3 Steps to Achieving Zero-Waste


Property Management Analyst, Software Advice

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, industrial facilities alone produce 7.6 billion tons of solid waste each year. That’s why it’s great that General Motors recently announced its 100th facility to become landfill free–that is, having successfully diverted 100 percent of its waste stream.

General Motors isn’t the first organization to launch a zero-waste initiative. Many North American companies–across a slew of industries, at facilities of all sizes–are implementing similar programs. Kirk Varga, Chief Sales Officer of the International Environmental Alliance (IEA), says,

“A zero-waste initiative is a great way for a facility to stay ahead of the sustainability curve, enhance positive visibility, and save money. But depending on the facility’s size and complexity, implementing and managing a zero-waste program can take a lot of time and effort.”

I spoke with several industry experts about what it takes to achieve waste diversion. Here are three steps to get started.

Step 1: Set Your Goal

A goal of zero waste seems challenging–particularly in an industrial facility. Moreover, there is no universal definition of “zero.” Eric Dixon, Vice President of Waste Management Sustainability Services, says, “There is no minimum standard to define what constitutes zero-waste in the U.S.–a goal can’t be achieved if it hasn’t been defined.”

Though “zero” is a good goal, your company might initially want to choose a more modest target. Jay Coalson, Executive Director of Zero Waste Alliance, reminds us, “The power of a zero-waste goal is both aspirational and tangible–but, saying you are at 80 percent of a zero-waste goal sounds real and is real.”

Dixon adds, “Success in attaining the ultimate goal depends on the types of non-product outputs produced–some are more easily recyclable than others–and the geographic location of the organization. Some facilities will have more economical access to markets or technologies for their materials.”

Step 2: Engage Employees

Employee-produced waste is often the lowest-hanging fruit to eliminate, and getting everyone onboard is a prerequisite to the program’s success, anyway. But, how can a company encourage employee behaviors that align with its zero-waste objectives?

Convenience and clarity are key. Varga says, “The more convenient it is for employees to participate and the more they understand the program and its goals, the more successful [the] program will be. Most people want to do the right thing for the environment–but aren’t always sure how to help or don’t want to do more work than necessary.”

Making it fun to participate helps, too. For instance, Clorox implemented a number of employee engagement strategies as part of its 90-percent waste diversion initiative. With its One Bag Campaign, the company gamifies employee commitment by challenging employees of each floor to generate no more than one bag of trash each week. This resulted in successfully diverting an additional 10 percent of waste.

Executive support is also important. Employees will be more likely to practice compliance if a top-down initiative is in place.

Step 3: Audit–and Tackle–Your Waste Stream

Auditing your waste stream is essential to creating a waste diversion plan. Coalson says, “It all comes back to understanding where the waste is coming from–and what [local] infrastructure is available to handle that waste.”

This step assesses where waste can be eliminated altogether, and finds a diversion pathway for remaining materials. Once operational inefficiencies have been highlighted, you have three options to route excess waste: reuse it, recycle it, or sell it.

Companies across the nation are showing us that materials can be reused in a number of ways. Kraft Foods’ coffee plant in Saint Petersburg reuses coffee bean shipping bags and pallets, and sends 15,000 tons of spent coffee grounds to area farms for fertilizer. Meanwhile, DuPont’s facility in Wilmington, Delaware grinds shipping pallets into animal bedding.

Once all reuse measures have been addressed, recycling remaining waste is another opportunity for diversion. Procter & Gamble, for example, has an entire team devoted to finding uses for its waste. They send mascara to become tire shine and shampoo to become car wash.

“When approaching a zero-waste goal, it’s important to consider that all materials are recyclable or reusable in one way or another.” — Kirk Varga

Additionally, there’s great value in selling a facility’s waste. “The organization should search for local vendors that can change disposal costs into revenue streams–instead of paying a vendor to dispose of a material, find a vendor that can purchase non-product outputs for use as feedstocks in another manufacturing process,” says Dixon.

Technologies from vendors like RecycleMatch can help organizations match valuable byproducts with buyers, optimizing the waste stream–and often, profiting. Acting as both a marketplace to sell materials and as a technology dashboard, RecycleMatch helps large organizations achieve zero-waste. CEO Brooke Farrell explains how their public domain and database matches buyers with relevant suppliers:

“In one case study, an automotive parts manufacturer had some weather stripping made of rubber, metal, and plastic–this extruded part was hard to recycle. After creating a landfill diversion listing using RecycleMatch, a company came along and determined they could retool the byproduct and extract nearly $1.5 million in value from a previously worthless material.”

The reality is, all waste can be addressed–even in the case of industrial waste, whether that be hazardous materials or electronics. It’s not waste–till it’s wasted. As Farrell points out, “The first step is to stop thinking of it as waste or trash, and start thinking of it as a resource–something that has value.”

Rural Action sums it up well: “In this new cultural paradigm, waste no longer has an end point; it is not seen as something that just goes away. Rather, waste is a part of a closed loop system that mimics natural cycles.”

Has your company created a waste diversion plan? What obstacles have you encountered–and what successes have you seen from implementing waste reduction strategies? Leave your insights in the comment section below, or email me at ashley@softwareadvice.com.

Image courtesy of Ajay Tallam.

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