This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Resource Recycling.
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On Oct. 5, the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) announced the adoption of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council Zero Waste standards, a commitment from the highly rigorous environmental performance pacesetter to address waste more comprehensively in LEED certification systems.
It’s an important move: Waste has long been grossly underestimated in big business sustainability efforts.
According to a recent Yale University study, 294 million tons of solid waste were sent to landfill and other forms of disposal in 2013.
But that is just the downstream problem. Look upstream at resource consumption and translate impacts to greenhouse gases and it becomes clear we’ve got irresponsible material production occurring in the U.S. It’s little surprise then that zero waste is becoming the hottest slogan in Fortune 100 board rooms. Smarter thinking in this area is uncovering potential for big cost savings within corporate entities that have otherwise wrung every last cent out of operating costs.
General Motors, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Raytheon, Toyota and Whole Foods are among the model citizens braving the uncharted waters and risking their reputation in the name of good business ethics.
But that doesn’t mean the issue is settled. Talking about zero waste is one thing – actually implementing the strategy in a way that will satisfy corporate demands is another. For materials management professionals, now is the time to help businesses put their aspirations into action. The payback for companies, communities and the environment as a whole could be enormous.
Strategy based on waste reduction
My decision to join the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) board last fall was an easy one. Fortune 100 companies desperately searching for guidance were looking to me for comprehensive waste reduction expertise. But for every answer I had, three more questions loomed.
Businesses are setting zero waste goals with virtually no understanding of what exactly it means to pursue the concept and not a clue on how intensive optimizing waste programs can be. Even industry experts leaning toward zero waste advocacy waffle on definitions and standards of measurement. Zero waste is a nebulous and ballooning challenge.
The only mentors I could identify were scrambling to build the USZWBC. The key ingredient in the group’s approach is waste reduction. Business leaders will often quibble about how to increase diversion from landfill, how to engage employees on waste sorting, and how to recover value from downstream commodities. But USZWBC is helping to show that a lot of those tough decisions can be made less pressing if less material is sent out of the back of the operation.
And with a huge percentage of the world’s waste funneling out of corporations, environmental leaders are seeing the logic in USZWBC’s waste reduction and accountability strategy.
On the business side, meanwhile, the case for zero waste is simple: reduce waste, reduce costs, reduce risk. Material costs, handling, shipping, disposal, liability management and all the nuanced expenses that sit upstream of the trash bill stack up. The average Fortune 100 corporation shells out over $50 million a year in waste handling and disposal costs alone.
Cutting waste generation by 25 percent, a very achievable goal I recommend as a starting point, is often found swiftly by the trained eye in simple oversights. At big companies, the opportunities for waste reduction are seemingly limitless: excessive printing, a poorly designed packaging system, grotesque normalization of single-use goods and convenience privileges. On this scale, pennies multiply and become cost-saving figures that grab the attention of corporate leadership.
Subject matter experts, armed with waste industry insight and smart analytics systems, skim millions off the top in risk reduction alone. Businesses sending their waste off-site without diligence have been haunted by recent big-fuss lawsuits stemming from corporate mishandlings of material. In addition, facility management companies are acting as agents for client waste, commonly without formalized contracts and rarely with any understanding of waste regulations. The exposure is enormous. Most corporations naively neglect to closely inspect the trash bill, and they commonly assume employee volunteer “green teams” are sufficient when it comes to resource management.
Time for haulers to re-align
However, it’s not just corporate waste generators that are being pushed to shift approaches and challenge assumptions. The waste and recycling industry is going to encounter major changes as the large corporate clients of haulers and processors begin to ask for services aligned with zero waste.
Waste Management, Republic Services, Clean Harbors and Veolia are the biggest waste stakeholders in the country, but they run pay-by-the-pound pricing models, which means they have little incentive to drive zero waste strategy.
To be sure, hauling giants spend plenty of time and money promoting and developing their recycling programs. But while recycling is a fundamental necessity to safe and responsible downstream waste handling, it hardly addresses the issue of waste prevention. And with cost structures that promote landfilling as the better bargain over recycling and composting, large haulers are going to continue to have a hard time influencing positive change.
The leading waste haulers need to be the top promoters of waste reduction if they want to keep in step with the corporate heavyweights they hope to service. The current approach of haulers is hardly aligned with the needs of the country’s biggest waste generators, or with those of the public.
The integration of the USZWBC with the GBCI means the black light is coming out, and a guiding model is being formed. LEED standards will encourage zero waste as a mode for valuable points towards certification. Education on the subject will become more accessible at large, and companies that are willing to comprehensively address their wastefulness will be recognized.
What this means for municipal standards and waste regulations is still unknown, but we can confidently say we aren’t headed backward.
We can only nudge waste industry stakeholders and experts to snag a seat at the table. They’re more than welcome.
Ana Wyssmann is senior strategic waste solutions program manager at JLL, a Fortune 500 real estate services company. She is also on the board of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council. She can be contacted at email@example.com.