By: Derek Markham | October 18, 2016
Zero waste is fast becoming a sustainability staple in the business world, but what does it mean, how do you get there, and how does going zero waste affect the businesses which do so?
First, a definition of zero waste from Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA):
"Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health."
As the above definition states, the focus is on setting up systems that repurpose 90% of 'so-called' waste materials into resources for other processes, products, or businesses to use, which is part of the waste battle. But the second part of the definition is equally important, as it focuses on the need to design both products and processes to be low-waste or zero waste from the get-go. It's not enough to simply find a way to deal with waste after the fact, and building in zero waste processes and designs from the beginning can go a long way toward reducing a company's overall waste stream. Not only do zero waste initiatives reduce the environmental impact of a company's operations, but they can also reduce expenses as well, which can have a net positive effect on the bottom line.
How does a business get to zero waste?
- The first step towards zero waste involves conducting a waste audit, which entails benchmarking the current volume of waste, broken down into categories, in order to better understand the current state of the company's waste stream. This includes determining where the waste comes from (which department, process, or product), how much of it is generated each day by both volume and weight, and where it ends up (recycling, trash, etc.). Assigning this task to a single person to lead the effort will help to track the process better, and to standardize it.
- The second step is to look for ways to reduce the overall amount of waste generated by individual processes or departments. This can take a number of different forms, ranging from eliminating excess packaging or combining processes, to redesigning one or more aspects of a process to reduce or eliminate waste materials, to reusing certain materials again and again. For example, hotels and restaurants can work with suppliers to source reusable or refillable products that can replace single-use options.
- The third step is rethinking current processes and products in order to find less wasteful and easier to repurpose alternatives for common items and processes. This includes finding innovative ways to avoid materials that are difficult to reuse, recycle, or properly dispose of. Styrofoam packing peanuts could be replaced with a compostable option, or similarly, bubble wrap can be replaced with Kraft paper or paperboard packing materials.
- The fourth step is to develop appropriate systems for dealing with the volume of unavoidable waste, such as having clear guidelines for recycling and composting, along with providing adequate receptacles that are accurately labeled, and defining how those receptacles and waste are dealt with. This step may also include researching the most profitable, or the lowest cost, method of disposal, such as baling cardboard instead of keeping it loose, which makes it easier to handle and to recycle.
- The fifth step is to train both current and new employees to properly sort recyclables and other waste items, and to have clearly defined task and responsibility charts, so that nothing 'falls through the cracks' when it comes to waste items. Employee buy-in is an important part of zero waste efforts, and incentivizing certain aspects of zero waste initiatives, such as bounties for improvements or compliance, in which employees get rewarded for making improvements on current systems, or for exceeding standards, can help get everyone on board. For example, departments which decrease their waste, or employees who devise innovative methods of reuse, could receive company-wide recognition or enjoy small perks (gift cards, special parking spot, etc.) for a set period of time afterward.
How does going zero waste affect businesses?
Going zero waste doesn't have to burden a business with extra work or extra costs, at least not after the initial audit and systems get set up, and can effectively reduce expenses, most notably waste disposal costs. It can also cut costs on the supply side by eliminating the need for certain materials. Some waste items, such as cardboard or other recyclables, may have a local market for them, which would allow these materials to generate some revenue instead of an expense.
In addition, developing or sourcing reusable materials or finding ways to do more with less can help increase overall efficiency, leading to lower costs and increased productivity. Moving to a zero waste model can also help businesses comply with local sustainability mandates, and perhaps even qualify for reduced fees or other financial incentives.
Derek Markham is a writer, editor, and a green & clean tech advocate who has been covering the sustainability sector from a number of angles over the last decade. He's into solar and wind energy, organic farming, permaculture, bicycles, and personal and professional sustainability.
4 Steps to Move Your Company to Zero Waste
Are You on the Path to Zero Waste
Highlighting San Diego's Path to Zero Waste
Is Zero Waste Attainable in Commercial Properties
Thinking Globally While Composting Locally