With the increasingly urgent push towards sustainability in the face of diminishing resources and mounting trash, the zero-waste movement is picking up momentum. An alternative to the linear “take, make, waste” system our economy currently relies on, zero waste is the concept of minimizing waste and maximizing remaining resources in a circular system. Sounds great, but what can this do for your business, and how should you go about implementing a zero-waste strategy?
Why Implement Zero Waste in Your Business Now?
We’re all aware that minimizing waste is an essential tool in our efforts to protect the environment, but what are the direct advantages of zero waste for your business?
There are potential cost savings to going zero waste, particularly if you can leverage the system to reuse waste materials in a profitable way, however, other benefits may take precedence.
Striving towards zero waste boosts the image of your business, particularly amongst consumers. Sustainability has become a key added value metric in a multitude of industries as consumers seek out brands that align with their personal beliefs.
There is also a growing movement to highlight that the onus for preventing climate change is primarily on companies and corporations, so there is no better way to look out of touch in 2020 than to ignore sustainability issues in your business. Going zero waste may give you a competitive advantage for now, but how long before it becomes the norm?
Finally, state and national legislation is increasingly requiring businesses to reach compliance across a variety of sustainability and waste management areas. In truth, it’s likely that zero waste and other associated guidelines are part of the price of doing business.
Understanding Zero Waste
Beyond thinking about the benefits, it’s also beneficial to understand what zero waste entails. The zero-waste hierarchy builds the Three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle). The three R’s are themselves a hierarchy that encourages us to reduce our consumption, reuse the resources we have, and then, finally, recycle what is left. While much focus in zero waste is rightfully placed on reduction, depending upon your type of business there may be plenty of viable methods to go zero waste by reusing or recovering materials.
Remember that zero waste is aiming for a “closed loop” circular system where we sustainably utilize the resources we already have, conserving energy and not letting resources escape the system as waste. While recycling is still better than a landfill, it also consumes large amounts of energy and produces emissions, and should thus be the final option when there are no other alternatives.
Education and Assessment
To design and implement a zero-waste plan, cooperation is key. Make zero waste a company policy and aim for high employee engagement by explaining the motivation behind waste reduction, and the benefits. Chances are that members of your staff are already passionate about reducing waste.
Keep this in mind when designating a zero-waste team or manager in each department to help plan and implement strategies, and provide them with opportunities to learn about the zero-waste movement and successful waste reduction techniques.
Then comes the dirty work: identifying key areas to address. Begin by looking at output: where is the majority of your company’s waste generated? This means looking for certain departments, types of waste, or even particular rooms in your office that generate large amounts of waste, even if it’s recycled later. Consult with office managers and even janitorial staff who deal with the trash at the end of the day or week, and who will likely have a better idea than most of what types of things are being thrown away.
Planning and Redesign
Once these key areas have been identified, the next step is brainstorming solutions that reduce or eliminate waste. Ask for input from your entire company, as you may find small issues that are easy to remedy, such as poorly marked recycling bins or the lack of a dishwasher in the kitchen.
Don’t forget less obvious yet incredibly easy ways to reduce wasted energy, such as ensuring all windows are closed while heating or cooling, or installing motion sensors for lights in light traffic areas.
If you find a lot of waste is generated by items being procured from suppliers, look into the possibility of switching to minimal or reusable packaging that can be returned to the supplier during the next delivery. This may mean being persistent and working with suppliers to get them to implement their own changes, or switching suppliers entirely.
Also consider waste from your customers’ perspective. Does your company send out lots of mailers, or produce products with packaging? Engineering solutions that reduce the actual physical volume of the communications or packaging you distribute without diminishing value will result in less waste for both you and the customer—and potentially lead to lower costs and a boost to brand image as well.
Testing, Reviewing and Refinement
When putting your plan into action, set specific goals for waste reduction to make it easier to track which initiatives are successful. While zero waste is a long-term goal, short-term targets that may be easier to achieve help motivate employees and keep enthusiasm high. Drumming up competition between departments is another sure-fire way to provide further incentive.
It’s also useful to have a system for feedback to identify if measures are working or if they need tweaking. Combining this feedback with goal-oriented results provides ample information with which to critique initiatives and rework or refine them if necessary. Repeat this cycle to keep initiatives in line with your long-term zero waste or waste reduction goals, and don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Zero waste isn’t a zero-sum game!
Going zero waste can be as easy as stocking your office kitchen with reusable cutlery or as complex as reorganizing your entire production system. If this sounds like an enormous endeavour on top of running your normal business, there are professionals who can help. Partnering with the right kind of waste management advisors can be an investment that makes the entire process much easier and allows your business to maximize the rewards of going zero waste.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.