The Sustainability Buzz

Getting to Zero Waste: More Than Materials

Trash can squeezed by measuring tapeTruth be told, almost everyone sees the value in eliminating waste.  As the late Ray Anderson puts it in his book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, “No CEO likes the idea of leaving profits on the factory floor.  No facilities manager wants to toss good money into the Dumpster…Cutting waste is the first place where the economic risks of a bloated environmental footprint can be transformed into profitable opportunities.”

Even if they’re not completely on board with the concept of sustainability, most executives understand that cutting back on waste just makes good economic sense. However, where most companies fall short of realizing the true benefits of waste reduction and recycling is in their goal-setting and execution. Sticking a few recycling bins in the lunchroom and corporate offices is a step in the right direction, but it’s not going to generate those “profitable opportunities” Anderson speaks about. At iSpring, we’ve seen the future, and the future is Zero Waste.

When we think of waste, we usually think of materials, but waste is more pervasive than that. At Interface, Anderson’s carpet company, they counted all fossil fuel use as waste to be eliminated. And they didn’t stop there. They went on to define nonproductive costs and activities, like a misdirected shipment or an incorrect invoice, as waste, too. Waste is everywhere, and attacking it aggressively can yield real savings, both environmental and financial. From 1994 to 2008, Interface avoided $405 million of costs by attacking waste.

We know what you’re thinking at this point. Zero waste is delightful in theory, but the reality is that you simply can’t eliminate all waste, especially from a manufacturing operation. Conventional wisdom has held that some waste is inherent in operations and therefore acceptable or allowable. Zero waste turns that concept on its head by redefining waste as a resource for some other process. In practice, zero waste measures everything against the simple standard of perfection. Companies like Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, Toyota and Kraft Foods are already moving aggressively in the direction of zero waste. And just to prove it is possible, Kraft Foods’ Lehigh Valley plant became landfill-free in 2010, meaning that all of the “waste” they create is reused, recycled or used to generate energy.

But don’t feel overwhelmed. If your organization is like most, you probably have a long way to go towards zero waste. How do you get started?  Here are the main steps:

  • Define waste and apply that definition universally. As Anderson says, “Reject the temptation to include any allowable waste in your definition.” Look beyond materials in crafting your definition.  Some of your biggest opportunities for eliminating waste and generating savings may be in the areas of energy, water or administration.
  • Set up a process to measure waste accurately and fairly. Make sure you are measuring waste the same way from facility to facility, such as per unit of output, so that you can be sure your improvement results mean the same thing.
  • Establish a baseline and set annual, year-on-year goals that are achievable but challenging. Use percentages instead of absolute numbers to allow for different initial base cases at different facilities.
  • Track progress and post results for everyone to see. This is critical.  It’s important for all personnel to see how their behaviors are helping the company achieve its goals.  Incentive-based programs that reward team members who present good ideas for reducing waste can also help engage personnel in the process.

While it may not be sexy, like installing solar panels on your roof, shedding waste makes every subsequent step you take towards sustainability that much easier.  Eliminating waste, and saving the money associated with wasteful operations, is the way to find cash to fund all of those cool sustainability projects that require capital. Remember: the greenest (and cheapest) dumpster is the one you never fill.

© 2008-2018 iSpring Associates - Site designed, built and maintained by iSpring Associates.