Zero-waste-to-landfill (ZWTL) is a popular goal for businesses that wish to lead on sustainability. It sounds like a noble goal, and it is. But what does it mean?
Northstar Recycling, a Massachusetts-based company, acknowledges that the term ZWTL does not have a single definition. Some companies and certification programs mean it seriously: No solid waste at all, not a single paper clip, can be landfilled. Every bit of waste produced at a company’s facilities must be reused, recycled, composted or, in the final step, burned for power in a waste-to-energy system.
Other companies regard ZWTL “as a guiding ideal rather than a benchmark,” according to Northstar Recycling. Those companies will allow a small percentage of waste to be sent to landfill, but will still call their program ZWTL.
Start with concrete goals
That’s why it’s important to establish and communicate definitions and goals up front, explained Thomas Stanczyk, sustainable waste solutions strategist for Covanta Environmental Solutions. “ZWTL goals should be pursued as a process for achieving continuous improvement,” he told 3p.
For example, goals give employees a benchmark, meaning facilities can communicate documented accomplishments and success on the road to achieving ZWTL.
Goals can also be used to “guide and motivate employees, as well as to clearly relate intentions in terms of waste activities,” Stanczyk told us. And reaching these targets almost always requires an all-in strategy that utilizes every tool in the proverbial toolbox.
Conduct a waste audit
One such mechanism is a waste audit: “an information tool [for] identifying origins of wastes, factors influencing waste generation, variances in waste stream characteristics, and current methods of managing waste,” Stanczyk explained.
The findings from an audit form the “the basis for gap analyses addressing a facility’s status and requirements as well as opportunities in relation to pre-defined zero-waste-to-landfill goals.”
In short: Waste audits show where an organization has room to improve. They serve as validation of a company’s waste-generation data and the documented methods of management that conform to ZWTL standards.
“The audit finding will take into account deviations that can potentially impact zero-waste-to-landfill claims,” Stanczyk said. That includes “changes in production processes, materials usage and changes in the operating procedures governing waste activities.”
Find the best reuse or recycle strategy for each waste material
Once an audit is completed, the first few steps toward ZWTL are often challenging for a company. Management knows where materials are being discarded as waste and has to make changes that may impact current supplier services, operations, waste handling practices as well as costs. The biggest challenge, Stanczyk said, is aligning ZWTL strategies with cost savings while diverting waste for recycling and beneficial reuse, including waste to energy.
But with a closer look, companies often find that the last bit of waste may contain “material that can be repurposed and beneficially reused,” Stanczyk went on. Many materials beyond the traditional glass, plastic, paper and aluminum can be recycled. It just takes a little bit of special effort to find the appropriate outlet meeting ZWTL standards.
ZWTL programs “should account for the recycling and/or reuse of universal wastes, including all types of batteries, fluorescent lamps/lighting fixtures, mercury containing equipment and electronic scrap,” he advised.
Landfill diversion strategies should account for: manufacturing byproducts, off-spec/unused inventory, utility wastes, maintenance wastes, recyclables, and general refuse. With the right approach, there’s a home for every kind of waste outside a landfill. Products may need to be returned to a manufacturer or shipped to another location for commercial reuse.
At the end of the process, a waste audit can confirm that every material is being directed to the best place. These may need to be conducted more than once, and of course new waste streams may require new innovations. ZWTL is a process of continuous improvement.
Covanta Environmental Solutions makes this process easier for clients through its “turnkey” zero-waste-to-landfill (ZWTL) strategy. A team of experts work with companies to help them identify ‘reduce,’ ‘reuse,’ and ‘recycle’ options for traditional and unusual products. They’ve seen it all. Any waste that is left over can be sent to one of Covanta’s more than 40 owned and/or operated energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities in North America. These facilities burn the waste as fuel to create energy. This process is highly regulated to ensure harmful particulates do not negatively impact local air quality.
Covanta Environmental Solutions client J&J Flooring is an excellent example of going all-in on zero waste. The flooring manufacturer created a green team in the early 1990s to focus on sustainable processes. For the next 24 years, it focused on reusing, recycling and repurposing waste and, as a result, significantly decreased the amount of waste sent to local landfills. However, despite its best efforts, the company still found some of its waste ended up in landfills, so its management made a decision to go ZWTL.
One unexpected challenge came from city officials. The city of Dalton, Georgia, prohibited businesses from sending waste out of the county. J&J wanted to partner with Covanta Environmental Solutions to achieve zero-waste-to-landfill, but that meant transporting waste across state lines to a waste-to-energy plant. So, the company worked with local officials to receive a variance from the county requirements.
Now, any waste that J&J can’t recycle, reuse or compost — about 2 percent of its total waste — is sent to a waste-to-energy plant in Huntsville, Alabama where it is sorted, processed and burned to make steam. The steam travels through a six-mile pipe to the Red Stone Arsenal, a U.S. army garrison in Huntsville, where it powers the buildings’ heat and air-conditioning system.
When J&J Flooring decided to become ZWTL certified, it chose GreenCircle which provides certification for environmental and sustainability claims on operations and products. The Dalton site was subject to a thorough review of the downstream material management organizations receiving its recyclable waste to ensure every material was handled properly and responsibly.
All the hard work paid off as J&J Flooring received certification from GreenCircle in May 2015, five years ahead of schedule.
J&J Flooring is a success story when it comes to ZWTL, but its efforts and the outcome are not unusual. By partnering with organizations that specialize in the nuts and bolts of refuse management, ZWTL is achievable for any organization large or small.
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