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WM CEO details new branding and sustainability push

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WM CEO Jim Fish joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss a new branding initiative aimed at renewable energy and recycling projects.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance. Well, Waste Management has officially changed its name to WM and changed its slogan from "think green" to "for tomorrow." Joining us now from the WM Phoenix Open for more on the evolution is Jim Fish, WM CEO. Thanks so much for joining us. The weather looks fantastic behind you. And you're billing this as a zero-waste tournament. So tell me, why the name change? And what is the broader implication?

JIM FISH: Well, when the company went-- when we went public 50 years ago, all we did was pick up trash and dispose of it. And we've become so much more. The evolution of WM over that 50 years is now to a company that takes renewable natural gas and powers our fleet that we create out of our landfills. We are investing a huge amount of money in rebuilding our recycle plants. We're already the biggest recycler in North America. And we just bought a company that takes low-value plastics and mixed papers that would otherwise have gone into a landfill and turns it into a sustainable building material. So we felt like the time was right to make that change.

- So Jim, this is your 13th year as title sponsor of the Phoenix Open. And you bill it as the world's largest zero-waste sporting event. Tell us what that means exactly. And how did you help it get there?

JIM FISH: We've been zero-waste here for 10 years. So we've been the title sponsor for 13. And 10 years of those 13 we've been zero-waste. It is the biggest zero-waste event in the world. And so it takes-- it's a symphony. It takes a lot to get vendors, to get the general public, to get our employees-- there's a collection of folks that contribute to making this zero-waste. We recycle everything or we reuse it or we take it for energy production. There's any number of things that we do to make this a zero-waste event. But it has now, for 10 years, been a 100% zero-waste event.

- Jim, I'm wondering, what have you been seeing as far as trash levels in general during the pandemic? We know that there are so many places that have pushed off being able to put off trash. And then with all these at-home test kits and masks that people have, have you seen the level of waste increase? And how are you dealing with disposing of all of that?

You know, I have a daughter who has to take a at-home COVID test every Monday before going to school. And she said to me, mom, I don't know what to do with this. And I was like, I'm not sure how to dispose of it correctly, either.

JIM FISH: Right. You know what? We've seen our-- or we talked about our volumes last week on our earnings call. And they've been pretty robust. The only place that we're still not fully back to where we'd like to be is in our commercial line of business because so much of that is small business. So small businesses is coming back. But our industrial waste business has rebounded nicely. Recycling is doing fantastic. Residential, obviously, has been strong since the pandemic began.

As far as what do you do with those masks, I'm not sure we have a good solution for recycling those masks because they're not really a recyclable material at this point. So a lot of them do show up in the trash bin, as do a lot of those at-home test kits. And for the most part, those are not recyclable today-- not say they won't be, though, going forward.

- Now, Jim, a couple of years ago, you and I were talking about China and our trash. At the time, there was a trade war that President Trump had sparked. And China was not going to take our recyclables, not going to take our trash anymore. Do you have any indication that that might change in the future? And if not, how did you have to pivot your business to account for that?

JIM FISH: So you're right. About-- it's been about three or four years that China, almost overnight, decided they weren't going to take recycled material coming from the United States. So a lot of those processors of that material have actually moved stateside to the US. So we're producing a lot of material that now, instead of putting it on a container ship to go overseas, stays in the US. And that, actually, has been a good thing in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transportation costs and the like. So it's actually been a good transition. It happened fast. And we had to be able to pivot quickly.

- Jim, really quickly, great earnings results last week, a $2.3 billion return to shareholders-- how do you continue that momentum, particularly tied to costs and margins? And then you've also labeled yourself an employer of choice, but now starting to automate more. And I'm wondering what that does to jobs and attrition.

JIM FISH: You know, we're still an employer of choice. And we like our position. We do a lot to try and make us the best employer out there. We just introduced a plan where we're paying for college for dependents, which I think is unique. I know a lot of companies pay for their employees to go to college. We're paying not only for the employee, but also for their dependents. So I think we are still a strong employer of choice.

Earnings were good. We're excited about '22. It looks to be a bit quieter year than '21 and '20, which is a good thing. We are going to be making significant investments in those things that I mentioned early on in our conversation-- renewable energy, rebuilding our recycle plants. All of those have really strong returns for shareholders. We're excited about the next three to five years.

- OK. Jim Fish, WM CEO, we will leave it there. Have fun out there.