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Plastics Industry Seeks More Zero-Waste Programs

Words by Leon Kaye

Zero waste has become the mantra of more companies and municipalities as landfill space is running out and consumers are becoming more aware of the impact wastes such as plastic have on the environment. And speaking of plastics, one of the industry’s oldest and largest trade associations, the Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI), is starting to nudge its members to consider launching zero-waste programs.

To that end, SPI tweaked its mission statement and now claims that zero waste is integral to the long-term success of the plastics industry.

In order to give this mission statement more teeth, SPI launched a recognition program for member companies that are working toward zero-net-waste within their manufacturing operations. While offering participating companies several lofty goals, the bottom line for SPI is to maximize its members’ waste-diversion efforts, such as the return of excess materials like resins to a manufacturing process or implementing an energy-recovery program in areas where recycling is not necessarily viable.

So, what do companies have to do? A qualification and verification process is the starting point. Companies need to evaluate how they can improve waste management within their operations, and determine what they are going to do with unwanted materials that include scrap, office and cafeteria waste, landscaping debris and waste, unwanted construction materials, and potentially toxic materials such as light bulbs, batteries and chemicals. Once a company has sent all documentation requested by SPI, it is permitted to use the SPI’s Zero Net Waste program logo.

There is one point, however, that will raise some eyebrows: SPI does not require any third-party verification. “SPI’s assumption is that companies will be honest and forthcoming with the information they are providing to meet qualification and verification requirements,” says the organization in its Zero Net Waste program materials.

Nevertheless, self-policing is better than taking no steps at all. The SPI’s goal is for companies to adopt the best possible waste-management practices without “onerous” restrictions -- as in, regulations. SPI warns its members to take the program seriously and to avoid greenwashing. How a company would be discovered in violation of SPI’s terms and conditions for using its logos, however, is left unsaid. But of course in this age of social media, woe to any company that exaggerates or fibs about its sustainability efforts.

For the plastic industry’s shift to adopting zero-waste programs, or at least programs close to zero waste, reflects what is unfolding at more companies here in the U.S. and abroad. Cities such as Minneapolis, San Francisco and Palo Alto, California, have shown municipalities how they can inch toward total landfill diversion. CPG companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, the products of which generate massive amounts of garbage on their own, have also made huge strides on the zero-waste front.

With other potential partners around, such as the upcycling giant TerraCycle, there are plenty of opportunities for companies to become more innovative with their trash so they can turn it into treasure. And in the meantime, they can gain the trust of their stakeholders and increasingly fickle consumers.

Image credit: Flickr (Mr.TinDC)

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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