Waste implies squandered resources, be they time, money or materials. Managing money and time are core competencies of any successful business. But somehow, trash and garbage have gotten a free pass.
Fortunately, that is changing. As companies embrace one form or other of "zero waste" commitments, the business case for efficient and sustainable resource flow management is catching on.
Many are sincere in their efforts. However, setting, meeting, measuring and reporting such targets can be fraught with ambiguity due to a lack of agreed-upon terminology. Waste management must also integrate with other essential business processes, sustainability goals, and the reality of linear market economics.
The EPA provides a handy Policy and Program Planning Tool that allows users to "customize the list to a particular community’s needs, interests, and capabilities." With it, we begin to see the multitude of waste reduction targets, materials, and potential impacts.
It also reveals the Achilles heel of even the most well-intentioned zero waste initiatives: Whether it’s landfilled or burned, some argue waste never quite goes “away.” Most “zero waste” programs would be better described as “zero waste to landfill.” This fine point can be key to maintaining credibility, as doubters will jump on any overreach in a company’s claims.
Follow the Rs
Indeed, going “zero waste” without following best practices related to reducing, reusing and recycling could ultimately be more environmentally harmful than landfilling. The Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover, inverted pyramid of “non-hazardous materials and waste management hierarchy,” is a good starting point for any company considering waste management strategies.
Once those steps are completed, then waste-to-energy is a good option. Covanta's high-tech Energy-from-Wastefacilities are a far cry from the backyard incinerators of my youth that released noxious emissions. Their process addresses many of the issues raised by opponents of energy-from-waste programs, including emissions, ash, and resource efficiency.
We spoke to two organizations that offer third-party verification of standards compliance for waste management: NSF International Sustainability Services and the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council Zero Waste Program, administered by Green Business Certification Inc.
Each represents differing sets of standards, one for zero-waste-to-landfill, the other, zero-waste, but both organizations agree on the need for continually working toward common definitions, standards, and validation of waste management practices as a key to making zero waste a reliable, stringent goal.
"Zero Waste reporting in the past was like comparing oranges and pineapples; companies were all over the place," says Stephanie Barger, Director of Business Development for GBCI's Zero Waste Programs. "That’s why standardization and a commonly accepted definition are so important."
Along with GBCI and NSF, UL Laboratories and Green Circle also offer their own standards and validation for landfill diversion. But, like sustainability reporting in general, the evolution from "zero waste" as a throwaway phrase (pardon the pun) to a verifiable, measurable claim is underway. We're not there yet.
Companies can avoid criticism and doubt by simply verifying their claims. Adhering to any one set of third-party guidelines and verification will lend credibility and transparency to the overall push toward zero waste.
Start with an honest assessment
Like any other worthwhile goal, a clear sense of what is achievable begins with an honest assessment. "It is important for companies beginning their journey to zero waste to have realistic expectations," says NSF Senior Certification Project Manager Allison Skinner.
Engage Employees and get leaders involved
Simple use of recycling bins by employees can signal the start of the shift, but for reaching "higher levels of diversion, a culture change needs to happen and be driven from the top down,” Skinner explains.
“Our program emphasizes the importance of leadership engagement, employee training, and empowerment," Barger says, "that together can help drive strong Zero Waste policies with vendors and customers.”
In fact, for many companies, realizing any significant waste management goal, whether it be zero waste or landfill diversion, will require "significant changes to their business and operations in order to make progress toward their goals," says Skinner. "These changes can include rethinking supply chains, altering manufacturing processes, or finding new vendors for certain waste streams."
"Building the company culture and changing behavior, as mentioned above, takes time, persistence, and commitment."
Trust and verify
"Companies should track the method of diversion or disposal for each waste stream so they can understand how much material they are currently diverting from landfills," Skinner says. Both NSF and GBCI provide tools for getting started tracking both material flows and costs.
"Part of the certification requirements also includes setting up reporting that benchmarks base year performance and ongoing monthly tracking," says Barger. "Tracking data and measuring performance is really key to a successful Zero Waste strategy.
Rinse and repeat
So there is no universal standard, definitions and goals among the standards that are available vary, and it is hard work that requires change. Is going zero waste or zero-waste-to-landfill worth it?
Don’t find it, do it
In a sense, zero waste is like happiness. Granted, if Thomas Jefferson had written "life, liberty, and the pursuit of zero waste," it would likely have fallen flat. But Jefferson's implication is that happiness is a journey, a process, and a way of thinking. It's not something you find as much as something you do.
In the absence of the universal zero waste standard we all agree is needed, transparency is key to a successful program. Publicly state your target and the benchmark to which you will measure progress. Verify that progress against an available third-party standard and keep all stakeholders informed of achievements and challenges on your journey to zero waste.
Zero waste is one part of the whole. Waste management becomes resource management; new opportunities for better water management, reduced energy use, and efficiency improvements begin to fall into place. The changing company culture is reflected in society at large. Attitudes change, and slowly but surely, a fully functioning circular economy emerges.