Copyright 2002 AXIS Performance Advisors.
by Darcy Hitchcock
I wish I could take credit for the provocative title, but I got it from
Gary Liss who’s associated with the GrassRoots Recycling Network. But it
does make you stop and think. Have we set our sights far too low? Being
less bad isn’t good enough! Many companies have achieved zero waste to
landfill so why can’t we all? This article explains the concepts. If you
want more help, check out the resources listed at the end of the article.
Zero waste is a concept many companies are just starting to warm up to. What does it mean? It means eliminating the concept of waste. Think about it: almost everything you throw away you had to buy in the first place and now you have to pay to get rid of it. Instead, zero waste advocates prefer to talk in terms of “residual products.” The environmental manager of a high tech firm in the Northwest once told
me, “If you haven’t found a market for all your waste streams, you’re not trying hard enough. There’s someone out there who wants everything.” Lots of companies have achieved zero waste or have come very close, and they are saving millions of dollars in the process!
As Gary Liss, of Gary Liss and Associates likes to say, “This isn’t managing your waste; it’s eliminating it.”
Zero waste IS NOT…
Zero waste IS…
|Just recycling paper and pop cans. Our current recycling system is focused
on end products and end users and recovers usually less than 50%.
|Instead, the zero waste approach reuses and recycles everything, including
manufacturing waste. For example, carpet is redesigned so it can be converted
back to carpet.
|Where the default is the trash can and the landfill; you have to go find
the recycling bin.
|Instead, reuse and recycling are the default. The “trash” can
under your desk becomes a recycling bin. You have to work hard to throw
something “away” (wherever that is!).
| Where most products and packaging are disposable. Food products with
a shelf-life of weeks come in containers which won’t biodegrade in millennia.
|Instead, zero waste encourages the use of reusable containers and packaging.
Products are designed to last longer or to be biodegradable.
|Where companies only make money when they sell you more stuff.||Instead, zero waste companies convert their products to services, for example,
leasing carpet and clothes washers instead of selling them. This builds
a longer relationship with the customer and levels out boom-and-bust economic
Dobbin Callahan, with C&A Floorcoverings, tells a lovely story about how they learned to turn old carpet into new carpet. They went to their employees and told them, in effect, we, your managers, don’t know how to do this. Industry doesn’t know how. Our vendors don’t know how. We know you’re going to make some mistakes and we’re going to go down some blind alleys, but we think you CAN figure this out. And so they did. To do so, they challenged a deeply held belief in their industry: to recycle carpet, you have to separate the backing from the rest of the carpet. Against the advice of their equipment vendor, they tried putting it all in together….and created a better carpet! As Dobbin puts it, “They didn’t know it couldn’t be done.” Now they take back and recycle any of their vinyl-backed carpet products, or anyone else’s for that matter. The new recycled-content carpet performs better than the virgin product and even costs a little less to manufacture.
If you want more stories and examples, the GrassRoots Recycling Network is keeping a list of organizations that reach zero waste (or darn close, over 90%). The list includes Amdahl, Fetzer Vineyards, Epson, Xerox, Pillsbury, and some small breweries, among others. Go to http://www/grrn.org.
Most companies are convinced that if there was so much waste around, they would have already seen it and dealt with it. NOT! Incremental waste-reduction efforts are blind to the opportunities that have to be imagined if you really want to eliminate waste all together. So ironically, while you can save a pile of money from a zero waste program, that’s not what gets most organizations interested. They often need a little shove. People at C&A Floorcoverings were getting uncomfortable questions from customers about how much carpet ends up in the landfill and how long it sits there. General Motors has shocked their vendors by returning product that arrived with too much packaging. Electronics manufacturers are seeing the writing on the wall in this country: “Take back your product at the end of its useful life, because it’s not going in the landfill.” So customer pressure, regulations and competitive pressures are usually the catalyst.
One of the compelling things about zero waste is its name. Unlike “waste reduction,” “resource efficiency”, or “sustainability,” zero waste can be easily imagined: no dumpsters, no pipes discharging water to the river, nothing but air coming out of the stacks. This audacious goal forces people to challenge how things are done, redesigning processes and relationships.
If you want to pursue zero waste strategies, there are several excellent
resources to get started:
Approaching Zero Waste (part of our Sustainability Series;
see the description below) provides background reading, step-by-step instructions,
advice from people who have done this work, and materials you can use right
If you’re focusing on solid waste, get the Xerox Business Guide
to Waste Reduction and Recycling and their companion Workbook,
available as PDF files off their website: http://www.xerox.com/environment.html.
Zero Waste Briefing Kit, available from the GrassRoots
Recycling Network <http://www.grrn.org> provides principles, case
studies, facts and figures, and a communication kit for executives and the
The Zero Waste Alliance offers assessments and support for zero
waste practices <http://www.zerowaste.org>.
Zero Emissions Research Initiatives focuses on air, land and water
and so provides resources especially helpful for those working on issues
other than solid waste <http://www.zeri.org>.
If you’re trying to get or get rid of some stuff in the Northwest, materials
exchange databases in the Pacific Northwest are listed on http://www.nwmaterialsmart.org/.
New Sustainability Series™ booklets…
If you want more information about how to reduce your waste streams,
please order our new Sustainability Series booklet: Approaching Zero Waste, co-authored with
Larry Chalfan, executive director of the Zero Waste Alliance and former
CEO of Oki Semiconductor. It should be released late in July 2002.
If you want to figure out how to make your environmental management
system into a sustainability management system, order Embedding Sustainability into Your Environmental Management
System, co-authored by Dorothy Atwood, a renowned EMS consultant.