Written by: Dallas Terry

Edited and Published by: William Billeaud

While it’s true that employing a sustainable waste management plan will improve a firm’s bottom line, it takes knowledge and a sense of innovation to recognize the many benefits of employing a zero waste business. As a multidisciplinary field that entails aspects of conventional economics, chemicals engineering, and ecology, sustainable waste management opportunities can certainly be difficult to tackle. Companies and waste management professionals, however, are finding ways to work together to make major impacts on waste diversion and saving big money in the process.

waste management pyramid








Waste Management Pyramid, Source: arla.com 

Advanced companies today are seeking not only to reduce, reuse and recycle common waste streams such as organics, yard waste, metals, glass, plastic, and paper. Indeed, with the help of industry professionals, they are identifying unique ways to divert more of those waste streams. This reduces emissions and avoids costs otherwise associated with their disposal. The progress being made is inspiring the leaders to set goals of becoming zero waste producers. Zero waste, at its basis, is a strategy that diverts all waste generated. The official definition was developed by the working group of the Zero Waste International Alliance in 2004:

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary. It guides people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. 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. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

For organizations, this will entail a combination of redesigning products, services and processes, reducing material consumption, packaging and procurement requirements, reusing scrap, materials, and then packaging, recycling, composting, or upcycling where possible.

Recycled Bottles








Unique Use for Recycled Bottles, Source: http://how-to-recycle.blogspot.com


Understand Your Waste Streams

One common phrase in the waste management industry is “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” and addresses the importance of obtaining a proper understanding of one’s waste streams before attempting to handle them in creative ways. Thus, when rethinking a waste management strategy, one should first conduct a waste audit to collect data on the volume, make-up, source, destination and impacts of the waste generated by the organization. Afterwards, a company can conduct meaningful analysis on the potential costs and benefits of waste stream dispositions via alternative methods. For example, in some cases it may make more economic sense to invest in an industrial scale compost operation for yard and food waste rather than investing in biogas or anaerobic digester technologies. In other cases, large enough quantities of recyclable materials may justify exploration into potential sales contracts with organizations which can use those materials for their own manufacturing processes.

One of the most powerful aspects of sustainable waste management is the potential for obtaining multiple environmental benefits from a reduction in both solid waste volume in the landfill, and resulting air emissions. The methane that landfills emit is a potent green house gas, 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and a contributor towards climate change. In order to capture economic opportunity and reduce the impact of landfill methane gases, some companies are developing landfill gas energy systems that capture and utilize the methane for electricity generation, conversion into natural gas, and other uses.


Biogas diagram








Biogas Diagram, Source: www.geopowerenergy.com

Others are collecting waste streams that are otherwise destined for the landfill and using them in other types of systems such as anaerobic digestors, which are even more efficient at converting waste feed stocks into usable energy or fuels. This prevents the waste streams from entering the landfill in the first place, and also offsets the costs associated with their transportation, handling, etc.

It is clear that greater diversion of waste from landfills is critical, especially with regards to packaging materials, which are considered one of the biggest contributors towards landfill volume. According to the IMFA Foundation’s waste stream management guide, about one third of an average landfill is filled with packaging material. This represents a major opportunity for products to be redesigned to use less packaging material and increase diversion rates, not to mention the potential savings on materials, energy, and water.

Some basic strategies for dealing with packaging waste streams include:

1. Using more flexible packaging materials instead of rigid packaging. This can allow for substantial quantities of energy to be saved, since flexible packaging typically takes less energy to make and transport.
2. Buying goods in bulk forms, to reduce transportation and packaging costs, and packaging waste volumes.
3. Designing products with the highest ratio of product weight to packaging weight whenever possible.

Hazardous Wastes

Hazardous wastes make up an increasing portion of the overall quantity of waste generated. Hazardous wastes are classified as wastes that are ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic, and can include such items as batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, cathode ray tubes, used oils, pesticides, solvents, and mercury containing devices. The benefits of properly dealing with hazardous wastes are obvious, and the health, regulatory, and environmental issues should be well understood by every organization.

Some of the same economic opportunities that exist with non hazardous waste materials may be available to hazardous waste producers, including combustion, gasification, or pyrolysis for energy recovery, use constituting disposal (i.e. application on fields as a fertilizer), and reclamation of valuable items (i.e. recovery of precious metals). They should be well thought out to ensure that the alternative means of disposal adhere to regulations and proper environmental stewardship. As an example, the concept of landfill mining for precious metals such as gold and silver contained in e-waste (i.e. smart phones, iPads, notebooks, PC’s, etc.) is growing in popularity, as the recovery of those metals from such discarded e-waste is said to be worth some $21 billion per year.


Smart Phone pile











E-Waste, Source: wired.com

The Economic Case

The potential savings and opportunities for revenue generation associated with sustainable waste management and especially with zero waste initiatives can vary substantially. Naturally, as is common with other sustainable systems (i.e. renewable energy systems), zero and/or sustainable waste strategies can have high upfront costs (i.e. single stream recycling equipment), but make economic sense when viewed from a life cycle costing perspective, and many investments can offer a quick payback. On the other hand many initiatives do not require any capital investment and offer major cost savings opportunities such as reduced tipping fees, taxes, storage and transportation requirements. Organizations that do nothing such as not recycling or selling waste for salvage face the cost of lost opportunities.

In 2012 average tipping fees were recorded at $45.02/ton, up 3.5 percent from 2011 according to the Waste Business Journal. To get a sense of the potential savings, consider that in recent years the average person in the U.S. generated around 4.4 pounds of waste (.0022 tons) a year? At a tipping fee of $45.02/ton, and a U.S. population around 313,000,000, that’s equal to $31,000,772 USD in tipping fees. A large portion of such costs can be offset by sustainable waste management techniques.

To see how major companies are rethinking waste, we can look to Coca Cola’s development of a sugarcane ethanol based PET (polyethylene terephthalate) see “PlantBottle for its own products as well as for others. Coke has teamed up with other brand names including Ford, Heinz, Nike, and Proctor and Gamble to develop the product into a viable bio-based alternative to traditional PET.

For an example of closed looped systems in action, we can look to a Starbucks recycling initiative, in which it collected and transported its cups from its Chicago stores to a recycling facility in Green Bay, WI, to be reprocessed into napkins to be used at its stores.

When it comes to zero waste, many companies have been committing to goals, with some already diverting all waste from various manufacturing plants, including such multinationals as Proctor and Gamble, General Motors, Kraft, and others. What may sound like a thing of the future is already well underway, and any organization that chooses to delay the exploration of sustainable and zero waste initiatives until later is missing out on very large tangible profits and potentially even larger intangible profits as a result of global reputation risk.