Time for the Suits to Join the Sandals in Creating Zero Waste Communities

Time for the Suits to Join the Sandals in Creating Zero Waste Communities

Waste=Wasted Cash. That’s the first reason many large national companies want to become Zero Waste. Eliminating waste means becoming more efficient and saving money. But there’s more to gain than economic opportunity when a large national business goes for Zero Waste. It’s a chance to generate love and loyalty from consumers, to improve employee engagement, and to toot the company horn as a good environmental steward at a time when that is increasingly a customer value.

The U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) is full of success stories of large manufacturers who cut costs through Zero Waste initiatives and are recovering 90 percent or more of their discards. The USZWBC is also full of great resources to help your company get on board.

So if it’s been proven possible, what’s stopping all big companies from going down the Zero Waste road? Mostly it’s the challenges of actually diverting nearly all of their waste from landfills or incinerators. We all know how that is supposed to happen–recycling the normal stuff (paper, plastic, etc.), reusing office furniture and old equipment, composting food scraps and soiled paper, recycling the “hard to recycle” stuff like Styrofoam, pallet wrap, etc., and redesigning systems to eliminate the rest.

But I’ve heard firsthand from companies that going for Zero Waste in Middle America is nearly impossible–not for lack of will, but for lack of infrastructure. Being successful means having vendors that will take all your stuff, like a local recycling company or a thrift store. But what about composting facilities, furniture repair/reuse outlets and facilities for hard-to-recycle items?

In most places in America the “free market” has not created composting facilities or Centers for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM). This issue is actually part of a larger discussion about “sustainable urban infrastructure,” like bike paths, good bus service, and electric-car charging stations. We can now add to that list: Zero Waste infrastructure.

So what is an aspiring Zero Waste business to do when the local infrastructure doesn’t exist to support their goals? Assuming that the business isn’t going to build their own composting or CHaRM facility, it’s time for the business to lean in to the community and start advocating for community-wide Zero Waste policies and infrastructure.

Businesses generate half the waste in every community. They also shape the economics, reputation and culture of every community. Better community-wide services enable businesses to reach their own sustainability goals. And Zero Waste creates new business opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing service providers. It also engages employees and promotes corporate social responsibility efforts. It’s a win-win for both the community and the businesses.

Here are two successful examples of large companies with Zero Waste goals that helped drive community change:

  • Honda of America has transformed many of its operations into Zero Waste facilities, including its plant in Logan County, Ohio. The company’s commitment helped spur Logan County to become the first community in Ohio to adopt a Zero Waste goal. The county has since invested in a materials recovery facility (MRF) and a CHaRM, both model examples of Zero Waste infrastructure for rural communities.
  • General Motors’ work to achieve near-Zero Waste at 120+ facilities has taken a real commitment to finding local vendors and creative opportunities to repurpose its discards. Perhaps none is more inspiring than their partnership with The Empowerment Plan. The social enterprise utilizes GM’s scrap sound-proofing material to manufacture coats that unfold into sleeping bags to clothe the homeless, while also employing homeless in the manufacturing process.

These examples show both the business and the community benefit from a shared Zero Waste vision.

But the business community, and especially large national corporations, cannot achieve their in-house Zero Waste goals alone. They need their community to invest in the infrastructure and the supporting policies and programs, especially when it comes to composting and hard-to-recycle materials.

So how do businesses lobby City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce to advance Zero Waste policies and infrastructure? Businesses can’t do that alone, either. But they’ll find an unlikely, or previously unused, ally in the local environmental groups.

It may be rare for environmental groups and businesses to have a common vision, but when they do, they can make powerful change happen. Zero Waste creates that shared platform since a resource efficient economy is good for both business and the environment. If you haven’t read it yet, the author and businessman Paul Hawken made that point powerfully and clearly when he wrote his classic book “The Ecology of Commerce.” The book was ahead of its time, but now we’re catching up to the truth of it–that businesses cannot thrive in the context of a failing environment, and the mainstream business community in America is benefiting from its wisdom.

It is time for the suits to join the sandals and work together with local governments to prioritize community investments in recovery infrastructure. If corporations really are people, then it’s time they joined the grassroots in the push to build a Zero Waste Society.

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management since 1980.

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