Feedback from Zero-Waste-to-Landfill workshop

December 13, 2011

Greetings my packaging and sustainability friends! Last week’s zero-waste-to-landfill (hereafter, ZWTL) workshop in Durham, North Carolina was totally awesome! It was so cool to be around fellow American manufacturers, and I have to say, I am completely floored by the industry’s enthusiasm for sustainable manufacturing processes. Perhaps I am biased, but I definitely think the North American manufacturing sector is blazing the way towards sustainability: Maybe this is because we are the ones who have the direct control over the resource inputs and waste outputs inherent in the manufacturing process; therefore, are able to monitor and reduce said consumption and emission habits more easily then those scattered throughout the various supply chains? Regardless of the reasons behind American manufacturers’ desire to become more sustainable—be it cost savings, positive PR, or a genuine commitment to doing “the right thing”—I am delighted by the application of these desires to real world sustainability efforts, like ZWTL.

The first speaker at the workshop was a representative from Heritage Interactive Services, which is “a wholly owned subsidiary of Heritage Environmental Services;” he was the project manager responsible for Subaru of Indiana achieving ZWTL. First off, in all honesty, I didn’t even know that ZWTL was literally possible—I thought it was a sexy goal but one that never came to full fruition insofar as there would always be a small waste stream as certain by-products of manufacturing processes are inherently without value and therefore can’t be resold for reprocessing/reuse without cost to the manufacturer; as such, achieving ZWTL in the truest sense of the word is counter-intuitive to business’s primary goal of increasing shareholder profit (good ole’ Milton Freidman) because it costs money better used towards increasing profit. But boy howdy was I wrong! Not only can manufacturers achieve ZWTL, but they can do so in a way that creates additional value not previously accounted for via rebates. While each company is different and what may work for one may not for another, the main take-away from the workshop was that while a ZWTL program may cost money initially, overtime it pays for itself, and ultimately, begins to create value for the company. Hopefully I will receive approval from Heritage Interactive Services to post the presentation to my blog so you can see how their ZWTL program for Subaru—while costing money initially—ended up creating value for their client.

I was also relieved to discover that other manufacturers had a problem with composting insofar as it is more complicated then throwing a bunch of organic matter in a pile and voila, resource-rich compost! While composting is a good approach to reducing organic waste sent to landfill, it is more tricky then assumed and requires the correct ingredients and conditions. Also, if you intend to use the compost for commercial reasons—be it selling or donating to other companies/organizations—there is a whole bunch of legal hoopla that needs to be considered. The representative from Heritage Interactive Services joked that achieving certification for their compost to be used commercially was more difficult then achieving ZWTL, ha! AND he said that 100% organic “waste” equates to about 8.4% compost, which means that a little compost comes out of a lot of waste, providing insight into why most industrial composters prefer organic matter to inorganic (ahem, “compostable” packaging)…

There were other manufacturers who presented on their journey towards ZWTL– Honda, Freightliner Custom Chassis, Burt’s Bees. All discussed similar approaches to implementing ZWTL programs: conducting waste audit (“if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”); diverting the “low-hanging fruit” first i.e. the “waste” with the highest rate of generation; separation at the source (“why sort twice?”); warehousing unrecyclables until the quantity necessary for economic sustainment is achieved; rewarding employees for their participation; engaging community partners; being creative about reducing and reusing (Subaru reused their EPS protective packaging seven times!); and, utilizing WTE for the “waste” without a home. Good stuff.

And for your viewing pleasure, a photo of yours truly BEFORE I conducted my first waste audit at Dordan last summer— my enthusiasm quickly dissipated as I sifted through the dumpster in 100 degree weather!

My next post will discuss feedback from the tour of Burt’s Bees, stay tuned!

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