. Some of these concerns ended up playing out. DOJ did end up requiring a large divestiture package. It spans numerous states. I have it here, I’m just trying to pull it up. There’s about 10 states. Multiple state AGs signed on to the process, and that all played out amicably in the end. But yeah, there was a lot of pushback on this one.
Reggie Rucker: Actually, yeah, Cole, please go ahead and continue. Talk a little bit about the communities and how they responded to the proposed remedies and perhaps even other government officials who maybe had a different point of view on this. What were you hearing from your research and reporting? Were people generally satisfied?
Cole Rosengren: I think largely yes. I mean, at least the two agencies I mentioned in Illinois I think largely were. Other folks that we’d been talking to in other states that were concerned didn’t raise huge issues after it was all said and done. I think some people would’ve maybe preferred to see multiple buyers of the divestiture package to further enhance, in their view, enhance competition. We never got this directly from them, but the understanding at the time was DOJ just wanted one buyer to make it cleaner.
There were a lot of people. It was a pretty funny period. Everyone wanted in on this. About 50 different buyers approached the folks in negotiating, “Can I buy this site, but not that site?” They said, “No, we’re not going to do it this way,” and they just sold it to one company. This company, GFL Environmental, which is now number four in the industry, in part after buying this. They were growing quickly through their own acquisitions and they’re a big deal now in part because they picked up this package.
But yeah, they were required to divest about 15 landfills, 37 transfer stations, 29 hauling locations and various other routes. Just a very quick point, what DOJ looks for in this industry is they look at landfill and transfer capacity and they look at commercial collection, and that’s their lens to assess competition.
Luke Gannon: Cole, you mentioned this group in Chicago that had concerns about how the merger would affect the city. What ultimately ended up happening there?
Cole Rosengren: Multiple sites were required to be divested in that market. And also Wisconsin, which is relatively close to Chicago, was a very big focus. Just a funny piece of history to show how much this industry’s built on mergers, a lot of what was at the Advanced Disposal portfolio had come from multiple mergers, including them buying divestiture requirements from other companies in the past.
It’s a thing where sites just change hands time after time, and maybe we’ll get to it a minute, but after GFL bought its package, it then sold off some of these assets to other companies. Some local governments had… Say they have a local landfill in their community and have to deal with them for a contractor for service. Within the span of two years, they were dealing with three different owners because it just kept changing hands because of the deal.
Reggie Rucker: Wow. Okay, so then what happens next?
Cole Rosengren: Yeah, usually DOJ wants certain holding periods. GFL had to hold onto the assets for a bit, about a year or so. This deal closed, WM-Advanced, closed in fall 2020. And then in 2021, GFL turned around and sold most of the Illinois and Minnesota assets that had picked up to another company at the time called Lakeshore Disposal, now known as LRS, which is backed by Macquarie, a very large private equity firm.
It also sold some assets in Pennsylvania to another company called Noble Environmental, and that kind of spurred, especially for LRS, that helped gave them a launching pad to go acquire other companies in those markets. We think we started the final ripple effects of this whole thing this year because GFL has acquired so many companies in recent years, including this divestiture package. GFL also did its own big divestiture package this year, not required by DOJ, but just to streamline its portfolio.
Who did it sell those assets to? WM in one market, Republic in another market, and another publicly traded company Casella up here in the northeast. That was interesting. I’d consider that full circle three years later.
Luke Gannon: I was listening to this news clip in preparation for this episode, and one of the news hosts said that a small town down south when these two companies merged didn’t have trash pickup for multiple weeks. I’m wondering what the effects were, on the ground effects, on communities around the country because it’s been now three years since this merger.
Cole Rosengren: There’s certainly short-term effects, but for the most part, these companies do so many of these deals that they find weird and iron it out. But what we saw here, and it’s not uncommon to see in other acquisitions of varying sizes, there’s usually an interruption in service in the beginning. There’s two different sides of why this may happen that we hear. From the acquiring company, they say it’s often because they have higher safety standards for the fleet and the workforce.
Occasionally trucks will get taken off the road, certain drivers won’t pass certain tests. It’s not uncommon to see day after a deal closes, service cannot be provided in the same way as it was the day before the deal closed. Others will say, well, it’s because the acquiring company is not adept at integrating this, but there may be different software platforms. There’s a lot of complicating factors. But yeah, you see that pricing will go up, which Advanced was known for being relatively lower on pricing versus its publicly traded peers.
WM went and raised prices, and also the fact that this happened in the midst of COVID was another reason. 2020 was when the big price increase started, the company set to offset the costs of COVID.
Reggie Rucker: I think the last question we have for you is if you can look into your crystal ball and tell us about the future of this industry. I mean, I guess from what you’ve said, if it’s possible to get more concentrated with more mergers, maybe that’s where it’s going. But yeah, I’ll let you tell it. What’s the future of the industry look like?
Cole Rosengren: Yeah. I mean, from a consolidation standpoint, yes, I think there’s more to go. We’ve seen very high levels of activity in recent years for various reasons. The tax cuts under the Trump administration was one factor. There was a lot of reasons why this was happening. COVID drove some family run businesses to choose to sell because the higher expenses, the concern around that.
When there was a concern that maybe Congress under the Biden administration would change the corporate tax rate structure, that led to a lot of sales, even though that didn’t end up happening, but that really pushed a lot of things. Every time we think that wave is done, there’s more to come. Yeah, there’s a lot still ahead. It’s less likely we’re going to see another large public to public merger. We don’t think there’s a couple possibilities. But WM, for example, this is from a DOJ standpoint, it wouldn’t really work.
I don’t think they could get that through, and they’re not trying to do that. They haven’t really bought that much of anything since this has happened. A couple things, but not nearly to the level of their peers. Where a lot of the activity is right now is through the private equity firms. Republic, Waste Connections, GFL is still very active, still buying a lot of stuff, but private equity is really active as well in terms of building up some of these big platform companies, which probably will get sold to the public companies someday or become public companies themselves in the future.
There’s a lot of that coming. And more broadly what that means, the industry is very focused on capturing value from the gas at landfills in part due to federal requirements, but there’s a big push there. A lot of the tax money around what they call the renewable natural gas is driving investment there. Some degree of investment in recycling, but nothing that’s necessarily going to move the needle that much beyond what they’re doing now. I’m trying to think of any other factor.
I think that’s the main thing. To bring it back to antitrust, I don’t think we’ll see another large one, at least under this current administration. If administrations change, it’s possible. And for what it’s worth, some folks don’t know that this, WM and Advanced, would’ve played out in the same way and hypothetically under the Biden administration. That’s something we’ve heard as well.
Luke Gannon: At the end of every Building Local Power episode, we ask our guests about a book that has impacted the work that they do today. I’d like to extend this question to you. Is there a book that has influenced your work?
Cole Rosengren: Yeah, definitely one that’s helped with my reporting on antitrust in the white space would be Giants of Garbage by Harold Crooks. This came out in the early ’90s. And for anyone who’s really in the weeds on this, this is a follow-up to another version he’d written in the ’80s. If you’re going to read one, read this one because it’s the more updated one. That’s probably the last really good in-depth look at antitrust in the waste sector. But if you want a more broader read or even just…
I’ll try to think real quickly. Have a couple that are also good. Anything by Adam Minter. Junkyard Planet is a great one to understand the scrap recycling sector. Fat of the Land by Ben Miller if you really want to know New York City waste history. And then the final one I’ll put out is Picking Up by Robin Nagle. She is an anthropologist who became a New York City sanitation worker and chronicles that in her book. I don’t know, put it in the show notes, put my email. I’m always happy to talk waste books. There’s more.
Luke Gannon: A huge thanks to Cole Rosengren for sharing his extensive reporting and research on the show today. For the second half of today’s episode, we are hearing from a waste and environmental expert out in Massachusetts. But before we jump into talking about waste, food, and compost, I’m going to toss it over to my radish berry sweet and always on bleak co-host Reggie Rucker. What’s up, Reggie?
Reggie Rucker: Luke, for someone who spent much of his childhood being called Reggie Veggie, these puns are quite triggering, so thanks. For our regular listeners. I’m going to keep this break short today because I really want to get to our next guest’s story. Before I toss it back to Luke, I want to ask you to reflect for one minute. This episode and our next we’ll do the same, is asking you to think about the systems that we don’t pay much attention to, but have an outside influence on things we care deeply about.
It’s easy to put the trash, the recyclables, and for some of you even, the compostable organics to the curb or down the chute and believe from there it’s in good hands and good riddance. But what this conversation is about today is the ways in which giant companies that grow larger through these mergers and acquisitions have so much power in deciding what gets picked up and how these materials are either discarded or repurposed. These decisions have a dramatic influence on our ability or inability to tackle the climate crisis and build healthy, vibrant communities.
Think about that friend who really cares about environmental justice and preservation and invite them into this reflection and conversation by sharing this episode with them. As I always say, pause and do it right now if you’ll forget, then come right back as Luke takes you through the story of a student activist turned environmental attorney fighting against big waste conglomerates. Stay tuned.
Luke Gannon: As Cole explained, the waste industry is dominated by just a few players in the northeast. A company called Casellas dominates the industry. Kirstie Pecci, an environmental lawyer and the executive director at Just Zero, has spent years fighting her hometown’s, landfill expansion and implementing just an equitable zero waste solutions across the nation. Today, Kirstie walks us through her journey of becoming an environmental guru and just why this fight is so important.
Kirstie Pecci: I think my story reflects that of a lot of environmentalists, and that is my parents were very connected to our home, to our natural home and then our home. We took great pride and put a lot of work into our home. My parents always composted. I actually live in the same town that I grew up in, in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. It’s a lovely semi-rural community in Central Massachusetts, and we are near enough to the highway, so it’s not too hard to get to Hartford or Boston or Worcester to work, but still always had a nice big yard, lived near the woods, spent a lot of time outside.
My parents are very, very dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of our world. I would say also that my parents were very cognizant of two things. One, that we are not separate from the environment, so our health is dependent on the health of our environment. The number one indicator of how healthy you’re going to be and how long you’re going to live is where you live, and we know that now. My parents had an intrinsic understanding of that. They’ve always worked to preserve open space.
I’m the oldest of six children. All six of us are involved in public service in some way, shape or form, whether that’s being involved in local government or on the Trails Committee locally or teaching or myself doing environmental work. It was something that was really instilled in us from the beginning. And again, my parents also were just very much always had a garden, always composted. It wasn’t a question. You didn’t put your food scraps in the trash. You put them over the stonewall in the woods, which is what I still do today.
Not surprising that I was interested in this. I would also say the other thing that’s kind of funny is that my parents were really involved in the town, they still are, and in good governance, good local governance. They helped, especially my mother, establish our recycling center. We had a little local landfill that was due to close if we didn’t reduce what was put in it.
If you wanted to use the landfill, to this day this is the case, you have to show up with your recycling separated, sort it by hand yourself, and then only the remainder can go into the trash. And as a result, our little local landfill is still open decades later than it was supposed to be.
Luke Gannon: One afternoon, Kirstie and her father were stacking wood in the backyard and her dad asked.
Kirstie Pecci: What do you want to do? I was always a good student. I loved school. I love people. Don’t have a shy bone of my body. My dad said, “Well, what do you want to do? What are you going to do?” We talked about it and I really felt like my heart would break if I worked on health or poverty issues, women’s issues, a lot of things that I care about a lot. I just don’t think I could take it.
We talked about that and my dad said, “Well, you’re too much of a people person to be a writer. You want to be out in the middle of things.” He said, “What about an environmental attorney?” When I applied to school, I said, “I want to be an environmental attorney.” I went to Harvard.
Luke Gannon: At Harvard, Kirstie took her environmental knowledge from childhood and worked on the recycling system. She went to law school at Boston College and continued to immerse herself in environmental courses, clubs, and internships. When she moved back to Sturbridge, her hometown, and had kids, she got involved in a fight against expanding her local landfill,
Kirstie Pecci: Got a call from a bunch of different neighbors, including people in my family here in Sturbridge, saying the landfill in Southbridge is going to expand. It’s going to be a mega landfill run by Casella Waste. You have to help us stop it. That put me on the path, quite honestly, to working in zero waste. Landfills used to be local landfills, community-based local landfills, and they were small. We didn’t have as much plastic. We didn’t have as much toxic stuff to put into them, and we didn’t have as much stuff.
We didn’t have as much single use stuff certainly to put into them. And then two things happened. One, the waste became more toxic and then became more waste. And then also meanwhile, we did develop regulations to try and limit the leaking of the landfill and the toxic emissions into the air from the landfill. You can’t stop either of those things, but the EPA regulations, which are then handled by each state, they at least try and control and limit and measure it. While that’s a good thing, what happened is that large corporations took over the landfills and made them into mega landfills.
Now, what happened with what we’ve seen is that large corporations like Casella Waste, which has pretty much a monopoly in the Northeast in some parts, especially Vermont and other places, on certain aspects of recycling and composting and waste disposal along with Waste Management, Republic, there’s a few big players in every region. Of course, then there’s the incinerator companies.
But the large landfill companies, what they did is they found impoverished communities or communities where the landfill was in trouble, meaning that it was clearly leaking and unlined, it was creating a lot of odor problems, and they took that landfill and either purchased it from the private local owner or they purchased it or decided to run it for the city or town that the landfill was in if they were owned before. Sturbridge’s situation, as I referenced before, Sturbridge still owns its landfill.
Sturbridge still runs its landfill. Sturbridge is a middle class community with a lot of engineers who live locally, et cetera, and we figured out how to limit the landfill. It’s still, I’m sure, not safe, no landfill is safe, but that’s what we did with our landfill. In contrast, the town next to me, Southbridge, Massachusetts, is an environmental justice community. About 25% of the community hails from Puerto Rico, limited access to English, less education. And honestly, it’s a lot of work to keep the town in the black, right?
In other words, meaning pay the bills, the municipal bills. What one of the town managers decided to do was to take the landfill that was owned by the town and start shipping in construction and demolition materials. Then they have a terrible odor problem. Fires, like week long fires at one point. Then Casella shows up and says, “We’re going to save you. We’re going to solve this problem for you.” Now, the reason that Casella Waste Management and other companies take over existing local landfills is one, it’s easier to get permitting if there’s already a blight on the land, right?
The agency says, “Well, that’s already contaminated. They’re already screwed, so we might as well let them expand it.” The other reason is that they can never be blamed entirely for the condition of a landfill. In other words, at the Southbridge Landfill, which is about 52 acres large, about 11 acres are unlined. Anytime that there was any groundwater monitoring that showed significant contamination, Casella could point and say, “Oh, it wasn’t us. It was before we ran it. That leaking happened because of an unlined cell.
It’s not the millions of tons of waste we’re putting in. It’s the tons of waste that happened before we came here in the unlined cell.” It’s very purposeful. And then also, a more impoverished community with less resources, less scientists, less lawyers, less engineers who live there is less likely to fight back. And that’s why the Southbridge Landfill was targeted, to be perfectly honest.
Luke Gannon: This story is not unique to Sturbridge. Casella has bought landfills all over the Northeast. Casella’s tactics are exemplary of what these corporations do across the country. Waste behemoths like Waste Management and Republic Services have targeted low income communities and communities of color to expand their services to rake in profit at the expense of the community’s health.
Kirstie represented over 300 residents from Southbridge and lost. But as is often the case, the game was rigged. Casella had engineered the Board of Health to secure votes and hired the biggest law firm in the region. Kirstie lost the case, but she knew she was winning something bigger.
Kirstie Pecci: On the way though, not only did we build a coalition of people who cared about this and educate a coalition of residents who cared about this in all three towns, but we also educated local officials. Officials left office and were elected in because of this. This was very disruptive to the region, as you might believe. That local control and education was crucial going forward. Local officials at the state level too, reps and senators, learned a lot and then also made a lot of connections with state agencies, understood how they worked, and then also journalists.
Those are kind of the pieces. If you’re fighting a big polluter, whoever they are, you need people power to show up and to show local officials that people care. You need people power to show up so that the agencies will do something because they will not if people don’t show up. To be perfectly honest, they have too much on their plates already. You need to educate folks as to why what’s happening is dangerous.
Luke Gannon: In 2015, Casella wanted to expand the landfill again. Fortunately, the coalition of residents, lawyers, activists, engineers, and scientists were able to stop it. But as Kirstie explains, winning the fight against waste will take more than winning individual battles. It requires tackling how big we let these waste companies get to begin with.
Kirstie Pecci: The one problem is we’ve accepted the bigness of our waste problem, and the money being made is based on that tonnage. When you build an incinerator, you need to feed the beast. The sagas incinerator has been running since 1974. I’ve been fighting it for years because once it’s built, you can’t shut it down. You got to pay the bills every year. You have to create a certain amount of trash to go into it. Landfill and incinerator companies get paid by the ton. They do not want that tonnage should go away.
If you say to them, “I’m going to put a bottle bill in place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I’m going to expand it,” or in Maryland, we’ve been talking to people there about putting a bottle bill in place, a brand new bottle bill. A bottle bill is a deposit return system or a bottle can return for money system where there’s a deposit on the bottle or can. The consumer pays an extra 10 cents and then gets that 10 cents back when they return their bottle or can, and then they’re recycled.
It’s also in the United States, it could be the basis for a refill program, which is really how we get rid of plastic is have glass refillable bottles. That’s the cheapest way and also the best way to get our drinks. There’s no more plastic in our drinks, but also it uses a lot less resources to ship glass bottles back and forth, good local jobs to wash them, and then have them come back to me and be refilled. A nice local job refilling, you’re not shipping these drinks across the country. And then also, again, lightest impact on the environment and the climate.
That’s what a bottle bill is. Maryland should have a bottle bill. Massachusetts should have a bigger, better, more modern bottle bill. When you talk about passing a bottle bill, who shows up in opposition? Well, Casella Waste showed up at the hearing here in Massachusetts to expand it because they don’t want that tonnage to leave their landfilling or their recycling.
Because what Casella has done, and this is getting the second part I was going to say, Casella has purchased what are called the material recycling facilities, the sorting facilities, as well as transfer stations, as well as small recycling companies to make sure that they can dictate what is happening, and what that means is dictating the price. In Massachusetts, cities and towns are paying 70, $90, maybe even $100 per ton for curbside recycling and somewhere between 90 and $125 for curbside trash per ton.
That bigness is what the business model is based on. The bigger the company like Waste Management or Casella or Republic or Covanta or Wheelabrator, which now calls themselves WIN, if you can believe it, Waste Innovations, those companies, the bigger they are, the more tons they want you to produce. They’re going exactly the opposite up to the waste hierarchy, which is reduce, then reuse, then recycle, right? We see the bigness is the big problem. Now, is everything going to be local?
No, but I don’t need everything to be local. Some examples of local waste to deal with the trash problem, 25 to 33% of it is compostable. It’s food. It’s yard waste. That stuff, very local. You don’t want to be shipping heavy, wet, stinky food trash all over the place. You want it to be handled local. A great source of local jobs and a great source of local clean soil that you can keep your eye on and make sure it’s clean and then have it being used on your local farms, on your local gardens, on your local parks.
That’s what we want. Big is not better if you’re going to be trying to make as much money as possible off of every time, which is what the big company’s try and do.
Luke Gannon: The giants that we’ve spoken of today, Waste Management, Republic Services, Casella, and Waste Connections, will use any tactic despite its negative effect on the environment or the health of residents to reap profit. Their size allows them to do this. Kirstie’s book recommendation provides a humorous and hopeful anecdote to this daunting work.
Kirstie Pecci: I spend every day reading reports and articles, and obviously there’s a lot of skimming. There’s a lot of redundancy in everything that we do to a certain extent. But I spend every day reading some really tough stuff about PFAS in loon eggs was the article I was reading about today in New Hampshire. There’s some really tough stuff out there. My antidote to that so that I don’t lose my mind is to read romance novels and fantasy novels to disengaged. The book that inspires me that I think everybody should go read is by Sir Terry Pratchett and it’s called The Wee Free Men.
First of all, you should read it because it’s funny as hell. It’s a really funny book. I just sent it to a friend of mine who had COVID because as I said to her, the book is about a girl who steps up to protect her home, and that’s at the core of all of us. That is at the core of all of us. It’s about stepping up and with your friends and with other people that you are sustained by who you’re taking care of and they’re taking care of you as you do this work together arm in arm, stepping up and protecting our homes and saying, “This is not okay.”
Everybody deserves a clean place to live, a safe place to live where they can take care of their families. Read The Wee Free Men. Learn how Tiffany Aching becomes a witch so that she can do that in her community and embrace your own witchiness and do that in your community and do it your own way. Because some people like to read and write and show up for podcasts, and some people like to show up at meetings, and some people like to call their legislator. We need everybody to do all those little bits. If everybody does their part, then we can win because we’re right.
Luke Gannon: This episode has been so thought-provoking. Thank you so much, Kirstie Pecci and Cole Rosengren for your stories and knowledge.
Reggie Rucker: Yes, thank you both. Thanks to all of you for listening all the way to the end. I assume that means you like this episode, so please share with even just one person you think will enjoy it too. We have a goal of 10,000 listens for this episode. Help us get there. If you’re not a subscriber to the podcast yet, make sure to hit that subscribe button so you know when every new episode drops. Of course, your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free.
You’re truly welcome and appreciate it all. And last, if you have feedback for us or want to share a story about how your community approaches this issue, send us an email to buildinglocalpower@ilsr.org. We’d love to share these on a special mailbag episode one day. We’ll keep an eye out. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank. The music for this season is also composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.

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