4 Steps to Get You On the Path to Zero Waste

Two Albertsons stores -- which now send less than 5 percent of their waste to landfill -- found a solution by partnering with a company that turns the cardboard into fireplace logs. But first the store started sorting their different wastes, keeping waxed cardboard separate from other fiber-based materials as well as trash.

Sorting waste, though, needs to become second nature. It needs to be accessible and be treated as just the way things are done.

Sometimes it's not just how to sort waste, it's where. When Caterpillar's Aurora, Ill., plant started working on its waste, it quickly became clear that the best way to address it was to go right to the source. To that end, the plant put recycling in place along assembly lines and set up a conveyor to use for sorting waste. Just three months later, 40 percent of the trash along the lines was getting recycled instead of dumped, creating a projected savings of $200,000 a year.

2. Track and Set Goals

Other than "low-hanging fruit," the most overused adage in green business is "you can't manage what you don't measure." But setting goals and working to meet them is still a tall order for just about any type of waste-reduction initiative, so it's worth noting how goals and metrics can keep a company on track to zero waste.

General Motors, which has 76 zero waste manufacturing facilities and 10 zero waste non-manufacturing sites around the world, says a key to its effort has been rigorous tracking of waste along with setting goals and metrics to hold plants accountable.

Each facility has specific goals, and the plant scorecards are tied to plant manager performance evaluations. "Tying revenue to various waste streams tends to generate more interest and helps us approach waste reduction from a sustainable financial perspective," said John Bradburn, GM's manager of waste-reduction efforts.

Pete Pearson, director of sustainability for Supervalu, says a metrics-based approach, although not as accurate as something like tracking energy, is key. "Although measuring waste is not a perfect science, every effort must be made to accurately account for materials being diverted from landfill," he said. "It must be clear to stores the correlation between landfill diversion and cost savings." Key to that is making the whole process, from sorting to tracking, easy to integrate in to employees' workdays.

Don't make recycling something that is seen as an extra effort; it needs to just be the way things are done.

A couple of Walmart's efforts on its journey to zero waste have been to change how employees think about waste (i.e. it's not trash until it's in the trash can) and the location of waste bins.

Next page: How to get employees engaged on zero waste