4 steps to move your company to zero waste

ShutterstockWarut Chinsai
Recycled bottle plastic crushed and prepared for recycling and reuse. 

Waste disposal costs have risen by 28 percent over the past 10 years so as more organizations than ever are driven to seek savings by reducing waste.

Zero waste, in particular, has become a proven business objective, with many companies finding that eliminating waste significantly can help the bottom line as well as satisfy employee and consumer demand for environmental responsibility.

But when businesses begin to try to reduce waste costs, they typically start with the “quick wins” of pursuing new vendors or negotiating costs and right-sizing trash containers. While companies may at first see savings from these actions, savings erode over time as vendors push variable costs back to their customers, or as site managers alter size or frequency of trash pickup as the business grows. 

The only way to ensure that waste savings continue over time is by pursuing a zero waste model and following the 3 R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle — so that no more than 10 percent of material discards are disposed of in a landfill. Unfortunately, many businesses stop after pursing the quick wins above, and balk at this longer-term initiative.

Pursuing a zero waste business model is not easy, especially if a company has multiple sites across geographies with diverse infrastructure. Knowing where to start can be difficult, but four essential steps can help an organization achieve zero waste.

Step 1: Waste characterization — a.k.a. Dumpster diving

To find out what you are throwing away means Dumpster diving. Get a sense of where waste is being generated and how often and where it ends up. Measuring both volume and weight of each material (paper, plastic, metals, etc.) that comprises the waste stream provides a window into the composition of your business’ discards.

Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, companies then must develop a thorough understanding of what is happening at each location. Who are the vendors, how many collections are happening each week, what is the volume of the pickups, and what is it costing?

This data will be the foundation to tracking your zero waste efforts. Once you’ve layered this onto your billing data, you’ll soon get a more comprehensive picture of what is going on in the chain and can look for opportunities for diversion and zero waste activities.

There also may be valuable commodities in your trash. One example is cardboard. For fast food restaurants, cardboard accounts for about one-third of their waste but it’s closer to 50 percent for many retailers.

Loose cardboard can be recycled more cheaply than when it ends up in a landfill, but when it’s baled it can be sold as a commodity, creating a new revenue opportunity. This is waste management 101, but surprisingly many businesses are still throwing corrugated boxes in the bin or compactor.

Additionally, early diversion wins can build excitement within an organization, enabling the level of engagement needed to move on to more complex initiatives such as waste prevention.

It’s also important to know where to start when rolling out diversion initiatives. Identifying high-cost landfill markets or those with recycling and composting mandates usually provides some great direction.

Step 2: Develop waste prevention strategies

Some of the biggest savings in waste come not through diversion, but through prevention. In a perfect world, preventing waste generation would be the first step but it’s often hardest to do. It takes work to coordinate stakeholders in the supply chain from different silos in the company to agree on waste reduction prevention strategies.

On one memorable Ecova waste audit, professionals from the corporate training team of a national quick service restaurant chain were digging into the trash alongside our team. During this audit we continually were pulling out half heads of lettuce. Employees were not trimming the heads correctly and throwing away completely useable food. As we added up the financial impact in addition to the waste impact, it was easy to see that this waste was very costly. Essentially they were paying twice for the same product: paying to purchase it and paying to throw it away. After the audit, the company implemented training for proper trimming of heads of lettuce, which is estimated to generate more than $1 million in savings.

PepsiCo has found success in waste prevention through reductions in packaging. In 2009, a new Aquafina bottle, called Eco-Fina, debuted that used 50 percent less plastic than its predecessor. In addition, they removed the cardboard base from its 24-pack packaging. This saved about 20 million pounds of corrugated cardboard annually. Not only did PepsiCo save money in raw material purchases, but the lighter bottles and 24-packs provided the additional benefit of improving fuel efficiency during transportation. And the recipient of the product had less packaging to recycle or dispose of.

PepsiCo proved that by proactively engaging multiple stakeholders, including suppliers, in zero waste efforts, companies can work to strip unnecessary materials out of the entire product lifecycle, creating production, in-store and consumer waste reductions — a win-win-win scenario.

Step 3: Find and implement new uses 

Modern society has a disposable mentality when it comes to products and packaging. We’re using bottled water instead of tap, paper coffee cups instead of reusable thermoses and plastic bags instead of cloth. We can reduce this trend in business by taking useful products and reusing or repurposing them, which saves time, money, energy and resources.

Ryan McMullan, manager of sustainability at Toyota Motor Sales, has spoken at length about the evolution of zero waste at Toyota.

“At first it was ‘recycle some,’ then ‘recycle more’ then ‘recycle less,’” said McMullan. While this seems like backwards progress instead of forward, it illustrates that once Toyota figured out how to reduce what was coming into the business, there was less to trash to recycle. For example, Toyota uses collapsible packaging modules made from durable plastic for many car parts, which can be reused.

In the end, using conventional or new-life reuse opportunities provide many economical and environmental benefits that should be practiced by all industries.

Step 4: Engage employees in better waste diversion

Awareness and training is another primary element of a successful zero waste strategy, and it depends on training employees to view trash not as landfill material, but as a pile of valuable resources.

Companies can start by creating a recycle-friendly environment with easy-to-reach bins next to trash receptacles that are color-coded by material that also use signage reminding everyone what goes where. Bins and signage will train and remind employees to divert waste for reuse.

In many quick-service restaurants, 60 percent of waste is generated in the back of the house, and this is where training about better food preparation, recycling and composting can be integrated into standard store operations. Bins should be strategically placed at food prep and dishwashing areas. Once employees are trained, composting and recycling bins can be placed at the front of the house as well — and employees will be crucial in providing “customer training” on reducing what they are throwing away.

Once you’ve racked up a few “big wins” (such as the lettuce example earlier), don’t keep them to yourself — share them with employees across the country. A win at one site can motivate 10 other sites to replicate the best practice and try for their own victory. These actions keep employees personally invested and motivated.

Zero waste is the only way for organizations to gain sustainable value from waste programs. It’s a long journey with many steps, but the destination is rewarding to your company, your employees and the environment. After initial research and planning, the most important thing is to just get started. You may not have the perfect plan going in, but adjustments can be made at many points. Creating a bold vision and taking the first steps will go a long way in your success.