Zero Waste: Stop Throwing Money in the Trash

zero waste

by | Dec 11, 2015

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zero wasteCompanies have a major financial incentive to achieve zero waste.

“Waste = Wasted Cash,” writes Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle International, on

An example: Unilever North America, which achieved 100 percent zero-waste-to-landfill at all dedicated distribution centers in North America earlier this year, said zero waste resulted in cost savings of more than $1.9 million in 2013.

As firms increasingly see the value of the circular economy as a way to increase competitiveness, new product development and overall sales, achieving zero waste can help companies grow their business.

US Zero Waste Business Council

One resource for companies looking to cut costs through zero waste initiatives is the US Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC). Its certified facilities have have a zero waste policy in place and have achieved a 90 percent or higher overall diversion from landfill and incineration for non-hazardous wastes. USZWBC founding members include Toyota North America, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and the Walt Disney Company.

Stephanie Barger, USZWBC founder and CEO, says working towards zero waste helps companies become aware of their own wastefulness. “If a company has a large amount of trash, they are either: buying unnecessary packaging from their suppliers,” which means large waste bills and unnecessary employee time spent handling this excess waste, or “missing opportunity for revenue from recycling especially if materials are source separated,” she says.

Achieving zero waste also keeps companies ahead of the game when it comes to regulations. “Zero Waste companies exceed local, state and federal regulations and therefore do not need to continually redo their policies to meet upcoming government regulations,” Barger explains. “Banks and insurance companies also look favorably on companies with strong Zero Waste and sustainability programs.”

Plus, consumers want to purchase from environmentally responsible companies and want to buy products that are easily reusable or recyclable.

Challenges to Achieving Zero Waste

However, diverting 100 percent of waste from landfills can be a challenge — especially for companies located in places without necessary infrastructure such as composting facilities or Centers for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM).

“I’ve heard firsthand from companies that going for Zero Waste in Middle America is nearly impossible–not for lack of will, but for lack of infrastructure,” Lombardi writes. “So what is an aspiring Zero Waste business to do when the local infrastructure doesn’t exist to support their goals? Assuming that the business isn’t going to build their own composting or CHaRM facility, it’s time for the business to lean in to the community and start advocating for community-wide Zero Waste policies and infrastructure.”

The Closed Loop Fund, a recycling initiative whose founding members include Walmart and Coca-Cola, among other major firms, is working to develop recycling infrastructure and services to US consumers. Its goal is to provide 100 percent of US consumers with access to recycling where and when they need it.

“The best way to increase the supply of recycled content in packaging, for example, is to expand infrastructure,” the Closed Loop Fund’s Rob Kaplan says. “People won’t recycle if they don’t have access to convenient recycling programs.

“But, no single company can move this needle alone. That’s why Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, Walmart, Keurig Green Mountain, Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and 3M created the Closed Loop Fund.”

In September the Closed Loop Fund announced its first three recycling investments, totaling $24 million, and plans to invest more than $500 million in US recycling projects over the next five years. The fund invests in the form of zero-interest loans to cities and low interest loans to recycling companies.

“Not only is zero waste attainable, it is necessary,” Kaplan says. “We simple don’t have the resources available to meet the needs of 9 billion people on this planet. Efficiency is a key part of the solution as we can produce more with less, but, ultimately, we need to turn our waste streams into value streams.”

Waste Doesn’t Equal Trash

In a Q&A with Holly Elmore, founder and CEO of Elemental Impact, which works with industry on creating sustainable best practices, tells Waste Dive the biggest road block to attaining zero waste is the mindset that waste is trash: “As long as we view it as trash it will end up in the landfill. We must recognize it as valuable material.”

General Motor is one company treating waste as resources. For example, GM’s CAMI Assembly turns scrap wood into mulch for its wetlands and Grand Rapids Operations recycles grinding wheels as sandpaper. The Grand Rapids site also works with a partner that processes wastewater treatment sludge into a fuel source for the building materials industry.

More than 120 of the the automaker’s manufacturing and non-manufacturing operations have achieved landfill-free status.

The Cradle to Cradle design methodology helps organizations make this shift away from seeing waste as trash while also lessening their dependency on virgin materials, says Lewis Perkins, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

“Utilizing the framework laid out by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, we have a continuous improvement map for safe materials to be perpetually cycled into one of the two nutrient cycles: technical or biological,” Perkins says. “By adopting a Cradle to Cradle framework for product design and material collection/reutilization will mitigate the risk and allow for continued growth of resources, revenues and products.”

Taking a System View

Barger says leadership is key in making zero waste a reality. “Company leadership needs to be 100 percent behind it, take it seriously, and be committed to the process with short- and long-term planning.”

The next step is participation by all employees, vendors and service providers — and even customers. “It takes the entire supply chain to be involved and working together in the process,” Barger says. “Customers also play a critical role by providing feedback and information on what waste management services are available in their local area.”

And, says Kaplan, companies need to look at the big zero-waste picture and take a system view. “Companies are too often focused on their own footprints or, at best, their own supply chains,” Kaplan says. “We will only solve this system challenge with system solutions.”

Photo Credit: zero waste by Anothai Thiansawang /

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