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Jan Lee headshot

Zero Waste: Ethical Investment and Innovation That Saves Money

By Jan Lee

Most of us have already heard the spiel: Diverting trash away from landfills is good for the environment. In fact, it’s more than good; it’s one of the best ways local communities can contribute to cutting the production of greenhouse gases.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans shipped more than 136 million tons of garbage to landfills in 2014, over half the total municipal sold waste generated. With the increasing concern about the impact of GHG emissions on global warming, many businesses (and private residents) feel that the environmental benefits reducing carbon emissions are reason enough to commit to a zero-waste-to-landfill program.

But an increasing number of businesses going zero waste say it carries economic benefits as well as green cred. Earlier this year we wrote about a few of those companies, with some remarkable tallies on savings:

  • Subaru sees a net savings of $1 million to $2 million at its Indiana plant through reduction and reuse of discarded materials.

  • Sierra Nevada saved more than $5 million in 2013 and 2014 by diverting usable feed to dairy farms and through its HotRot composting system for other organic wastes.

  • Unilever incorporated zero-landfill principles into 600 global sites and says it saved more than $225 million in the process. Along the way, the company's efforts built a platform for “hundreds of [new] jobs.”

And as companies like Sealed Air, the maker of popular food packaging and medical care products, have discovered, adopting a thoughtful, incremental strategy with clear goals and benchmarks along the way is an essential aspect of going zero waste.

So how did these companies do it? What’s the secret ingredient to building a business that not only goes beyond the landfill production cycle, but is able to show a net savings from its efforts?

The first step, said Stephanie Barger, director of market development for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Zero Waste Programs, is clarifying what you mean by “zero waste.” Barger is the founder and former executive director of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, which was acquired by USGBC in 2016.

She points out that some zero-waste programs overseas integrate practices like incineration as a means of getting rid of trash completely. In some localities, waste is also used as a basic energy source.

The concept of zero-waste-to-landfill became popular in localities with limited geographic space, such as Japan and the U.K. One of the problems with this approach, Barger explained, is what it leaves in the atmosphere. Burning off the residual trash may remove percolating organic material from the dump, but it doesn’t necessarily do away with the offending emissions. Plus, once that waste is burned off, the solid byproduct is still present, this time in the form of ash, "which then goes to the landfill," Barger said.

The other problem with this strategy is the philosophy. It leaves out an essential objective, which is encouraging a re-think on just what we expect and do with our material goods.

"With zero-waste-to-landfill, you could take 60 percent of your trash and send it to incineration/basic energy," Barger explained. "That's really not a smart business decision; it's inefficient and it's not really zero waste."

Zero-waste programs here in the U.S. and Canada (and now in other parts of the world) focus on closed-loop handling of waste by finding ways to first reduce the output, and then repurpose or recycle the materials that are left over. "For that reason, we've changed our definition to ['zero waste to landfill, incineration and the environment']."

The global auto industry is a great example of manufacturing sectors where this type of closed-loop approach works. General Motors reuses or recycles 97 percent of its refuse and has set a goal to have all 125 of its manufacturing plants landfill-free by 2020. Ford and Toyota aren’t quite as developed in their zero waste goals, but are demonstrating as well that it is possible for mega-size corporations to ditch the landfill dependency.

Barger qualified, however, that from the USGBC's zero-waste certification perspective, "Our goal is not just to have you take what is in your trash can and put it in your recycling, composting, waste-to-energy type of thing. Our goal is to eliminate all of those by upstream efforts and really changing everything into a commodity" by reducing, donating, selling, repairing and other steps that benefit a closed-loop cycle of waste..


Barger says the key to establishing a successful zero-waste infrastructure is planning: Studying how, why and what you use, and then developing metrics that will allow you to scale down your waste.

“The easiest way to get to zero waste is to work through your purchasing department,” Barger advised. "Looking at your purchasing agreements [and other contracts, such as waste disposal] will give you an idea of what steps may be necessary to reduce and build that economical closed-loop system you are aiming at ... [It] also gives you an idea of how much things are costing you."

She also suggests taking a second look at your refuse stream. Some jokingly call it "dumpster diving," but this analysis often consists of sorting out sections of your trash and cataloguing disposal options. How can you cut down on packaging waste? Are there other ways to have products delivered? "It's a really great team-building exercise," Barger noted, adding that recycling can also mean money in a more direct sense. "It's a commodity," she said simply.

In some cases, however, it makes more sense to take varying approaches. Office Depot and Toyota, for example, both "saved a bundle" when they realized the cardboard boxes they used for shipping could be replaced by reusable containers, Barger said.

Establishing metrics

It's important to remember that a successful zero-waste program is one that can be continually improved, Barger told us.

Understanding what she calls “subjective metrics” -- the human element in the process -- can lead to more complete metrics. “Total participation and training every single employee on your zero-waste team” and from top to bottom not only creates a safer process, but also creates team building and engages employees, she explained.

“Your sustainability department isn’t going to understand what’s going on in the manufacturing [department],” but trained employees familiar with the week-to-week metrics will.


For large companies with multiple factories and auxiliary sites or complex systems that handle toxic materials, attaining zero waste can take years and often decades.

Unilever, General Motors and Ford all set pragmatic timeframes for their zero-waste targets based on their daily operations and needs -- and they've steadily moved closer to their targets.

But going zero waste can be even quicker and easier for small businesses, Barger said. "To get to 95, 98, 99 percent zero waste, if a company is committed, it can be anywhere from one to five years.”

And validating your efforts through a certifying body that can provide feedback on how to attain your goals is an important part of making those benchmarks.

Green Business Certification, Inc., (originally offered through USZBC, now administered through USGBC) offers four levels of certification -- bronze, silver, gold and platinum -- for companies looking to grow their commitment to zero waste.

Having your facility zero-waste certified doesn’t just communicate your commitment to employees and the public, but also to prospective suppliers, clients and customers. It speaks volumes to those who know that zero waste isn’t just a green concept, but a business strategy that often “saves hundreds of thousands of dollars” through smart planning, Barger explained.

Zero waste: The new frontier of innovation?

Building a successful zero-waste program often means thinking outside the box. It means looking at new, unexpected ways of solving problems that conventional waste streams can’t address. Or as some companies have discovered, it means looking at old methods and learning how to apply them to your own strategy.

Those reusable shipping containers Office Depot uses and the reusable carrying case Hewlett Packard developed for its computers that became a signature example of its ingenuity at trade shows both emerged from progressive efforts to reduce waste.

For Tom’s of Maine it meant networking with vendors to redesign a steam sterilization unit. In some cases it means working with competitors to find ways to streamline manufacturing processes. Collaboration, Barger insisted, doesn’t take away from a company’s street creds when it comes to innovation; it promotes them.

“We all win” when companies share innovation, she told us. And a growing number of companies are realizing that sharing those money-saving innovations helps promote zero-waste strategies, as well as their business values.

Still, Barger stressed, the most important ingredient to a successful zero-waste program isn’t what you can innovate along the way, but how well your employees are educated in the mechanics of the program.

“Employee training is the most important part of a zero-waste program,” Barger said. It not only helps ensure a cohesive effort, but builds brand loyalty.

“They understand that you care about their children and that they are having an impact on the bottom line” by supporting a company that is willing to commit to and promote zero-waste strategies.

Images (from Flickr): Walmart; Walmart; Boulder Community Youth Corps

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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