Smarter Business: Smart Design

paper waste

Photo: Jason Fulford/Flickr

If you pay a waste hauler thousands of dollars a year to take your business’ trash to landfill, you might want to listen to Jeffery Baldassari. He’s CEO of The Taylor Companies, an Ohio-based office furniture manufacturer, and waste reduction initiatives save his company in Bedford over $20,000 a year.

“You know that phrase one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?” said Baldassari. “You just got to find the guy who wants your trash.”

Minimizing and redirecting waste makes a lot of sense. It can help businesses streamline operations, save money and lessen their environmental impact. Increasingly, however, industry leaders are moving beyond recycling and setting their sights on a higher standard. It’s called the ‘zero waste’ business model. It calls on companies to reduce as much waste as possible during production, then reuse and recycle what can’t be avoided until waste is eliminated altogether.

Ideally, a zero waste business would address every aspect of its waste stream, including wasted water and energy, in order to maximize production efficiency as well as eliminate pollution and toxics. It would take into account the life cycle of all inputs and outputs, and think about consumer behavior.

It’s a big challenge, and companies that aim for zero know that they may never reach that goal. Yet the uncertainty becomes a source of motivation, fueling waste reduction, thoughtful procurement and constant innovation, not to mention boosting revenue.

For The Taylor Companies, a simple manufacturing need led to a zero waste epiphany. The Bedford, Ohio facility needed to dispose of large amounts of sawdust, and local horse farms needed sawdust as a raw material for composting. By connecting with local farmers, The Taylor Companies simultaneously cut waste hauling costs and hit upon a new source of revenue.

 “We thought, wow! We just saved $6,000 a year,” Baldassari recalled. “That was easy! Let’s start saving money on other waste categories.”

The Ohio factory expanded recycling and composting efforts, began reusing scrap materials and partnered with a leather goods company willing to pay $900 a year for leather scraps. Today, The Taylor Companies has achieved 90% waste diversion at its Ohio facility and 60% at its California facility. It has also made significant steps to reduce energy use at both facilities. All told, The Taylor Company’s zero waste efforts now save the company $135,000 a year across both facilities.

Between the savings and the public relations benefits, “[zero waste] makes good business sense,” said Holly Elmore, Director of Atlanta, Georgia’s Zero Waste Zone.

Scaling Up

Atlanta’s downtown convention district made a zero waste commitment in 2008, after losing a major convention to Orlando, Florida because Orlando was considered more eco-friendly. Zone members recycle common recyclables, donate and compost food waste, and collect spent grease for biofuel production. Companies rushed to participate, Elmore said, and Atlanta has become a hotspot for eco-friendly events. Four separate Zones now operate in Atlanta, and membership criteria will soon expand to address energy and water conservation.

Despite the success of Zero Waste programs, experts caution that minimizing and redirecting waste can be easier for some businesses than others. Food vendors, like grocery stores and restaurants, can easily slash their environmental impact by sending food scraps to composting facilities, said Dale Eckhart of the Boulder, Colorado nonprofit Ecocycle. Manufacturers can connect with other businesses that will pay for their discards.

However, franchises that lack autonomy and businesses that produce nontraditional wastes face more of a challenge. Corporate red tape can make it tough for local branches to connect with the right partners. Some businesses cannot negotiate with their suppliers, some cannot easily make their production processes more efficient, and some may not be located near a recycling or disposal facility that serves their needs.

Still, “you don’t go from zero diversion to 90% overnight,” Baldassari said. With a little creativity, patience and expert assistance, progress becomes possible and can start at any level of an organization.

Getting Started

Companies need to begin with a self-assessment that encompasses both inputs and outputs. First, says Eckhart, “you’ve got to buy the right thing upfront. Then you’ve got to ask, who will take it when I’m done with it?”

Self-assessment can also point out procurement inefficiencies—and money-saving opportunities. “When you start focusing on what you’re throwing out, you realize that you didn’t need to buy all that!” Elmore said.

Low-hanging fruit include organic waste and packaging. According to EPA statistics, organic trash like paper, food and yard waste makes up over half the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream. When MSW is broken down by category, containers and packaging account for roughly 31% of the total. Composting, choosing recyclable inputs, redesigning packaging and asking suppliers to do the same can prevent a lot of waste from going to landfill.

Finding a compost hauler may be easier than you think. Rising demand, both from consumers and from businesses, has spurred the expansion of municipal programs. In Santa Barbara, California, two Albertsons supermarkets worked with the local government to establish a citywide composting program, Environmental Management and Energy News reports. Thanks to Albertsons, the city will compost four million pounds of food scraps in 2010 alone.

Focus on “incremental changes”, Baldassari advises, rather than trying too much at once. And don’t get discouraged. Even businesses that struggle to reduce their solid waste stream may be able to make inroads in energy, toxics or water conservation. 

Finally, companies benefit from membership in a local sustainable business network or recycling coalition. Members gain access to waste reduction expertise, and can come together to review best practices, ask for advice and gain inspiration.

 “Peer-to-peer conversations really get you to the next level,” Baldassari said. When it comes to sustainability, “there’s no template out there. You’re not looking in the rearview mirror like most issues in business—you’re looking out the windshield!”

last revised 8/22/2011

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