Zero Waste is the idea that absolutely no trash or other types of solid waste generated in a business or home are sent to a landfill. It goes beyond recycling in that it strives for the most efficient use possible for all materials and that those materials either return into the natural environment or are reused for another purpose. The direct benefits of Zero Waste are elimination of all discharges to land, water, or air that are hazardous to human, animal, or plant health.
Why It Matters
Following a Zero Waste model will directly benefit human health, the natural environment, and can even result in cost savings and added revenue for businesses.
Zero Waste can also help save money, create jobs, and reduce environmental degradation in a community, as compared to municipal landfills. Consider the following facts:
- It is estimated that processing recyclable materials generates 10 times more jobs on a per ton basis, and recycling-based paper and plastics manufacturers employ 60 times more workers than landfills.
- Landfills cost $20 million to build, millions more to operate, and are paid for by citizen property taxes.
- With poor maintenance, landfills can potentially pollute groundwater and surface water, and emit gases that are harmful to human and animal life.
- Landfills worldwide are estimated to emit between 30 and 70 million tons of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, each year.
- Analysis of waste in Durham, North Carolina, estimates that the glass, paper, aluminum and steel cans, and plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash would be worth about $3.9 million if all were recovered and sold to recycling processors.
To get started, follow these steps:
- Assess your waste generation and current waste management plan
- Set goals for accomplishing Zero Waste in your business
- Assemble a group to manage the Zero Waste plan
- Meet regularly with your “Zero Waste Group”
- Consider a solid waste audit from an expert, if needed
1.) Assess your waste generation and current waste management plan
Determine what type of waste your business generates, the most commonly generated waste, and where the waste is coming from. Note whether your business has community trash cans and recycling bins accessible to everyone (usually in kitchen or break areas), and if every office has a personal trash can.
Look upstream to see how to allocate waste out of your waste system, such as minimizing packaging and reducing the volume of materials. Additionally, try to think of ways to reduce hazardous wastes (e.g., Styrofoam, electronic items). Ask your vendors and suppliers to work with you in achieving Zero Waste and set up your contracts to reflect your Zero Waste policies. After analyzing the trash you generate, you may find new ideas or possibilities to cut back on upstream wastes, such as significantly reducing printing paper orders because of a reduction of printing and using electronic sources as alternatives to printing.
The type of waste you generate will depend on the type of business you run. For instance, the waste generated in an IT company will be much different from the waste generated in a furniture manufacturer. However, being knowledgeable about what kinds of waste your business is generating is the first step in determining waste reduction goals and adopting a Zero Waste policy.
2.) Set goals for accomplishing Zero Waste in your business
Based on what you discovered from your assessment of your business’s waste, determine where you can go that will set you on a path toward Zero Waste, but that is achievable at the present time for your business. Setting up a timeline for goals and posting your progress in a public area is a good way for your employees to get on board with a Zero Waste policy and a good way to make them more cognizant to what is being thrown in the trash.
3.) Assemble a group to manage the Zero Waste plan
The key to a Zero Waste plan’s success is having a responsible group/committee to monitor progress, research ideas, and make sure the transition is easily integrated into employees’ workdays. Encourage employees to take part in the group, as it is employees that see firsthand what kind of waste is being generated in the business and how it is disposed of. Usually, these same employees have great ideas on how to curb the amount of waste generated.
To get the group started, first post simple, visual signs to sort wastes (e.g., bins for recycling, electronic wastes, reusable office supplies, reusable one-sided printed paper, and old newspapers for shipping purposes). These sorting bins also need to be in a convenient location and accessible to everyone in the office.
4.) Meet regularly with your “Zero Waste Group”
Schedule regular meetings with the team and all potential participants to educate them, update them, and monitor progress. Also, clarify roles and set a time frame for the development and progression of a Zero Waste plan.
5.) Consider a solid waste audit from an expert
Many times, companies will hire outside experts to assess a business’s waste generation. There are solid waste auditors in every community, and the price of their service is not exorbitant. The results will spell out what type of waste a business generates, where a business succeeds in waste reduction, where it could improve, and provides recommendations for moving forward.
Two Albertsons stores in Southern California were sending 2.4 million pounds of waxed corrugated cardboard to the trash. After examining what was in its trash, Two Albertsons separated these cardboard materials and partnered with a company that turns this type of cardboard into fireplace logs, thereby diverting 95% of the original waste from the landfill.
Caterpillar’s Aurora III plant put recycling in place in assembly lines with a conveyor to separate wastes and saw 40% of its generated trash recycled, creating a projected savings of $200,000 a year.
Durham, N.C.-based, Burt’s Bees works with a waste-to-fuel firm that takes its non-reusable, non-recyclable materials and shreds and blends them with similar materials collected from other companies (Burt’s Bees uses a professional total by-product management firm (TBM) to find other companies with waste materials that blend well). This resulting fuel is used to make cements, and the resulting ash is incorporated into the cement itself. Steve Walker, Manager of Sustainability for Burt’s Bees explains how they managed zero waste and save thousands of dollars.
Here are some ideas that all businesses can incorporate to reduce its waste:
- Remove your business from unnecessary mailing lists
- Sign up for electronic billing
- Replace disposable cups, utensils and flatware with reusable materials and containers.
- Require double-sided printing and reuse one-sided printed paper for note taking or scrap paper
- Encourage less printing and more electronic alternatives (e.g., eFax, E-mail)
- Explore refillable pens, pencils, and ink cartridges
- Reuse or recycle cardboard shipping and storage boxes
- Replace Styrofoam packing peanuts with biodegradable peanuts or old newspapers
- Use rechargeable batteries
- Replace lights with CFL or LED light bulbs, which last much longer than the common incandescent light bulb
- If possible, sell or donate raw materials or items that other businesses or individuals can use
- Start a compost bin or sign-up for a compost pickup program
Ways in which you can monitor savings and impacts from waste reduction include comparing how frequent a waste disposal service was used before and after your Zero Waste plan, taking note of differences waste disposal bills, and reductions in incoming supply.
Also consider the trash you generate from your products or services that do not necessarily end up in your dumpster. For example, restaurants typically use Styrofoam take-out containers for customers, but managers should consider a reduction in those wastes, such as implementing a program that encourages customers to bring their own reusable containers or using biodegradable materials.
Resources for More Information
- Zero Waste Businesses – A list compiled by Earth Resource Foundation of well-known businesses that has achieved zero waste.
- Zero Waste at home – Online magazine Good explains six basic steps to achieve zero waste in your own home.
- Saving money on waste hauling – a breakdown of costs between using different size dumpsters versus a dumpster/recycling bin combination.
- Earth Resource – A California-based non-profit that provides educational resources on making smart decisions about consumption of goods.
- Zero Waste Alliance – A non-profit organization that helps businesses and industries implement solutions that reduce waste in the environment
- Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives – A non-profit geared toward finding alternative ways of reducing waste without resorting to incineration.
- Zero Waste to Landfill Workshop (12/7/2011) @ Burt’s Bees plant in Durham//Register!
Achieving Zero Waste is not an easy task, but setting goals now and working at a pace that makes sense for your business will ensure that you manage your waste properly. Business owners should include their entire staff when determining an effective Zero Waste policy.
Achieving Zero Waste can result in numerous benefits, including reduced costs on your utility bills, revenue creation if you can sell useable materials to others businesses or individuals, and provides a marketing and public relations opportunity, among many other benefits.
 Information retrieved from Waste to Wealth, http://www.ilsr.org/recycling/recyclingmeansbusiness.html
 Information retrieved from Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, http://www.no-burn.org/section.php?id=86
 Information retrieved from Zero Waste Goal Offers Durham a Way Out of the Landfill Dilemma, by David Kirkpatrick, http://www.grrn.org/zerowaste/kirkpatrick.htm