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Trash as Treasure: From Setting to Surpassing the Bar on Waste Reduction


By Jeff Gowdy

Whether a sustainability expert or newcomer, those who work in this industry will be the first to tell you that ‘sustainability’ can be an illusive, rarely agreed-upon and poorly defined term. But as Tony Robbins said, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

The sustainability issue that I consider the most visible, or tangible, for companies to grasp, is waste. This explains why it is often the first thing a company will tackle, particularly when it comes to those that manufacture goods.

Wherever a company falls along the spectrum – whether that’s trying to be a just a little greener, a zero waste-to-landfiller or a trend-setting visionary – everybody has to start somewhere.

It’s not easy being “Greener”

In my consulting experience*, it’s important to meet companies where they are currently. That usually means helping them come up with small, bite-sized goals, which are easier to “sell in” to the decision-makers up top.

Companies first venturing out on their sustainability journey, the Greeners, typically start with a goal that looks at reducing a certain percentage of waste within their operations that they know is achievable within a short period of time.

Then once they’ve got some real data results to work with, they are able to go back to the C-Suite and propose more long-term, cross-cutting goals. This kind of relentless incrementalism is critical in the beginning stages of building a waste management program.

These incremental goals most commonly set reductions in the range of 1-25 percent. For example:

  • Reduce specific generated wastes from routine operations by five percent by 2015 (baseline: 2010) (MOL Hungarian Oil & Gas)
  • Reduce waste generation by 15 percent (Wellpoint)
  • Reduce volume of waste disposed of in landfills by 24 percent, relative to fiscal 2010 (Sumitomo Chemical)

This realistic goal-setting helps establish a baseline that makes management more confident and comfortable giving the green light to move to the next level.

Zero is the Loneliest Number, but a Good Kind of Lonely

Once a company realizes that these incremental steps can add up to big cost savings and discernable environmental impact, companies like Walmart and Toyota aim to take waste out of their business’ equation altogether – setting their sites on being Zero Waste-to-Landfillers.

The scope of this kind of goal is usually laser-focused on manufacturing facilities and/or retail locations, as those are the areas of the business where the company has the most control over the waste generated.

For example, Walmart’s goal is to eliminate landfill waste from U.S. stores and Sam’s Club locations by 2025, while Toyota’s is to achieve zero waste to landfill at manufacturing plants by 2013.

A Vision Beyond "End of Life"

For a few rare companies, achieving zero waste within their own operations simply isn’t enough – they set their sights on waste reduction  throughout their entire value chain, and better still, aim to influence their industry at large.

These are what I call the waste Visionaries. Bridgestone and Honda exemplify this mindset. Honda is challenging itself to completely close the loop for all resources and bring product life-cycle waste down to zero, and Bridgestone seeks to create a waste-free tire industry with programs like the “Tires 4ward Program,” which ensures that for every tire sold, one spent tire will be sent to a next, valuable use.

This ‘cradle to cradle’ mentality is one where companies don’t see waste; they see a second, third, fourth life for those materials – new products and revenue streams. In other words, product “end of life” is out of their vocabulary.

This game-changing approach is the future of waste reduction goal setting – and one I think will inspire industries to think “outside the landfill.”

*Note: goals included were pulled from the PivotGoals.com website.

Jeff Gowdy is the project manager for the Pivot Goals project and also has served as a consultant for Bridgestone Americas.

Image credit: Flickr/wintertwined

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