How to Achieve Zero Waste in Your Business

Basic Steps Towards Eliminating Waste for Your Company

Achieving Zero Waste is a much larger aspiration than eliminating trash. It involves all types of waste. Paul Bradbury, Getty Images

With the cost of waste disposal rising every year along with the green aspirations of customers, businesses large and small alike are looking to reduce the amount of waste they generate. In fact, achieving Zero Waste, or at least a component of it, Zero Landfill, has become a popular business objective for businesses of all sizes and types.

What Is a Zero Waste Business?

According to Zero Waste International Alliance, "Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide 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."

Why Be a Zero Waste Business?

Being a Zero Waste business has multiple benefits. Firstly, it can save your business the cost of waste management and disposal as well as the regulatory complications that can accompany emissions and waste generation. Secondly, you can brand and market your business as a “Green Business.” Customers increasingly want to see tangible proof of environmentally responsible operation of businesses they support. Becoming a Zero Waste company can help you build trust with customers, trading partners, and local communities.

You may also be interested in achieving Zero Landfill to keep pace with competitors. Also related to competitive advantage, eliminating waste production in your operation can improve the material flow and lower costs in your business--critical to strategies such as Lean Manufacturing. Thus, avoiding and eliminating waste can help the bottom line of your business in several ways.

Steps to Achieve Zero Waste

Following are some of the measures you can take to achieve Zero Waste in your business:

Assess Your Company’s Current Waste Management and Disposal

An important first step is to audit your current waste generation to establish a baseline to track your future progress. Determine the sources, types and volumes of trash being generated in your business, and if it is being placed in the right containers. Investigate if you have enough recycling or waste collection bins available and positioned for best results. For example, if a recycling bin is located further away than a conveniently positioned trash bin, busy workers might be motivated to toss recyclables into the garbage. The primary objective of this step is to understand the waste stream that your business generates.

A professional waste audit is a detailed analysis of waste generation, management, and disposal of a business during a given period. It involves categorizing waste types and sources, as well as collecting, sorting, weighing and recording them. It also includes identifying which items are being recycled and which ones are going to the landfill. Businesses need to develop a thorough understanding of their waste stream to efficiently manage it. 

Designate a Waste Management Champion or Team

Depending on the size of your company, you may wish to select a champion or cross-functional team to investigate your current situation, identify goals, and generate an implementation plan. A cross-functional team has been proven effective in enhancing communication and commitment in medium and large business settings. Use a project management approach to help ensure that the initiative stays on pace as well as on budget. 

Go After the Low-Hanging Fruit and Build Momentum

After the waste audit, it should be easier to determine what waste items you can eliminate right away--the proverbial "low hanging fruit." Talk to your employees about how the items that are going into the trash can be efficiently recycled, reused or composted. Most importantly, you may identify some items that are going into garbage bins that can be diverted right away. Other quick wins can be made through simple steps to reduce energy consumption such as switching off lights, upgrading lighting systems, or keeping doors and windows closed to improve heating or refrigeration efficiency. 

Set Specific Waste Reduction Goals

Some goals will be realized more quickly than others. For example, requesting suppliers to convert to a reusable packaging system to eliminate the generation of packaging waste may take months to coordinate, while changing inputs to include recycled or remanufactured content, for example, might take a longer timeframe to realize. Creating a monthly or yearly goal can be a great way to ensure you are on track to become a Zero Waste business. Such measures provide necessary feedback for taking corrective actions if needed. Short term goal achievement is also an excellent way to generate enthusiasm among employees and customers and signal to other stakeholders your resolve towards eliminating waste. 

Engage Employees in Zero Waste Goal Attainment

After setting goals you or your team needs to establish and follow specific strategies. Engaging employees is one of the most important steps in implementing policies. Raising employee awareness in conjunction with providing the training and resources needed to succeed are essential steps of your Zero Waste journey. Ultimately, your perspective should shift from waste reduction to resource conservation. 

Develop Waste Prevention and Reduction Strategies

Once you have set waste reduction goals, implement appropriate strategies and actions to achieve them. Waste diversion, waste reduction, and waste prevention are the three most important approaches. Waste reduction and prevention can be challenging to achieve. They can require collaboration with suppliers and possibly other supply chain stakeholders. Here are some proven waste reduction approaches:

  • Improve Energy Efficiency and Reduce Carbon Footprint: A number of steps can be taken to reduce energy consumption, such as switching off lights and equipment when not in use, installing occupancy sensors, considering green energy providers or installing microgeneration capacity, taking steps to optimize your heating or refrigeration systems (moderate the temperature setting, upgrade door seals and insulation, and turn off when not needed.) Beyond the business location, energy efficiency opportunities can extend to the greening of supply chain practices, and for employees, carpooling initiatives, the use of public transit or other greener commuting options.
  • Make Use of Reusable Packaging: Packaging materials account for one of the largest portions of waste generated. Where reverse logistics is feasible, consider switching to reusable alternatives for pallets or containers. Also, pooled solutions are increasingly being looked at as an opportunity to use high-quality reusable pallets and containers on a cost-per-use basis that is competitive with purchasing lesser quality expendable solutions.
  • Pay Attention to Unit Load Design and Packaging Reduction Opportunities: Unit Load design refers to a holistic approach of optimizing the shipment of goods. The unit load comprises three interactive elements, including the packaged product, the underlying pallet and finally, the stabilizer (such as stretch wrap or banding). By understanding the interactions among these components, material and cost reduction opportunities may emerge. In some cases, for example, the introduction of a stiffer pallet or modified stacking patterns can result in the need for less packaging. Unit load analysis can lead to the identification of several opportunities to reduce waste from the supply chain.
  • Composting and Anaerobic Digestion: Composting or anaerobic digestion can play a significant role in achieving Zero Waste for many companies. Such approaches can benefit any business looking to divert troublesome lunchroom waste or soiled paper towels from the trash Such an emphasis can be of much greater importance for larger generators of organic waste such as food processors or retailers. Options include onsite treatment of organics or partnering with an organic material provider. One large grocery retailer has introduced an anaerobic digestion system to generate methane as an alternative fuel for its vehicles.
  • Specify Recycled or Natural Content: Many companies are looking to promote waste reduction through the use of recycled or naturally sourced materials that improve the overall demand for recycled materials, thereby helping build the financial viability of recycling, while reducing the need for virgin material. Recycled material may also offer cost savings over virgin material.
  • Consider the Redesign of Products and Equipment: Beyond landfill diversion, your Zero Waste aspirations should extend to the elimination of waste in the production of goods and the consumption of your products. Products are increasingly being designed with recycling and even prolonged reuse in mind. Solutions range from compostable packaging for food items to 'product as a service' models for durable goods which can be recovered and refurbished or recycled by the producer when they are no longer required by the customer. 

In the final analysis, achieving Zero Waste is a goal that encompasses much more than diverting trash to the recycling bin, but diversion is still a perfect place from which to launch your initiative.