Industry Market Trends

If GM Can Do It... A Starter's Guide to Zero Waste

Oct 26, 2012

Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, CC BY-ND 2.0

Is zero waste to landfill really just a pipe dream for manufacturers? It would be depressing to think so, since industrial facilities in the United States pack 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste into land disposal units annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Zero waste to landfill (also known as zero waste), the concept of turning normally discarded industrial waste materials into resources for others to use, according to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), involves designing and managing products and processes to find ways to render them still usable after their useful lives instead of being destined for the landfill heap.

Returnable glass beer bottles make a good simple example. They're made out of sand, filled with a nice wheat beer and sold to consumers, who consume aforesaid beer and, instead of throwing the bottle in the trash, turn it in for a deposit. The bottle enters the recovery stream and is reused so that there isn't anything thrown away. Zero waste.

That's fine for something like beer bottles, but does zero waste work on an industrial level? The ZWIA website is the best place to get a grasp of zero waste for industrial settings. In 2005, the ZWIA's planning group devised 10 principles "to guide and evaluate current and future zero waste policies and programs established by businesses.

Having a list of defining principles is a good way to determine if zero waste is viable for your particular industry. In summary, if you are a certified ZWIA Zero Waste business, you can say that the following is true of you:

1. Commit to the triple bottom line. This means you have "social, environmental and economic performance standards" and are producing annual environmental or sustainability reports documenting how policies are implemented.

2. Use of the precautionary principle. You evaluate new products and processes as a sort of audit to determine the presence of anything wasteful or toxic.

3. Perform zero waste to landfill or incineration. This is the crux of what it means to be zero waste. It's not a hard figure, since if you divert from landfill at least 90 percent of the solid wastes you generate, i.e., if less than 10 percent of your discarded materials ends up in the landfill, then you're zero waste, according to the ZWIA.

4. Manage products and packaging responsibly. You and your suppliers take "financial or physical responsibility for all of the products and packaging" produced. This involves working with reuse, recycling and composting operators or finding other ways to get your disposed packaging and products back to your manufacturing facilities. You also incorporate reuse as a design criteria for all new products.

5. Buy reused, recycled & composted materials. If you're ZWIA-backed Zero Waste, you use recycled content and compost products across your entire operation, including production facilities, offices and the construction of new facilities. You buy reused products when available and "make your excess inventory of equipment and products available for reuse by others."

6. Prevent pollution and reduce waste. A zero waste manufacturer designs or redesigns their systems and continually assesses them to reduce the use of natural resources and eliminate waste, and notifies consumers of any products that contain materials with "known or suspected adverse human health or negative environmental impacts" -- and then look for ways to get rid of them.

7. Employ at least one of several levels of product reuse. There is a hierarchy of actions to take in the ZWIA zero waste continuum. At the top -- the best option -- is the reuse of the product for its original purpose, such as washing bottles and refilling them. Next is reusing products for an alternate purpose, followed by reusing some parts of the product and then reusing some of the materials. One rung lower is sustainable recycling of inorganic materials in closed-loop systems, followed by such options as composting of organic materials and mulching.

8. Offer economic incentives for customers and suppliers. A significant part of any successful zero waste program is economically incentivizing stakeholders to "eliminate waste and maximize the reuse, recycling and composting of discarded materials through economic incentives and a holistic systems analysis."

9. Sell products or services that are not wasteful or toxic. This requires regular evaluation, and if you do find anything toxic or wasteful, you work on ways to develop alternatives to eliminate those products. You don't use products with "persistent organic pollutants (POPs), PVC or polystyrene." If you're really doing zero waste right, you design your products to be easily disassembled to encourage reuse and repair, and phase out the use of unsustainable materials.

10. Use non-toxic production, reuse and recycling processes. If you're Zero Waste as deemed by ZWIA, you're also making sure that "any materials exported to other countries with lower environmental standards are managed according to the Best International Practice as recommended by the organization.

How did you do with this list? Did you determine that going to zero waste is a pipe dream for you (let's hope not)? Or did you conclude that you can get started or just need to work a little harder?

To put zero waste in perspective, it is not a movement by some New Age basket-weaving companies in Vermont and New Zealand. General Motors has made a fairly high-profile commitment to zero waste. According to Environmental Leader, the carmaker has turned more than half of its manufacturing plants into landfill-free facilities, while zero-waste best practices have helped the company turn its own waste byproducts into a $1 billion/yr revenue generator.

If you want a closer look at how zero waste can be achieved in the real world, a downloadable blueprint, "The Business Case for Zero Waste," is available.

GM claims to recycle 90 percent of its worldwide manufacturing waste and have 102 landfill-free facilities. In 2005, it started its pursuit of landfill-free facilities in the U.S. Environmental Leader reported, "It invested about $10 for every ton of waste reduced. GM has cut its program costs by 92 percent and reduced total waste by 62 percent."

According to Environmental Leader, the carmaker's officials estimated that the company generated $2.5 billion in revenue between 2007 and 2010 through recycling activities. "GM estimates its annual byproduct recycling and reuse revenue is now about $1 billion a year," the report noted.

So this was not some nickel-and-dime PR stunt. GM concluded that there were serious efficiencies to be had in zero waste, in addition to the benefits for Mother Nature.

Part of GM's approach was to consider all byproducts "as useful and marketable." In the report, Mike Robinson, GM's vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, acknowledged that there were upfront costs to going to zero waste, saying, "It's important to be patient as those upfront costs decrease in time, and recycling revenues will help offset them."

Over time, GM has reduced program costs by 92 percent and total waste by 62 percent.

If GM can do it, can't you?