Making up our minds, and minding our waste

Two Steps Forward

Making up our minds, and minding our waste


Adapted from GreenBuzz, a weekly newsletter published Mondays.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about waste. Maybe because we’re approaching Black Friday, a day given to shopping for shopping’s sake. (So named because it’s the day of the year when retailers begin to turn a profit — that is, begin being "in the black.")

Perhaps because we’ve been focusing increasingly on the circular economy, as I wrote last week, when we announced a new event on the topic.

Or maybe it’s simply because stories on the topic seem to be cropping up more regularly on the pages of GreenBiz.

It’s certainly not a new topic for us. Indeed, solid waste and litter have been reliable topics for as long as I’ve reported on corporate sustainability. In the late 1980s, for example, McDonald’s made headlines — and raised eyebrows — when it partnered with the activist environmental group EDF to reduce litter and waste, which at the time was the company’s biggest reputational challenge. That led to of decades of waste-reduction and energy- and water-efficiency measures by the fast-food chain, among many others.

Over the past decade or so, zero-waste factories and facilities have become commonplace, especially in industries such as automotive. We receive so many press pitches about a new zero-waste factory or building that we no longer find them newsworthy. It's just business as usual.

Why today’s bounty of news about trash? As I noted, the growth of the circular economy, which promises to end the concept of waste through continuous cycles of materials flows, has brought new attention to the decidedly unsexy issues of overconsumption, trash and landfills. The marine pollution caused largely by single-use plastics is another big reason, leading to dozens of corporate and municipal commitments to end it. Food waste is yet another longstanding issue that has gained currency (as we predicted in our 2015 State of Green Business report) as it addresses both global environmental and hunger crises).

And energy waste — in buildings, vehicles, electric grids, supply chains and cities — has been a concern going back decades, although energy’s connection to climate change has helped to amp up renewed interest in energy efficiency recently.

So, we find ourselves confronted with a steady drumbeat of reportage. Witness some of the stories we’ve published recently: about sustainable packaging and its salutary impact on food waste … about a new breed of startup looking to help companies find value in customer returns, warranty repairs and overproduction …  about new software enabling companies to "waste nothing" … about policy or industry fixes to eliminating a quarter-trillion wasted plastic bottles a year … about new digital tools to accelerate energy efficiency and prevent food waste … about turning waste carbon gases into aviation fuel … about the potential for companies to support community programs that increase recycling.

All of those in just the past two months. Lots more where those came from, but you get the point.

I’ve long maintained that most corporate sustainability initiatives are actually efficiency measures cast in a green patina. But that’s no longer entirely the case. Increasingly, it’s not just about reducing waste to landfills. A growing number of initiatives aim to create new value from resources that formerly went into dumpsters, smokestacks or drainpipes — the emerging circular economy.

And that shifts the conversation dramatically, from "reducing waste: to "increasing value." Indeed, the meme "waste into worth" seems to be popping up everywhere on the internet. Even human waste ("fecal sludge") is a resource that can create energy, fertilizer and other things, according to recent research (an appropriate thought for Nov. 19, World Toilet Day).

Back to Black Friday and the orgy of consumption that follows through the holidays. Every year presents an opportunity to revisit the amount of waste created through all this shopping, wrapping and shipping — but that’s a bah-humbug conversation no one seems to want to have.

Indeed, the idea of consuming less rings hollow for most people, despite the promise a few years back of a "voluntary simplicity" movement aimed at promoting less-consumptive lifestyles. It never really caught on. We are looking to be seduced, it seems, and the marketing world is ready, willing and able to beguile us with its respective psychological pheromones. And so we’ll continue shopping, and wasting, for a long time.

That means it’s up to us — the producers and sellers of all this stuff — to find better ways to make peoples’ dreams come true. To give us the experiences we all want, the status we all seek and the satisfaction we all crave. And to make the joy of holiday giving — and receiving — a true blessing to the world and all that inhabit it.