America has a 164-million-ton problem. That’s the amount of trash — enough to fill the Superdome 64 times — that’s burned or buried in landfills each year. Landfills that won’t exist two decades from now because of the rapidly declining amount of space and profoundly negative environmental impact.
Though many American municipalities suffer from budget cuts, waste disposal costs continue to rise, and the numbers are staggering. The total economic impact of disposal costs, when combined with energy opportunity costs and unrealized revenue of recyclables, is $384 billion annually. Communities spend more money on waste management than on parks, recreation, fire protection, libraries and schoolbooks, according to U.S. Census data.
And, there are very real land and political costs. Land is at a premium with no room for new landfills, and building new incinerators is expensive and politically unpopular.
Enter WasteZero, a company led by entrepreneurs Mark Dancy M.B.A. ’93, president of WasteZero, and John Campbell M.B.A. ’93, chairman of the board. Dancy and Campbell met at William & Mary as graduate students and together, have cut trash in half and doubled recycling rates in numerous cities.
In short, they’ve done what most Americans haven’t — fought to do something about the environmental and economic consequences of jam-packed landfills.
With its next-generation Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs, WasteZero changes the way residents pay for their trash removal, switching from a fee- or tax-based “all-you-can-eat” payment model to prepaid trash bags.
The system essentially turns trash removal into another metered utility, like water or electricity. People pay based on the amount they throw away.
“Few think about the environmental implications of burying trash in the ground,” Campbell said. “But the truth of the matter is, landfills and waste incinerators are no longer sustainable, either environmentally or economically.”
The philosophy is rooted in pure economics. Paying for what you throw away incentivizes residents to be more thoughtful about what they dispose, thus reducing the cost to municipalities and decreasing the trash in landfills.
As graduate business students in 1991, Dancy and Campbell connected early on, hitting it off during an assignment to build a raft as part of a “boot
“We both loved to solve problems,” Dancy said. “So we would find ourselves talking about cases from the classroom and then we’d start talking about the U.S. economy and politics and then we’d talk for hours about how we could start businesses that would help solve certain problems.”
W&M, they say, was the perfect atmosphere to advance their business endeavors and build on their friendship, a friendship that’s evolved into the DNA of their B Corporation. Today, WasteZero is listed among the ranks of Patagonia and Seventh Generation as one of the top 11 companies considered best for the environment by the non-profit corporation B Lab.
“What Mark and John have achieved is remarkable,” said Larry Pulley ’74, dean of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. “They are exemplars of what we aspire to do, and that is to prepare our students to live lives of consequence and of principled achievement.”
Make no mistake. WasteZero aims to be as good for the environment as it is for its shareholders. The company saw a 30 percent growth last year alone and is expected to grow by 50 percent in 2015. But, its focus on revenue comes only after it delivers a set of positive environmental and financial outcomes for communities.
DYNAMIC DUO: John Campbell M.B.A. ’93 (left) and Mark Dancy M.B.A. ’93 (right) met at William & Mary as graduate students. Their company, WasteZero, has cut trash in half and double recycling rates in cities across the country.
Photo courtesy of WasteZero
Today, more than 20 years after meeting at W&M, the inventiveness of Dancy and Campbell has cut trash in half in more than 800 cities and towns and, consequently, redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to schools, roads and other community-benefitting programs.
Success stories include Fall River, Mass., a diverse urban community of nearly 90,000 people. The town faced a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and had to either cut 35 firefighters, or cut what was sent to the landfill.
The city chose to cut its trash. In six months since the implementation of WasteZero, Fall River has seen a 43 percent decrease in trash disposal, less than 1 percent away from the year-end projections.
“We work in different cities around the country,” Campbell said, “but as a concept, sometimes people will say ‘it’s not for us’ or ‘it won’t work here.’ That’s simply not true.”
Why? “Because economics work everywhere,” Campbell said.
WasteZero’s message is simple: every person can cut their trash in half, creating savings and revenue for municipalities, positive environmental impact and community benefits. It’s a problem that can be solved now, they say.
“Leaving the system the way it is takes away opportunities from the community,” said George Campbell, an executive advisor to WasteZero, who implemented the program in his own town while serving as mayor of Portland, Maine. (He has no relation to John Campbell.) “When cities face pressure points, they begin to look at change.”
So, what would the United States look like if 164 million tons of trash were cut in half? Well, revolutionary.
“Cutting the trash in half is the biggest environmental impact you can make as a city or a town,” said John Campbell. “In history and looking forward for decades, there’s nothing that comes close.”