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P&G and Sears share their secrets on the path to zero waste

Driven by customer wishes and cost savings, more and more companies strive for zero waste. But it isn’t easy.

Zero waste has become a clarion call among cities and businesses trying to reach the ultimate in sustainability.  Consumers and citizens want it. 

In a world running out of space for waste and where the Pope himself has decried a “throwaway culture” and where the export of certain waste to Third World countries for disassembly or recycling is often harming the people doing the disassembling, zero waste is worthy of pursuit.

Many companies have taken it upon themselves to reduce waste, with some aiming for zero-waste generation. Even some very large companies such as Walmart, and some multifaceted manufacturers dealing with lots of materials, like Procter & Gamble, see zero waste as an achievable goal.

But getting to zero waste is tough, and making the claim of zero waste could be a minefield when vast supply chains or far-flung retail networks are taken into consideration. Proof had better be available, experts warn.

“There are so many organizations out in the world that are focused on going to zero waste to landfill or reducing their waste to landfill,” said Tad Radzinski, certification officer of GreenCircle Certified.  “So we just see a tremendous need for getting out there and validating these claims, auditing and seeing if these things are actually happening.” 

He was speaking in a webcast hosted by GreenBiz this past week, alongside two companies discussing their processes and strategies on the road to reducing waste.  Procter & Gamble has achieved zero waste in two-thirds of its operations, and Sears Holdings Corp. describes itself as just starting the journey with its 1,700 retail store operation.

The webcast was sponsored by Covanta, which is a world leader in providing sustainable waste and energy solutions to communities and businesses interested in pursuing environmentally responsible and sound disposal of unwanted residual materials.

Covanta also operates a network of 45 waste-to-energy facilities that use waste left over after efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle have been employed, to generate renewable energy that is supplied to the power grids.  

Procter & Gamble, the consumer products giant with $83 billion in annual sales and operations in 70 countries, has ambitious goals to eventually use 100 percent renewable or recyclable materials in all its products and packaging and to generate zero consumer or manufacturing waste to landfills.

It also aims to eventually power all plants with 100 percent renewable energy. It currently is only about 18 percent of the way there on the renewable power front. It also aims all the while to “delight consumers” with its products. 

How is it doing? 

It is quite ahead of plan in minimizing its waste stream, having reached its goals for the year 2020 last year.

By last year “99.6 percent of material entering P& G plants were beneficially used,” with less than one percent going to the landfill, said Scott Burns, associate director of purchases.

Burns devised a program he calls the Global Asset Recovery Purchase, to move P&G’s 140 plants through an ever more intensive waste reduction and reuse. It starts with cleaning up waste streams, then moves to finding resuses for finished products and then on to raw pack materials and finally to resue of equipment and parts.

“We define beneficial use as reuse, recycled, biological treatment or used energy recovery,” he added. “We do not allow incineration (of waste) without energy recovery.”

Issues vary from site to site, but the company can now brag that 82 of plants out of 140 globally are zero waste to landfill.  

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  Procter & Gamble began its waste reduction plan decades ago.

But in 2007 it was stymied. Half of its waste was still going to landfills — and at 1 million tons of waste even half of that is still a lot of garbage.  

“We were not getting the results we wanted,” Burns said. So the company upped its game, and decided to set up a “site solution provider program,” because the obstacles often differed site to site.  It studied local marketplaces to find experts to work with each plant, Burns said, so each site has its own site solution provider. 

Then things started to roll. And the kicker?  The zero waste program has returned $2 billion in savings back to the company since 2008 and is on track to save $200 million this year, he said.


Sears Holding Corp. owns the vast retail networks of Sears and K-Mart stores — some 1,700 retail locations all together — along with 34 distribution centers nad 410 warehouses and call centers. It has 196,000 employees and generates $31 billion in annual revenue. 

So devising a waste reduction plan that encompasses such a huge organization is not easy.

“We are very early on our journey,” to zero waste, said Paul Campbell, director of sustainability and green leadership at Sears Holding. 

“Retail in general is under tremendous strain to modify the business model, to change and adapt,” he said to a changing customer. It requires more interacting with customers as well as vendors.

“As we find ways to appeal to the next generation of customers, they are demanding transparency not only in waste but a lot things having to do with sustainability,” Campbell said.

Sears has been “doing things in waste management” and other sustainability issues for a number of years but hasn’t communicated them externally. But it will be this year.

This year Sears Holding will issue its first corporate responsibility and sustainability report, Campbell said.

With refreshing candor, Campbell said that Sears, when it really delved into specifics of its operations, realized it could do more.

“In waste reduction, we thought we had a pretty good story to tell but as we really dove in and began to measure the amount of waste (generated), we realized that — like many large companies — we are extremely disjointed,” he said. In waste reduction “we recognize there is a lot more we can do,” he said. 

And so it has begun a data driven program to set goals, track progress and benchmark with competitors and among its stores.

Sears has engaged its stores in competition for waste reduction and as a company it benchmarks or compares its success against that of similar companies.

"We use a centralized data system. We certainly see that as an opportunity to gather (information from sites) and mitigate risk and forecast. 

Radzinki said it is not easy for any company, but especially large companies with many operations and using many raw materials, to get to a place where they can claim zero waste to landfill.

His organization has two certifications, zero waste diversion and zero waste to landfill. 

"Waste is very complex," he said.  His certification program looks at these things:

"So when we talk about waste diversion from landfills, we analyze and verify that materials are indeed being handeled and diverted from landfills but in acceptable ways," Radzinski said.

"a lot of companies out there who make these claims don't qualify what they are doing."  So he praised companies that do, including Procter & Gamble for defining what it is doing.

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