4 Steps to Get You On the Path to Zero Waste

Letting a revenue stream slip away from you, and actually paying someone to take it away, sounds like bad business. But that's what companies do when they send their trash to get dumped in a landfill.

Out of all the sustainability and efficiency efforts companies have adopted, one of the biggest shifts in thinking has come from goals on sending zero waste to landfill (usually shortened to "zero waste").

Companies in almost any industry are seeing significant savings -- General Motors, for example, has brought in $2.5 billion in revenue through recycling over four years and Walmart has cut by over 80 percent in one state alone the amount of waste it has to pay to send to landfill.

Not surprisingly, getting to zero is not an easy task. But as the examples from several companies who've traveled the path to zero waste show, there are some common elements to any successful strategy.

There is a common recipe for a lot of these initiatives -- a little bit of material reduction, a whole lot of recycling and reuse, and a bit of incineration (also called waste-to-energy) -- and they come down to four general categories that can help you structure your efforts:

  1. Know What You Have
  2. Track and Set Goals
  3. Find a New Life
  4. Put Employees in Charge

Zero waste is not just for giant corporations -- the lessons that these companies and others have learned can help just about any company identify, reduce and even eliminate their waste streams entirely.

1. Know What You Have

To do something about your trash, you first have to know what you're dealing with. Look at your trash. No, really look at it. Sort it out. Find out what you're making. And only then can you do something about it.

The only way some companies have accurately determined what trash they're dealing with is by getting their hands dirty -- literally -- with a dumpster dive.

Procter & Gamble's waste reduction teams have sorted through trash at its various facilities, which make everything from makeup to shampoo to batteries to dog food.

Walmart, meanwhile, has identified around 100 waste streams created from products, packaging and food, coming from its sales floors, break rooms, bathrooms and parking lots.

And construction equipment maker Caterpillar's plants produce more than 30 waste streams like concrete, scrap metal, plastic and sludge.

Once you've figured out what kinds of waste you're creating, then you've got to keep it separated.

Before grocery retailer Supervalu started its landfill waste reduction push, its Albertsons stores in southern California were sending 2.4 million pounds of waxed corrugated cardboard to the trash. The material, which is used to ship produce, frozen food and other wet items, can't be traditionally recycled due to the wax coating.

Next page: How General Motors manages waste at its 76 zero-waste sites around the globe.