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Is Zero Waste in Your Company’s Future?

December 2, 2013

Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocery store chains, with more than 2,400 stores in 2013, announced in June its further commitment of moving all retail locations toward “zero waste.” In 2012, Kroger initiated this practice by joining the EPA’s WasteWise Program and adopting the EPA’s “zero waste” threshold of 90 percent diversion for their company-wide sustainability goals.

While Kroger is one of nearly 1,500 companies participating in the EPA’s WasteWise Program, all U.S. businesses, local governments, and non-profit organizations are eligible for participation. Those partnering must “demonstrate how they reduce waste, practice environmental stewardship, and incorporate sustainable materials management into their waste-handling processes,” according to the WasteWise Program website. Putting such goals into place are commendable indeed, but achieving them can come with their share of complexities.

Understanding Zero Waste

The term “zero waste” has come to mean different things to different people, businesses, and industries. However, the following definition created by the Zero Waste International Alliance is one often cited by experts: “Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.”

Finding new ways to look at the cycle of resources, extraction, use, and disposal so that no (or very limited) resources are wasted along the way is a big undertaking. But it isn’t impossible.

Subaru, for example, puts out an estimated 180,000 cars a year, yet their plants recycle or reuse 99.8 percent of the waste–trash that would otherwise end up in landfills. That’s less than the average family puts into landfills each day. Where Subaru is today with its sustainability efforts is a direct result of a 2002 challenge by its parent company to become zero-landfill by 2006.

Where to Start

Uncharted territory for most automakers, Subaru had a rough road ahead to pave. If you’re looking to reduce waste and implement a sustainability program in your own organization, you may be in for a bumpy ride of your own. But unlike the automaker had in 2002, resources and experts are now available to help smooth the way.

Mark Hope, CEO of Hazardous Waste Experts, is an expert on responding to commercial and industrial waste with an eye on the environment. “You no longer need to choose between doing what’s profitable for your organization and doing what’s sustainable for the Earth,” says Hope. “With expert guidance and innovative solutions, you can do both.”

When looking to move toward zero waste with your business, Hope suggests starting with the following:

  • Talk to employees. The first month in Subaru’s zero-waste challenge, employees were asked to submit ideas on how to meet the goal. More than 265 ideas came in focusing on eliminating unnecessary packaging pieces, and ways to reuse and recycle materials. There are no better people to ask for ideas than those who work with the materials and processes day in and day out.
  • Think small. Some may say that big ideas are the only way to achieve big goals, but it’s just the opposite when it comes to reducing waste. Sure, new technology and processes will certainly help, but sometimes just sorting the trash you make and understanding where it comes from and how it can be repurposed will get you to more milestones than you had imagined.
  • Get to know your trash. Define the waste you have–even it means emptying a dumpster on the ground and sorting what’s inside. Determine the sources of the waste and how much is being generated each day. Once you have a realistic view of the waste with which you’re working, you can then determine how it can be reused, eliminated, or conserved.
  • Plan ahead. If you know that waste generation is inevitable, look to create waste that you know can be reused or repurposed in specific ways.
  • Be creative. Approach waste from all angles and think outside the dumpster. If excess packaging is a problem, think about how it can be reused or returned to the vendor so that they can reuse it. Are there community organizations who could benefit from the cardboard or Styrofoam that your associates usually toss?

Achieving the EPA’s 90 percent threshold for zero waste won’t happen overnight, and no matter how long it takes, it won’t be easy. But making steps toward environmental stewardship is simply the right thing to do. Add in the benefits of eliminating unnecessary costs and maximizing your resources, and the time and effort to reach zero waste goals will all seem worth it in the end.

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Photo Credit: Katarina 2353 via Compfight cc

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