Bear markets can be brutal for investors. Plummeting stock prices can create fear. Fear can lead you to make bad decisions. And bad decisions can crush your investment returns.

That's why you'll want to own some defensive stocks during these trying times. You'll sleep -- and likely invest -- better if you own companies with strong moats, steady demand for their services, strong free cash flow, and the ability to use market downturns to create value for shareholders. These stocks can help provide ballast for your portfolio -- and increase your overall returns.

Yet only a select few businesses meet these challenging criteria. Read on to learn about one of the best available in the market today.

A bear roaring and a bull turning away

Bear markets can be challenging for even the most ardent bulls. Fortunately, this stock can help get your portfolio back on track. Image source: Getty Images.

A wide moat

Waste Management (WM 1.20%) is the leading provider of integrated waste collection solutions in North America. Its unmatched network of landfills forms the core of its economic moat. Burdensome regulation and stiff opposition from homeowners make it difficult for would-be competitors to infringe on Waste Management's turf. In turn, Waste Management enjoys strong pricing power, or the ability to raise prices above the rate of inflation without sacrificing sales. The company is thus able to generate slow-but-steady gains in earnings from its existing landfill base and collection operations over time. 

An all-weather business

In addition to a wide moat that protects its profits from competitors, Waste Management benefits from relatively steady demand for its services. Whether the markets are soaring or plunging, garbage still needs to be collected and hauled to landfills. Waste Management happily provides these services to its customers -- for a steadily rising fee.

Moreover, much of the company's business is conducted via long-term contracts with reliable customers such as municipalities. This helps to provide an additional layer of stability to its revenue streams.

Cash spilling out of a ripped garbage bag

Image source: Getty Images.

Turning trash into cash for investors 

Waste Management generates copious amounts of cash flow. The company excels at wringing costs out of its operations. Combined with even just small increases in revenue, this helps Waste Management produce consistently strong free cash flow, to the tune of $480 million in the third quarter alone. 

Better still, management is committed to passing this cash on to investors via share repurchases and a steadily rising dividend stream. The trash titan rewarded shareholders with $200 million in stock buybacks and $199 million in dividends in the third quarter. 

WM's bear market is your opportunity

Management also allocates Waste Management's robust cash flow toward value-creating acquisitions. Opportunities to acquire these businesses at attractive prices tend to increase during periods of market distress. Waste Management is thus often able to emerge from bear markets stronger and more profitable than it was when it entered them.

And while Waste Management's stock tends to outperform during downturns, should its stock price fall somewhat along with the overall market, the company would then able to buy back its own shares at even better prices. This gives the garbage king another way to create value for shareholders during bear markets.

Better still, with its solid 2.1% dividend yield, Waste Management can provide you with a steady stream of income to help you ride out any market downturn. And with dividend payments accounting for only about 50% of Waste Management's free cash flow, investors can sleep well with the knowledge that their cash payouts are well-secured.