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8 Key Takeaways from the Waste Management Phoenix Open Sustainability Forum


Last Updated on January 23, 2024

This year I got to head to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. I was invited to tour the grounds and see how the largest zero waste event on the planet operates.

Waste Management diverts 100% of their waste from landfill for this 700,000 person event. To see how that’s even possible be sure to check out my blog post full of tips for throwing a large zero waste event!

One of the core principles of this event isn’t just to divert waste from landfills its also to EDUCATE. As part of the tournament, there’s signage, even an excellent zero waste station made from upcycled shipping containers where you can learn, play games, and cool off in the shade provided by the umbrellas.

 But, there’s also a Sustainability Forum. Honestly, I don’t know if I was more excited to head to the Forum or the Behind the Scenes Tour to see how Waste Management pulls it off.

8 Key Takeaways from the Waste Management Phoenix Open Sustainability Forum

This post was sponsored by Waste Management but all thoughts and opinions are my own. For more information please see my disclosure policy.

Now, before I go any further, I have to mention my fantastic partner in crime Alden Wicker from Eco Cult. This gal is badass. She writes articles that I could only dream of writing. She’s a professional journalist and it 100% shows in her work. If you’re looking for some serious deep dives, especially in the sustainable fashion sphere, you have got to check her out.

We’ve been online friends for about a year and a half but getting to share a suite and geek out over everything sustainable at the tournament was just a blast! As Anne of Green Gables would say, “Bosom Buddies 4 Lyfe.”  

Thursday morning we woke up early to head to the Sustainability Forum where we were greeted with my favorite sight in the whole world. A whole bunch of mugs and stainless steel tankards full of tea.

Hello, plastic-free dreamboat.

 And, if you can indulge me on a bit of a whim, all of the signage was made out of Falcon Board. Now, that may not mean a lot to you, but to a gal who worked in a print shop that specialized in sustainable conference signage – it means something.

Falcon is one of the ONLY rigid materials with longevity that uses recycled content and is recyclable. Now, longevity is important because Waste Management uses over 50,000 sq. ft. of signage year after year.

I know this might seem small and inconsequential, but I’m sure we all know – the devil is in the details. The people organizing this event, the sustainability team, etc. they are thinking about everything down to the tiny signs that advertise the tea and coffee. 

Now, that I had my tea, it was time to head into the forum and of course, snag a front row seat.

I’m going to share with you some of the most significant takeaways from the event.

1. Jim Fish the CEO of Waste Management:  

Jim spoke a bit about Waste Management’s history with the Phoenix Open. This was their 7th year pulling off the biggest zero waste event in the world, and they just signed on for another 10! 

I think Jim did a great job of putting things into perspective. In sustainability, I feel that we can get very wrapped up in how far we have to go without looking back over how far we’ve come. There’s this belief that if we celebrate progress, it somehow means that we’re satisfied with where we are.

That seems pretty silly to me. Let’s celebrate our progress and continue to push forward. In 1980, 10% of products worldwide were recycled. Today we’re up to 35%. This is a great achievement, but as Jim said, let’s focus on getting to 60%.

Did you know Waste Management owns the biggest fleet of heavy trucks in North America? They have 18,000, and they’re shifting all of them from diesel to natural gas.

And, I hear you, “Natural gas!? That’s not eco-friendly!” But, what if I told you’re they’re tapping and extracting the natural gas from their landfills.

Landfills produce 16% of methane emissions in the US, so instead of letting that happen, they’re reclaiming it. I think that’s pretty cool and they’ll have 60% of their fleet converted by the end of 2019.

This one change will reduce their emissions by 80%.

They’re also working on expanding composting programs, investing in new technologies, and dedicated to opening up domestic plants, so we don’t have to rely on China for our recycling.

2. Valerie Craig the Deputy to the Chief Scientist & Vice President of Impact Initiatives for National Geographic:

Valerie started out with a lot of facts that most of y’all already know.

  • 40% of plastic is used only once

  • 9 million tons of plastic hitting the ocean

  • Since the plastic boom in the ’50s 8 million metric tons of plastic has been created and in the last 15 years half was produced

  • Packaging materials make up a bulk of the plastic produced accounting for more than 50% of the waste

Now, this is where I think things get interesting. Valerie talked about the emissions of plastic vs. other materials.

For instance, lightweight films and bags are easier to transport, and the weight difference between glass and plastic creates a stark contrast in carbon emissions.

It’s just not as simple as going back to using glass or going back to the way things used to be. She stressed that we need to be material mindful and that when looking for solutions we need to work through the value chain all the way back to design.

We need to make sure that companies are taking responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their product.

The most exciting recommendation, I thought, was to get all companies on board to decide on a limited number of packaging options. So, instead of having all different types of granola bar wrappers, there’d only be one type.

Then, it’d be much easier to find solutions and markets for these items.

She also talked about how quickly awareness to the problem has grown. In just 12-18 months 1.1 billion views across social media on the awakening of plastic! I found this to be super encouraging and hope to see it trending more and more.

3. Panel One | Problems with Plastic:

This panel included Jason Hale Communications and Recycling Coordinator for Systemiq, Steve Sikra Materials and Technology Manager for P&G, Nicholas Mallos Director of Trash Free Seas from the Ocean Conservancy and Valeria Craig the Deputy to the Chief Scientist & Vice President of Impact Initiatives for National Geographic and moderated by David Pogue.

This panel was SO exciting. I definitely recommend listening because it will make you question a lot of the beliefs you hold dear about “bad” big business.

I had a mini existential crisis after listening to the panel and literally wrote, “Is anything truly good or bad?” in my notes.

Steve from P&G kicked things off talking about why and how they’re trying to move to more sustainable products.

Jason talked about Systemiq which helps run a recycling plant in Indonesia and helps to manage waste to prevent it from winding up in the ocean. He spoke of how typical waste management in the region involves either burning, burying, or putting it in the river. They know this isn’t the best option, but they don’t have any other choices. He’s working on trying to solve it.

Nicholas talked about cleanups and intervention points, and how to deploy technology in coastal eco-systems and rivers where plastic is the most saturated. Taking plastic out of the ocean should be the last thing we’re thinking about, we need to figure out how do we stop the materials from getting to the ocean in the first place and how do we move upstream and how we address the broader sustainable development issues that surround plastic waste in society.

Natalie spoke a little more about the facts and figures found in the National Geographic Planet or Plastic issue.

They also spoke about gateway plastics, convenience items, waste management in Indonesia, LOOP, how facilities and technologies for managing waste will change depending on location and area and how we need to work with what they have, talked about systems for recycling fishing nets, and more.

4. Mick Ebeling from Not Impossible:

This was a really inspiring talk. You might have seen the viral video last year about the 3-D printed prosthetic arm that can be made for several hundred dollars. This talk didn’t really cover sustainability, so I didn’t take many notes.

5. Dr. Leyla Acaroglu an industrial designer and sociologist:

Dr. Leyla spoke a lot about the role of design with an emphasis on the circular economy. She also talked about our disconnect from the system.

As humans, we tend to forget that we rely on nature. We can’t operate above nature, we’re part of nature.

Waste, trash, it’s all a poor design. So let’s design out the problem from the beginning. Nature is regenerative and we should be looking to work with nature instead of against it. I’ve outlined a few more of my key takeaways below.

  • changing social norms and overcome convenience culture

  • we designed our self in we can design ourselves out

  • repair, remanufacture, resell

  • utilizing sharing platforms as a resource


During the lunch break, I popped up in The Sidebar which you can see in the video below and had a delicious meal with a real plate and even a cloth napkin! Woot-woot!

6. Brent Bell Vice President of Recycling:

I cannot recommend this talk highly enough. It’s pretty short but it’s all about how we can be better recyclers, the problems recycling institutions are facing, and how Waste Management is finding solutions.

He was very optimistic about the future of recycling despite the recycling ban in China. Waste Management has done a great job of developing new domestic markets and have even implemented gamification on the bins.

In one of the videos, you’ll see they’ll put a paper tag on the bin. If you’re doing an excellent job of recycling, they’ll put a smiley face on your bin! If you do poorly, they’ll put a frowny face and more information to help you recycle better.

He also talked about Wish-cycling which is the leading cause of contamination. You’d be surprised some of the things people try to recycle.

  • 80,000 lbs of 5,000 Bowling balls.. a year!?

  • Recycling cart as a wishing well

  • 90,000 propane tanks – which explode and endanger workers!

  • 28,000 batteries a month

All of this results in more than 140,000 hours where the machines are shut down and have to be cleaned instead of sorting and recycling. Watch the talk to hear more about their education programs and new technologies being developed.

7. Andrew Winston co-author of Green to Gold, the best-selling book that shows what works — and what doesn’t — when companies go green:

 If you want to feel hopeful about the future. If you want to question a lot of your previously held beliefs of big business in society, watch this talk. I’m going to hit some of the top bullet points because he spoke fast and shared A LOT.

  • Paris Climate Accord, even though the US stepped out. Mayors, Governors, even mega-corporations stepped up to say they were still in. With more than 70 cities pledging to be carbon-free by 2050

  • Soon, it will be more expensive to maintain an existing coal mine and nuclear plant than it is to build NEW solar and wind

  • 70% of the energy created now is renewable

  • Fossil fuels are over, now it’s about how fast we turn over the grid

  • Sustainability is NOT PHILANTHROPY

  • Generational shifts of the consumer and Millenials are demanding transparency

  • Now the definition of a good product is one that works and is responsibility sourced, and sustainable delivered

  • Companies feel the need to stand for something

8. Future of Cities a Panel:

On the panel was Robert Kunzing the Senior Environment Editor for National Geographic Magazine, Clarence Anthony Executive Director of the National League of Cities, Dr. Leyla Acarogula an industrial designer and sociologist, Andrew Winston advisor and author, and moderated by David Pogue.

This panel talked about urban design and where we see cities heading.

Currently, 50% of the population lives in a metropolitan area, and by 2050  it will grow to 70% of the population.

Last year, I attended Urban-X a conference and incubator all about remaining city life and tackling these problems. How can we evolve our cities to be sustainable, desirable, equitable, and accommodate our ever-growing population?

The panel talked about bringing nature back into our cities. We’ve managed to create a lot of concrete and buildings and wiped out some of the earth’s natural defense mechanisms like mangroves, green spaces, oysters, etc.

They also talked about climate proofing our cities. Be sure to check out the video to hear more about their fantastic ideas.

I hope you enjoyed this recap and a sneak peek into the conference. I hope you walked away with more knowledge and more questions. Let’s keep asking, let’s keep learning, and let’s keep trying to develop a more sustainable world.

Check out the next post to see how Waste Management pulls of this zero waste event for 700,000 people!

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