GreenBiz 101: From trash to treasure, the elusive quest for zero waste

In late June, high-tech company Eaton trumpeted the fact that 39 of its manufacturing facilities globally had reached a zero-waste-to-landfill milestone. To put it another way, the sites collectively since 2010 have eliminated 2,750 metric tons of trash and materials through recycling, reuse and other new processes.

Eaton's definition of zero waste is pretty specific: to earn this status, a site must divert at least 98 percent through reuse, composting, recycling and incineration (more on this last strategy in a moment).

"Eaton has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, indexed to sales, by 2015. Programs such as zero-waste-to-landfill will help us reach this goal," said Harold Jones, Eaton's senior vice president for Environment, Health and Safety, in a statement. "It all starts with our employees generating the ideas and enthusiasm to help Eaton do business right."

Even though the term "zero waste" is a common phrase in the green business vernacular, the fact that Eaton needs to define its specific application suggests it is far from a mainstream concept. Here's a quick primer on why the process of striving for "zero waste" is imperative, even if the goal itself ultimately may be a nirvana we never can reach.

What is zero waste?

The phrase actually can be traced back at least to the 1970s, when chemist Paul Palmer began seeking ways to reuse chemicals produced within the electronics industry. The philosophy looks beyond recycling strategies to policies that minimize resource consumption from the beginning, by encouraging closed-loop product and production designs that stress reuse.

While many existing zero waste initiatives include recycling as part of the process, the focus is shifting to emphasize the value that can be derived out of those collected materials — whether it is excess food or materials that can find an appropriate second life. Influential entrepreneur and sustainable business strategist William McDonough suggests that moving forward, zero waste strategies should focus on a "cycle of endless resourcefulness."

Where can a zero waste philosophy have relevance?

Product designers, manufacturers, retailers, municipalities and consumers all share responsibility in moving toward zero waste — one reason that reaching zero is a tough act to pull off.

Sacrificing materials quality for the sake of minimizing consumption, for example, is a trade-off most consumers will refuse to make. After years of designs that stress "planned obsolence" and upgrade cycles (especially in the technology and electronics worlds), convincing product creators to design for longevity is a big mindshift. Meanwhile, asking manufacturing operations to overhaul processes and systems that have been in place for years just to accommodate some sort of recycled material is something that just won't happen overnight.

The secret lies in focusing less on how much waste can be diverted and more on how it can be used to create value. "In a zero waste world, every material relegated for recycling would have a specific destination, just as those liter-size Pepsi bottles are reprocessed into PET (a solid version of polyester) and then converted into new bottles," wrote consultant Anthony Zolezzi for GreenBiz. "Another example: Johnson Controls thermostats that have the perfect color and blend of plastics would be continually returned to the company and reused."

Where has meaningful progress been made?

A number of progressive organizations have adopted ambitious zero waste strategies under the guise of new recycling and trash collection programs, including communities such as Seattle, Austin, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and companies including Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Walmart.

On the municipal level, this agenda has translated into overhauls of traditional trash hauling and waste management strategies. In San Francisco, for example, the city has banned the use of non-compostable or non-recyclable food containers and mandated the reuse of all construction debris, to name just two specific initiatives. Oakland's program, adopted back in 2006, seeks to reduce the annual amount of waste sent to landfills to just 40,000 tons by 2020 (compared with 400,000 tons for the benchmark year). It, too, has focused on rethinking how different waste streams are sorted and collected.

At the corporate level, big manufacturers are making strides, as it turns out better waste management makes for more efficient facilities.

P&G unveiled its first zero-waste-to-landfill facility in North America (in Auburn, Maine) back in 2010 after achieving that status for eight sites in places such as Belgium, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom. In Maine, about 60 percent of the waste is recycled and the rest is used for energy generation.

Walmart's first step on its journey to zero waste is to divert 100 percent of the waste from its U.S. operations from landfills by 2025, with 2008 as the baseline for progress. As of April, the retailer has achieved this for 81.66 percent of the materials that flow through its stores, clubs and U.S. distribution centers. The total waste generated by its U.S. operations was reduced by 3.3 percent compared with a 2010 baseline. The retailer also has focused on producing more food with fewer resources, a strategy that covers optimizing fertilizer use and embracing sustainably produced palm oil for its private brands.

Reality check: What's holding back zero waste initiatives?

One big impediment centers on the collection process. Getting homeowners and businesses to sort different waste streams for collection, especially for food and organics composting, remains an uphill struggle even in places that support the idea. In San Francisco, which recycles or composts about 80 percent of its garbage — more than double the national average — some businesses were fined for refusing the services. Incentives have been necessary to get people on board.

Building on the point about having a "destination" for collected materials, some communities and businesses still use the controversial strategy of incineration to avoid sending things to landfill. It's telling that Eaton makes a point of saying that it uses this strategy "only if the heat generated by incineration is collected and used in order to create more energy than was required for the incineration process."

Denmark, one of Europe's greenest countries, traditionally has burned close to 80 percent of its household waste but it is trying to change this as it reflects its own zero-waste strategy. “We must recycle more and incinerate less,” said Ida Auken, former Minister of the Environment, on announcing this strategy in late 2013. "It is my mission to make Denmark a waste-free society that recycles as many materials as possible. That is why we must sort our trash so we can extract the value from the waste. It is good for the environment, and it can create new jobs and business opportunities."

Editor's note: Eaton's zero-waste definition is at least 98 percent diversion, not 80 percent as the article originally stated.

Image of cans by Don Pablo via Shutterstock