Zero Waste, Zero Landfill and Role for Recycling

Businesses Work Towards Eliminating Solid Waste

Worker operating heavy machinery in a zero waste landfill.

franckreporter / Getty Images

Zero Waste embodies the goal of a closed-loop system that reuses resources rather than creating waste. According to the Zero Waste Alliance, Zero Waste includes:

  • Zero Solid Waste
  • Zero Hazardous Waste
  • Zero Toxins
  • Zero Emissions

This approach, according to the Zero Waste Alliance, argues that “the entire concept of waste should be eliminated. Instead, waste should be thought of as a “residual product” or simply a “potential resource” to counter our basic acceptance of waste as a normal course of events.”

Such an approach, Zero Waste Alliance continues, requires consideration of the entire life-cycle of products, processes, and systems within the context of a detailed understanding of our interactions with nature and a search for inefficiencies at all stages. In this respect, through better design of products and processes, the generation of waste can be avoided.

Zero Solid Waste or Zero Landfill

When companies talk about Zero Waste programs, they often mean this within the context of Zero Solid Waste or Zero Landfill initiatives, and this is most often where recycling industry partners enter the picture, providing an increased opportunity for diversion of waste to various recycling streams. For example, dock sweep or single-stream recycling providers can provide removal services for a broad array of common and exotic recyclable materials. The need for recycling, environmentalists argue, however, is a result of a poorly designed Zero Waste program which instead focuses on the creation of less material in the recycling stream through such factors as greater efficiencies and reusable packaging. A well designed Zero Landfill program would create less demand for the services of recyclers. It is important to consider packaging design.

Benefits of Zero Waste

Cost reduction. One of the key benefits of a Zero Waste initiative by businesses is the opportunity for cost reduction. This has been documented in many case studies. For example, the Zero Waste Alliance notes that:

  • Hewlett Packard in Roseville, California reduced its waste by 95% and saved $870,564 in 1998.
  • Epson in Portland, Oregon reduced waste to zero and has saved $300,000.
  • Interface, Inc. in Atlanta, GA has eliminated over $90M in waste.
  • Xerox Corp., Rochester, New York has had a Waste-Free Factory environmental performance goal since the early 1990s, with a savings of $45M in 1998.

Faster Progress. Zero Waste Alliance suggests that by nature of its visionary endpoint, Zero Waste leads to a more systematic approach than piecemeal initiatives around reduction in pollution or solid waste, which leads to faster progress towards sustainability.

Improved Material Flows. A Zero Waste approach results in the consumption of fewer new raw materials in production and the elimination of solid waste generation. For example, reusable packaging designed to improve material flows can improve ergonomics for material handlers or product presentation for robotic assembly. Reusable packaging is then reused, thereby eliminating the need to recycle expendable packaging. Likewise, the reintroduction of manufacturing scrap into the process is an important component of recycling, but when incoming parts such as metal stampings are redesigned, the amount of manufacturing scrap and the wasted resources involved in producing it are reduced.

Supports Sustainability. A Zero Waste strategy supports Triple Bottom Line sustainability goals of economic well-being, environmental protection, and social well-being. Economic well-being is enhanced by solid waste elimination and improved production efficiencies. Environmental protection is promoted through the consumption of less new raw materials from nature, and the elimination of waste materials returned to nature. Social well-being is heightened through improvements that better safeguard society’s scarce resources, as well as through the creation of new jobs in the “closed-loop” processing associated with the reuse and reprocessing of materials.

In the final analysis, Zero Waste is a visionary endpoint that encompasses a systems approach to design and material management. As a first step, Zero Landfill offers a substantial opportunity for partnering with recycling providers to help bring it to fruition.