Road to Zero

It seemed only fitting when, in the waning days of 2010, the General Mills food company announced that, as part of its sustainability plan, it is aiming to reduce its trash generation by 20 percent by 2015. The firm also is trying to slash its water and energy consumption, and its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next five years as well.

This year — and actually the past few years — have been chock full of news of generators and governments establishing ambitious sustainability and waste diversion goals. In March, the state of Ohio announced that it is aiming for a 50 percent landfill diversion rate. Earlier, Florida unveiled its goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020. The state’s recycling rate was last measured at less than 30 percent.

The electronics manufacturer Sony is seeking to have “zero environmental footprint” by 2050 (whatever that means) and, in the shorter term, is trying to cut its waste generation in half by the middle of this decade. Even WalMart is getting in on the act. Among its many environmental goals, the retail giant wants to stop sending trash to landfills by 2025. Its website says, “Our vision is to reach a day where there are no dumpsters behind our stores and clubs, and no landfills containing our throwaways. We want to create zero waste.” Sounds like a statement uttered in Haight Ashbury rather than one crafted by a company often considered the epitome of corporate America.

What does all of this mean for waste firms? Opportunities to serve customers in new ways. Earlier this year, when the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) announced its support of the zero-waste concept, NSWMA President and CEO Bruce Parker said, “Zero waste doesn’t mean ‘no trash,’ but rather, continuing to find economically achievable ways to treat as much waste as possible as a resource. … Trash haulers and other solid waste processors will still be needed to make it work.”

The solid waste industry is often portrayed as a slow-moving one, and Parker added, “It is important to recognize that the transition to zero waste will not be easy or quick,” noting that it took 18 years to double the national recycling rate from 16.2 percent in 1990 to 33.2 percent in 2008.

Indeed the move to a more sustainable waste management system is sure to be a long one, but the transition is clearly underway. The start of 2011 promises to be more than the beginning of a new year — it’s the beginning of a new era.