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Can New Corporate Pledges of Zero Waste Make Landfills Obsolete?

Businesses are learning that what they throw away can be just as valuable as what they are making.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Huguette Roe


Last month, the Cradle-to-Cradle certification program officially affixed its first seals of approval to products made — exclusively — with materials that can eventually be returned to the production line as "technical nutrients" or to the Earth as compostable "biological nutrients."

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, whose book  Cradle to Cradle  made the concept famous a decade ago, are fond of summing up this approach as "waste = food."

A few hundred products have been made to the specs, including the two types of office chairs and two carpet brands recently certified by the independent certification body the duo spun off from their consulting activities two years ago. What sets these products apart from conventional wares is the careful selection of raw materials and their thoughtful design into products with more than one "life," so to speak. Ingredients "throughout the supply chain" go through toxicity assessments. The ones that make the cut are assembled into products that can be "continuously" broken down and reused in new products.

While Braungart and McDonough are focused on the manufacturing side of "the life cycle," the concept has also given a boost to the "zero waste" movement that's swept the corporate world and is now gaining traction in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Malmo, Sweden.

It's a radical rethinking of what humans have considered "waste" for millennia. Brought to its natural conclusion, "zero waste" promises an end to dumps, landfills, hazardous waste depots, Superfund sites — essentially, an end of trash as we know it.

In the last five years or so, companies including Wal-Mart, Unilever and DuPont have put the rather daunting zero waste theory into practice by revamping production lines, finding new uses for things like shipping pallets and developing recycling markets. Walmart, for instance, says it's expanded the number of waste streams it tracks from 30 in 2009 to "nearly 138" today. More below on whether these companies, not known for their green ethos, have actually been successful.

In roughly the same timeframe, landfills around the country have seen a 10 percent to 35 percent decline in business, but industry experts say that's almost entirely due to the economic crisis. The trend toward zero waste isn't moving nearly so fast, though companies keep telling us — heralding it from rooftops — that they are getting rid of the very concept of waste and even the words associated with it. Yesterday's trash is today's "materials."

Experts say this new approach, which has proved profitable, is here to stay. But will it really make landfills obsolete?

Real Changes

More than just recycling on steroids, zero waste involves rethinking the entire "life cycle" of a product. The Grassroots Recycling Network , a national coalition of activists and recycling experts, defines it as "a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st century" that "goes beyond recycling by taking a 'whole system' approach to the vast flow of natural resources and waste through human society. Zero Waste is both a 'back end' solution that maximizes recycling, minimizes waste and reduces consumption as well as an upfront industrial design principle that requires that all products be made with no toxic elements and designed to be reused, repaired, recycled or composted back into the economy or the environment." 

"Zero Waste is nothing new. It's simply smart capitalism — taking costs and turning them into a profit center," says Chaz Miller, director of state programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the Washington-based trash industry trade association.

"It was inevitable. You are dealing with some societal trends for some time now," says Miller, who traces the first corporate waste reduction efforts back to the 1970s.

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