Zero waste is enjoying a newfound spotlight in the business community, but it’s something that should’ve been standard practice a long time ago.
Pursuing zero waste means finding ways to use resources as efficiently as possible. It also means eliminating the materials sent by a company to the landfill. Discover some of the advantages — as well as tips — for achieving this vision.
Why Does Zero Waste Make Good Business Sense?
Can going zero waste be self-serving? It turns out that it can. Here are some of the reasons why every company should get more serious about zero waste.
Eliminating business waste means dramatically reducing hazardous discharges from landfills into the soil, air and waterways. Fewer toxins in the environment mean healthier human populations across the board — including, more than likely, fewer sick days taken by employees.
Doubling-down on recycling and reusing our waste creates 10 times as many jobs as waste disposal alone. From communities to nations, zero waste serves as an economic stimulus.
Waste management is a lucrative business for a reason. Companies that reduce or eliminate this line item from their budgets put themselves in a far better position to compete, no matter their industry.
It doesn’t make sense for companies to drag their feet on this issue. Consumer research has demonstrated for years that sustainable brands outperform those that haven’t made similar commitments. From post-consumer materials in products to biodegradable packaging, shoppers actively look for good environmental stewards when they make purchases.
Initiatives like onsite composting keep useful food waste out of landfills. They could also jump-start a company or community garden, creating a pro-social way to keep employees engaged and communities aware of your brand.
Even if companies choose to focus only on the cost savings, the rest is the icing on the cake. Switching to reusable products saves money over the long run. Reducing and eliminating waste even helps businesses save space they could put to more productive use.
How Can a Company Build a Zero Waste Strategy?
If you’re a business leader or decision-maker interested in zero waste, learn how to develop an effective and sound strategy.
The first step toward saving money through zero waste is to audit the company’s waste stream.
Subaru’s U.S. manufacturing plants haven’t sent any waste to landfills since May 2004 — a mission that began with a good-faith accounting of the company’s waste stream. This initiative includes action items such as:
- Identifying the amounts and types of waste generated within the company.
- Tracking waste from every facility and workstation over time.
- Determining appropriate receptacles for waste and finding out how frequently employees use them.
- Finding products that break down easily or ones companies can use multiple times.
The last point requires working with existing vendors or potentially finding new ones. Business partners all the way up the supply chain have a role to play here, no matter their function.
With the company’s waste stream accounted for, it’s time to assign an in-house group to oversee the zero-waste program. The job of this team is to help the company transition successfully, continue monitoring progress and research new opportunities to take things further. However, this team won’t be successful if they’re not working with the rest of the company to determine goals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses Austin, Texas, as an example of how communities and businesses can set and execute reasonable goals over time. Austin committed to a 20% reduction in solid waste sent to landfills by 2012, 75% by 2020 and 90% by 2040.
Companies must also cultivate buy-in from their workforce. Luckily, this isn’t very difficult these days. Research demonstrates that modern job-seekers prefer applying to companies that take environmental stewardship seriously. Achieving workforce buy-in begins with targeting eco-conscious applicants, which is exactly what General Motors does. The automaker has 152 zero-waste facilities, a feat they accomplished with community outreach and educating engineers and students about the methods and technology used to repurpose industrial waste and employ resources more effectively.
Ensuring Zero Waste Involves the Consumer
Ultimately, following through on zero waste means looking at every process and step in the supply chain. The job’s not through after the product reaches the consumer, for example. It’s essential to design packaging and products so that they’re easy to collect and send back to the factory for refurbishment or to be gifted or sold to a new owner.
Companies should also do more to ensure their products stand the test of time. Most consumers lament that it’s difficult to buy a product for life. Whether it’s a dishwasher or a pair of shoes, product design needs to take the long view instead of fixating on cutting costs and corners.
When a product’s time does finally arrive, let’s make sure consumers have options besides turning to landfills. Motorola once had a vision of a cell phone that, once it reached the end of its life, users could plant in the ground to grow their own sunflower. This concept is the kind of against-the-grain thinking that zero waste requires.
Implementing Your Own Zero Waste Business Strategy
Zero waste begins by cultivating an awareness of waste streams in the business community. However, following through properly means involving everybody that business touches.
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Nat Ryan says
We’ve recently started our new eco-friendly janitorial company and came across this article. I really appreciate you taking the time to educate us on this. I love that you not only outlined some of the reasons (very good ones, by the way) for businesses to implement zero waste strategies, but you also outlined steps to making that initiative a reality. Thanks so much.
Laurel Christine says
Great read and I love the reminder at the end where you say that the job isn’t through once the product reaches the consumer. Many times I think companies forget about the waste associated with the packaging of the product itself. So I think this is a great reminder to focus on that as well as all the other things mentioned to create a solid, zero-waste business strategy.
Laurel Christine (Laurel@byLaurelChristine.com)