Zero-Waste Manufacturing Propelled by Bottom-Line Benefits, Resource Tightness
When it comes to going green, you hear the word “zero” a lot. Zero net energy. Zero emissions. Zero waste. Expect to hear more about the latter, and for good reason: The world’s landfills are bursting at the seams, and the problem is only expected to get worse.
Once upon a time, we bought goods with the expectation that they would last; cars, appliances, televisions and telephones were prized for their ability to endure. We now buy these items based on their desirability, not their durability. We’ve been conditioned to accept that they last only a few years and eagerly replace them with something more exciting.
The problem is that we’re running out of places to throw things away. Given that the average American tosses out nearly 1,600 pounds of trash each year and the rest of the developed world isn’t far behind, it becomes obvious that the “buy and throw away” mentality is unsustainable.
It’s not just the end-products that we throw away. It’s the waste we produce from the products’ entire production life cycles, which likely far exceeds the mass of the products themselves. This has led to a concept called zero-waste manufacturing, as more companies are vowing to reduce the amount of waste they produce from their manufacturing processes to virtually nothing.
It’s neither just a feel-good strategy that looks terrific on press releases and in annual reports nor some kind of feeling of responsibility about pollution and climate change. It’s increasingly about the scarcity and cost of resources. This is what’s creating the momentum behind innovations that are allowing companies to recycle nearly every bit of waste produced in manufacturing. Ultimately, these innovations are driving cost savings and energy efficiency.
In other words, zero waste is good business.
Leading Companies Tackle Zero Waste Their Own Ways
Many companies are building the idea of zero waste into their corporate sustainability programs. Many of these companies are finding that it’s not only feasible, but profitable. In recent years, a number of companies, among them Toshiba, Toyota, GM, Epson, HP and even Walmart, announced goals of zero waste in certain business sectors.
GM has made impressive efforts, today operating 76 zero-waste manufacturing facilities and 10 zero-waste non-manufacturing sites around the world. The company says the key to achieving zero waste has been a rigorous effort to track every bit of leftover material and setting goals to hold individual plants accountable, as reported by GreenBiz. The company uses “plant scorecards” that track the facilities’ goals, and achievement of these goals is directly linked to plant manager performance evaluations.
The key, says GM, is to tie waste directly to revenue. In the report, John Bradburn, GM’s manager of waste-reduction efforts, said that tying revenue to various waste streams tends to generate more stakeholder interest and helps approach waste reduction from a financial perspective.
DuPont has managed to achieve zero manufacturing waste in one of its divisions. The company’s Building Innovations unit, which produces its Corian solid surfaces, Zodiaq quartz surfaces and Tyvek weatherization products and geosynthetic textiles, reuses and recycles manufacturing byproducts in their entirety. Within three years, the unit reduced its annual environmental footprint from 81 million pounds of landfill waste to zero.
DuPont recycles sanding waste from the production of Corian and Zodiaq into a filler replacement in concrete, and crushed scrap Corian is sold for use as road sub-base material and landscape stone. Trim from Tyvek wrap and flashing manufacturing is recycled back into first-grade material for other products. Shipping pallets are repaired, reused or ground into animal bedding, carrier belt film is melted and used to make adhesives and cafeteria waste is recycled into worm bedding or converted into energy.
Another company, Freudenberg North America, a division of a German multinational company, recently announced a drive to achieve zero manufacturing waste in 16 of its subsidiaries. The company plans to accomplish it through industrial processes that focus on recycled product content, plant recycling, lower water and energy consumption and greater use of sustainable materials over the next decade, it said. Freudenberg, which produces everything from consumer cleaning products to medical devices to construction materials, says zero-waste manufacturing requires rethinking everything from product design and raw material use to manufacturing processes, procurement, packaging, distribution, delivery and customer relations.
“In the past, we have successfully issued challenges to our manufacturing facilities to achieve zero defects and zero accidents,” said Martin Stark of Freudenberg’s management board. “We are now issuing a challenge to achieve zero manufacturing waste. The trends driving our business today mandate this kind of response if we are to maintain long-term growth and profitability.”
Setting the Standards for Zero Waste
It’s important to note that some of the efforts of U.S. companies – particularly those of Walmart – have been denounced as
greenwashing. Walmart’s critics allege that while the uber-retailer has spoken about both renewable energy and zero manufacturing waste goals, it has done little toward attaining them.
So as zero-waste claims become more common, how do we know that they’re the truth? Green activists and consumer protection groups have suggested that sustainable manufacturing today needs a type of third-party certification for waste management. As of right now, claims of zero waste go largely unchecked.
Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the independent product safety certification organization, has stepped in and developed a process to validate the methods that companies are using to minimize or eliminate entirely their amount of landfill waste, touching on everything from energy creation through waste incineration to recycling and composting. In addition, UL plans to roll out new policies that address landfill waste reduction.
Angela Griffiths, director of operations for UL Environment, a business unit of UL, says there is a powerful need for this type of third-party certification. “We found that when it comes to standards in zero waste, there’s not a lot of consistency across the board,” Griffiths said. “There are no federal standards, for example.”
UL plans to offer certification at different levels. First, companies that achieve a landfill diversion rate of 100 percent will qualify for “Zero Waste to Landfill” validation. Second, companies that achieve a diversion rate of 98 percent or greater will qualify for “Virtually Zero Waste to Landfill” validation. Finally, those companies that achieve a diversion rate of 80 percent or greater will qualify for “Landfill Waste Diversion” validation.
“In reality, zero waste may mean different things to different companies,” said Bill Hoffman, an environmental scientist of green chemistry at UL Environment. “Sometimes, it’s 10 percent of waste that’s going into landfills, sometimes it’s all of the waste. We hope that by offering our validations, we are giving some consistency to the marketplace.”
By doing so, according to Hoffman, UL says it hopes to help create a stronger market for recycled manufacturing materials.
“One company’s waste is another company’s raw material,” he said.
Analysts agree, and some have called the concept of zero-waste manufacturing the next industrial revolution.
“Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy,” wrote Marc Gunther in Fortune in 2007. The goal, according to Gunther, is to mimic biology, where one species’ excrement is another’s sustenance.
The point, as sustainability advocate say, is not only to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the entire concept of waste.