As of 2018, the United States produced the most waste in the world, weighing in at 5.6 pounds per capita daily, or over 1 ton annually. The scarier part of this story is that less than 25% of the waste is recycled.
As a result, landfills are growing at an exponential rate with significant side effects. They emit carbon dioxide, methane, and volatile organic compounds, which not only perpetuate climate change, but have the potential to contaminate local ecosystems.
Clearly, as a society we need to make a change and implement solutions to reduce waste production. Luckily, in recent years this movement has been slowly gaining momentum. When this idea is applied to waste producers, like businesses or individuals, it is termed Net-Zero Waste.
Net-zero waste is an important net-zero target that is particularly relevant in sectors that produce physical products, like manufacturing. Unlike net-zero emissions and renewable energy, there is no way to eliminate physical waste production completely. In reality, net-zero waste is net-zero waste to landfill. This means zero waste is entering a landfill and is instead being reused or recycled.
Net-zero waste is achievable by large and small businesses alike. For example, Fortune 500 company Unilever reached net-zero waste status in 2014. Unilever has largely attributed its success to the “four R approach” – reducing reusing, recycling, and recovering waste. This is the same approach used by countless small businesses, just on a much smaller scale.
While it does sound like a simple process, applying the four R’s can actually be quite complicated. Successful application requires a thorough understanding of product lifecycle and existing waste streams. The larger the company and number of products the more convoluted the process becomes.
The Value of Waste
At the moment, most sectors dispose of their waste via landfill or incineration, which increases the carbon price of products. A shift towards recycling can both reduce operating costs and lower emissions. While it does take an initial investment of time and money, recycling reuses waste in place of new virgin resources.
Less use of virgin resources equates to substantial savings. When this is looked at globally, the amount of value lost from not reusing or recycling waste is astounding. The World Bank estimates that in 2010 the world produced 3.5 million tons of solid waste per day, which equates to $2.6 billion annually in lost raw materials. Plus, estimates expect this number to rise significantly in the future: by 2050, it's expected to have increased to 3.4 billion metric tons!
This loss makes sense when the same research is done for individual industries. Plastic manufacturing is a prime example. Studies have shown that post-consumer recycled plastic is between 1.7 and 3 times less energy-intensive than virgin alternatives. Smaller energy requirements mean less expenditure.
Recycling Systems Are Still Expanding
While this has become more accepted over the last decade, recycling systems are still scaling up to meet demand. Efforts are underway in both public waste systems and private industry to streamline the recycling process.
The United States is particularly behind. We previously sent a vast majority of our plastic waste to China and other Asian countries, but in 2018, China banned the import of most plastics. Overnight, our recycling system became overburdened.
Unfortunately, “The way the system is configured right now, recycling is a service that competes—and unsurprisingly often loses—for local funding that is also needed for schools, policing, et cetera,” said Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Master’s Program and director of circular ventures at The Recycling Partnership. “Without dedicated investment, recycling infrastructure won’t be sufficient.”
Applying Net-Zero Waste to Manufacturing
Manufacturing is one of the sectors most impacted by waste and therefore has the most to gain by achieving net-zero. This ideology appears in the philosophy of “lean manufacturing,” which is a manufacturing philosophy that focuses on eliminating the three main types of manufacturing waste: waste in human resources, waste in raw materials, and waste in time. Ultimately, waste reduction increases efficiency, reduces costs, and improves overall revenue.
Reducing waste of raw materials can be achieved in multiple ways and is unique to each product. For example, designing packaging that can be reused, producing products with recycled materials, or turning waste into energy to power a production facility are all viable options.
Beyond reducing virgin resource input, all of these strategies provide an array of side benefits. Most notably, they are an essential piece in a larger sustainability plan. From consumers favoring products made by “sustainable” brands to investors supporting well-rounded, sustainable businesses, not having a sustainability strategy is risky.
How to Achieve Net-Zero Waste
Net zero is an essential target for all businesses, and net-zero waste is a crucial step in pursuit of that goal.
Achieving net-zero waste is all about identifying where changes can be made and developing efficient waste reduction systems. Whether that is implementing recycled materials or changing a manufacturing process, they serve to limit waste entering landfills. This is best done by experts with in-depth knowledge unique to a field. They can conduct effective assessments and provide pointers on where to start the net-zero journey.
Need Help Starting the Net-Zero Journey?
Experts, like those at Emerald Built Environments, know what it takes to lower emissions without it negatively affecting other parts of a business. Waste management is an easy place to start for any company and can provide that first step towards sustainability.
If you would like to learn more about how Emerald Built Environments can help you and your business grow within the global push towards net-zero, contact us today for an introductory conversation with an industry expert.