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It’s time to stop managing waste and start preventing it

Corporate recycling and waste diversion efforts still aren't cutting it. Better understanding where waste originates and preventing it at the source could increase both profitability and sustainability.

Diverting the world’s estimated 12 million tons of daily waste is no easy task. Today’s waste management strategies are often costly, cumbersome and bad for our environment.

In order to really reduce impacts on the environment while increasing profitability, companies need to aggressively shift the focus from waste management to waste prevention.

Companies in all industries have the potential for increased profitability, efficiency and reduced environmental impact when they make the decision to start preventing their waste. Whether it is occurring during production or consumption, a high waste output is an unnecessary expense.

Incorporating a strategic waste-savings plan into your business model, instead of paying for waste removal services, is a great way to tie waste reduction directly to the bottom line.

But waste prevention is also a matter of focus. When businesses start thinking about recycling and zero waste, they tend to start with the more obvious materials: paper, plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminum. These recyclable products are easily monetized and can generate revenue. 

In reality, however, food is the largest component of municipal solid waste. 

Every year, more than 34 million tons of food waste is produced and when it rots in landfills, it accounts for a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions. That's why it is crucial that businesses start to employ environmentally responsible solutions for food waste disposal.

And in fact, businesses soon may be compelled into action. In recent years, government, businesses and environmental leaders have come together to communicate the fact that traditional food waste management is no longer a viable solution.

Governments across North America, including most recently those in Massachusetts, Seattle, New York City and Vancouver, continue to act and pass legislation banning or limiting commercial food waste.

Maryland state officials recently released a zero-waste plan calling for reducing, reusing and recycling nearly all the waste produced in Maryland by 2040, and California will take its sustainable reputation even further when all food waste from commercial businesses will be converted to energy through anaerobic digestion.

We believe that by 2020, the majority of states will implement similar bans.

Still, local municipalities need to support. They also need to educate companies on new initiatives while encouraging businesses to adapt new waste diversion practices. 

Moving beyond diversion

While there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to landfill diversion, leaders around the world are also starting to address the underlying issue of waste prevention.

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, for example, several sustainability issues emerged as global risk factors. This year, the importance of prevention and using green technology to ignite a wave of innovation across the food distribution industry also was added to the agenda.

In order to generate the transparency needed to start preventing food waste, we need to invest in new technologies that will allow businesses to easily track, report, analyze and audit waste and recyclables.

Big Data provides information to better address business problems. Having the right data on consumption patterns will allow us to reduce the amount of waste at the source, which in turn encourages product manufacturers to cut down on unnecessary packaging.

When executives are empowered with real-time analytics, they more efficiently can benchmark their performance metrics, implement best practices and make company-wide adjustments to improve efficiency and profitability.

Operational costs are one of the easiest ways to cut back on overall expenses, and efficient recycling practices are a great way to accomplish that goal. But by finding innovative ways to consume fewer resources and generate less waste, businesses will spend less time and money up front.

Unfortunately, many disposable products, including food products, continue to fill landfills quicker than companies choose to make changes to their waste prevention and recycling programs.

With the rise of the zero waste movement and the emergence of better technology to analyze and prevent waste, however, the road to increased profitability and sustainability might just be coming into focus.

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