The Taste of Zero Waste

What does the sustainability movement mean for the solid waste industry?

Bryan Staley, President

February 1, 2011

7 Min Read
The Taste of Zero Waste

It seems everybody these days has “gone green.” The sustainability movement has infiltrated the business models of nearly every industry in the United States, and many companies have set “zero waste” or other ambitious environmental goals. Likewise, dozens of municipalities and states have launched similarly aggressive initiatives.

So, what does this mean for the solid waste industry? Although it is too early for the answer to be entirely clear, the industry is likely on the verge of one of the largest paradigm shifts it has experienced in a long while.

Aiming High

CONVERTING THE DOMINANT PARADIGM?: With the sustainability movement growing, the solid waste industry is likely on the verge of one of the largest paradigm shifts it has experienced in a long while.

A review of Fortune 100 companies indicates the vast majority have established sustainability goals, many of which are strikingly similar, despite the diverse corporate landscape. For example, note the similarities in sustainability goals for three representative Fortune 100 companies from separate industries:

Wal-Mart — create zero waste, sell products that sustain people and the environment, and meet 100 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy.

Proctor & Gamble — send zero manufacturing and consumer waste to landfills, use 100 percent recyclable materials for all products and packaging, completely power its manufacturing plants with renewable energy, and have zero fossil-fuel-based carbon dioxide emissions.

Caterpillar — minimize the use of energy, materials, water and land; maximize recycling; optimize the use of renewable resources; and minimize emissions.

Increasingly, the public expects corporate America to adhere to a business model that not only seeks profit, but also considers the well-being of residents and the environment. More and more, corporate America is embracing the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR), or product stewardship, which says that a manufacturer bears some responsibility for what happens to its product at the end of its life. This means industries that produce or sell goods increasingly have a stake in what happens to their products after they leave their facility, and after a consumer purchases them.

Aggressive sustainability goals are by no means the sole province of corporate America. The city of Los Angeles, for example, has established a goal of a 70 percent landfill diversion rate by 2013, followed by a 90 percent diversion rate by 2025. San Francisco is aiming to send zero waste to landfills by 2020, and the state of Florida has set a goal of recycling 75 percent of its waste by the same year.

Collectively, the majority of sustainability goals that relate to solid waste can be grouped into four categories:

• Waste minimization
• Reduced carbon emissions (i.e, a smaller carbon footprint)
• Increased use of renewable energy or fuel
• Zero waste (i.e., no waste sent to landfills) and increased recycling or re-use of materials

Waste minimization simply means creating less waste in the first place. Examples of minimization include reducing packaging (e.g. smaller container sizes, minimal or no wrapping), or designing a product to reduce the volume of discards after consumption.

Reduced carbon emissions is a rather broad goal that can be applied to areas within the entire supply and disposal chain, such as the manufacturing process, product transport and end of life.

Renewable energy can include such sources as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass — which includes municipal solid waste (MSW), landfill gas, wood, biogas, biodiesel and ethanol. This goal applies not only to the selection of energy sources used for buildings and manufacturing processes, but also to the fuels used by fleets.

The concepts of sending zero waste to landfills and increased recycling or re-use are relatively self-explanatory. These goals seem primarily driven by a public perception that landfilling waste is not environmentally friendly and should not be part of a holistic waste management plan.

However, landfills, specifically the use of landfill gas, can be part of the sustainability equation. Additionally, the technology to recycle or re-use 100 percent of discarded materials currently does not exist. As a result, to meet a zero-landfill goal, some companies have asked their suppliers to take back residual materials, which are then likely sent to a landfill anyway. Until technologies have been developed to re-use or recycle all waste materials, landfills will most certainly play a role in sustainable waste management strategies.

Collectively, these four types of sustainability goals likely will impact the solid waste industry in a number of ways. As waste minimization goals are attained, this could result in a significant reduction in waste generation. In fact, based on data recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we may already be seeing this trend take hold. In 2009, waste generation in the United States decreased by 8 million tons when compared with 2008. Likewise, 2008’s total decreased by 4 million tons when compared with 2007.

While these recent numbers could largely reflect a down economy and the resulting reduced consumption, the waste minimization trend is no doubt increasing in momentum, and reduced or flat waste generation could be the new norm in the future.

Coupled with waste minimization and zero-landfill initiatives, a focus on increased recycling and re-use will create unique pressures within the industry. For example, increased diversion from landfills would result in less revenue from landfill tipping fees, which may pressure landfill owners to increase fees or develop additional revenue streams. This scenario would particularly affect mid-sized haulers since in many cases they offer collection and landfilling services but do not have recycling or composting facilities, waste-to-energy plants, or other non-landfill waste management facilities. Smaller haulers whose business model focuses primarily on collection may do fine since waste materials still need to be picked up and transported regardless of the end delivery point.

These trends also are creating pressures to innovate beyond the model of traditional waste management strategies. New technologies to convert waste into useful end products, such as pyrolysis and gasification, are being evaluated. New ways to re-use specific components within waste streams, such as Wal-Mart’s re-use of its plastic garment packaging, are being exploited.

Another result of sustainability goals is that waste management companies may begin to move “upstream.” In other words, more opportunities exist than ever before to integrate with waste generators. And concepts like extended producer responsibility have resulted in a vested interest in waste generators to swim “downstream” so they can be assured their waste streams are handled in a sustainable manner. Pepsi’s partnership with Waste Management to create the Dream Machine, a reverse vending machine that aims to boost beverage recycling rates, is one example of how waste generators and haulers are beginning to work together.

Already, many companies within the industry are responding to sustainability trends. Firms such as IESI-BFC, Waste Connections and Veolia have issued statements on their commitment to sustainability, and Republic Services notes that “being green is not just a philosophy; we’ve been doing it for years.” As part of its latest sustainability report, Waste Management indicated a significant shift in its business ideology moving forward, noting that “we no longer manage waste — we manage materials.”

To say the least, the years ahead will be interesting ones indeed for the solid waste industry.

Dr. Bryan Staley, P.E., is president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a non-profit foundation that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives to benefit industry participants and the communities they serve. He can be reached at [email protected].

Sidebar: Want to Know More About Sustainability Issues?

This 2011 WasteExpo conference program includes the “Feasibility of Alternative Waste-Based Energy Systems: Case Studies” and the “Open Discussion: Haulers’ Experiences with Hybrid and Alternative Fuel Vehicles” sessions. The former session will be held on Monday, May 9, from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.; the latter session will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. on the same day. Both sessions are part of the Alternative Energy Systems track.

Furthermore, WasteExpo also will feature a “Lunch-n-Learn” session titled “Extended Producer Responsibility: A Panel of Possibilities” from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10.

For complete information on these and other show events, visit

About the Author(s)

Bryan Staley

President, Environmental Research and Education Foundation

Bryan Staley, P.E., is president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a non-profit foundation that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives to benefit industry participants and the communities they serve.

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