Can New Corporate Pledges of Zero Waste Make Landfills Obsolete?


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.

Lynn Brown, vice president of corporate communications at Waste Management, Inc., the country's biggest waste handler, says 70 percent to 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies have launched zero waste policies in recent years. This sea change has prompted her company to add a whole new division geared toward customers looking to make the leap to waste free.

"We looked at it and said, 'How do we create long term growth for our company if this trend continues?'" Brown says.

Besides big names like Walmart and Unilever, companies going no-waste hail from just about every corner of the economy: Anheuser-Busch, Apple, Fetzer Vineyards, Pillsbury and Toyota are among those that have initiatives either enterprisewide or at individual factories.

Thomas Vinson at the Zero Waste Network at the University of Texas sees a major shift, though he says the big picture remains fuzzy.

"It's hard to say if companies are getting more efficient," Vinson says. "Those of us in the field, we see them reducing more — all fueled by the competitive landscape — but I'd hesitate to draw any conclusions."

How Much Waste?

Drawing conclusions about the nation's possibly gargantuan quantities of industrial waste would be difficult, in any event, since it's been more than a decade since anyone has kept track of it. Industrial waste is tallied under 17 different Standard Industrial Classification Codes, some tracked, some not by government agencies, and it typically ends up in several different places — hazardous waste treatment facilities, city dumps and landfills on company premises.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its best guess is that the country produces 7.6 billion tons industrial waste annually — organic chemicals, iron, steel, plastic, resins, stone, clay, concrete, pulp and paper, among other things. But that figure is based on 1980s data, way before the rise of zero waste.

While industrial waste has likely declined along with U.S. manufacturing, it still probably towers over the country's other big trash heap — municipal solid waste — which the E.P.A. tracks closely, right down to individual recycling streams such as paper, aluminum and other metals. The country produced about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2010.

If you do the math, that' s 30 tons of "upstream" waste for every ton of municipal solid waste, though the comparison is tenuous given everything we don't know about how much waste U.S. industry generates today.

Reducing Trash and Saving Cash

On the ground, however, Vinson, whose Austin, Texas-based organization receives grants from a variety of government agencies and private sources, says companies increasingly come to them for help "mapping" their operations to figure out where they can eliminate waste before it's created while finding new uses and markets for everything else.

"A lot of people hear 'environmental project' and say, 'Oh, what's it going to cost me?'" he says. "We have 500 case studies that show it can save money."

The projects in Vinson's database run a wide gamut from DuPont, which needed help on a plan to keep aerosol cans from entering the solid hazardous waste stream, to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which had a problem with a prison wastewater plant. Not all the projects pass the greenwash test. For instance, "Green Up West Yellowstone" entailed "obtaining recycling bins donated by PepsiCo and placing them at various locations within the city limits," when a bottle ban in the park might have been more in keeping with the "zero waste" philosophy. But Vinson says he never judges companies that come to his group for help. "I just look at a specific project and try to determine if it's good for the environment and the economy," he says.

Many are local plants tasked with meeting corporate mandates. The Mars candy factory in Waco, Texas, for instance, had run a recycling program for years, but in 2005, the company decided to get more ambitious, according to its case study on Vinson's site. Plant managers dedicated one loading dock fulltime to recycling and found new markets for metal, cardboard, plastic and other castoffs that used to land in the dumpster.

The plant's annual shipments to the Waco city landfill fell by about 700 tons a year, giving a boost to Mars, Inc.'s companywide pledge to make "zero waste" by 2015. At that one Texas factory today more than 95 percent of all waste is reused or recycled, saving nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year through a combination of new revenue and lower trash disposal costs.

Corporate Responsibility the New 'De Facto Law For Business' 

The zero waste program is one of the highlights of Mars' sustainability plan. The company uses tiny graphics of trucks to illustrate how it has reduced the amount of trash shipped to landfills by 37 percent since 2007.

Such "corporate responsibility" reporting — in which companies chronicle their efforts to improve labor and human rights policies, and reduce their carbon footprints — have become "the defacto law for business," according to the international consulting firm KPMG. In its 2011 International Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting, KPMG noted that 95 percent of the 250 largest companies in the world now issue reports on their good corporate behavior.

A visit to just about any company website these days illustrates how important the good citizen talk has become to companies. The reports pay "reputational" dividends that, according to KPMG, and can lead to higher profits. But they often gloss over the less winsome big picture.

Walmart, for instance, trumpets its plans to "create zero waste," but you have to dig deeper into its website to learn that its self-imposed deadline is in 2025 — laggardly compared to many Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, Walmart sells 35 percent more goods in its U.S. stores and has tripled the number of foreign outlets in the last seven years since the company first announced its plans to become ecologically benign, Stacy Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance writes in her March 2012 critique of the company. And it still deploys marketing techniques designed to spur "unplanned buying."

Starbuck's, meanwhile, which has built its image as an environmentally enlightened company around its support for ecosystem-friendly shade-grown coffee, extols recycling efforts that wouldn't even clear recycling laws in many jurisdictions. The coffee conglomerate says it has added "front of the store" recycling at 18 percent of the coffee shops it owns in the United States and Canada. In the city where I live, Washington, D.C., which requires every household and business to recycle, that would leave 82 percent of Starbucks locations in violations of the law. The company says 100 percent of those stores will recycle storefront trash by 2015. But in another example of sustainability reporting sleight of hand, the company neglects to mention it only owns about 3,000 stores in those two countries out of 17,000 locations worldwide.

In another example, DuPont, which just met its own ambitious zero waste challenge, has built an entire business line out of helping other companies go green. But DuPont might be considered a dubious salesman for such endeavors considering it ranks fourth on the Toxic Ten, a list the nation's biggest air polluters compiled biannually by the University of Massachusetts's Political Economy Research Institute. Of course, DuPont doesn't mention its Toxic Ten ranking in its sustainability report. Nor does Bayer Group, No. 1 on the current list; the pharmaceutical giant has sought the limelight for its zero waste efforts though.

Such errors of omission have raised the hackles of corporate critics who question whether responsibility reporting should be taken seriously as anything other than corporate marketing for the information age.

But even if exaggerations abound, companies have started to examine their operations in new ways -- going so far as to ban some raw materials after deciding they are too toxic or too hard to recycle. Electronics makers such as Hitachi, Fujitsu, Matsushita and Sony have replaced plastic housings with the more readily recycled magnesium alloy for TV cabinets and computers. Dell and Panasonic, meanwhile, have made changes such as designing more modular components that can be more easily dissembled and sorted, and switching to more easily recycled paint. Dell and retailers including Best Buy now run take back programs for their castoff computers and other products. And some states such as Minnesota have passed "product stewardship" laws aimed at encouraging "manufacturers, retailers and consumers" to think of waste as a renewable resource.

Besides establishing new revenue streams as new recycling markets open up, many companies find creative ways to reduce packaging, reuse what they used to throw away and purchase more recycled materials. Levi Strauss, for instance, has been using recycled fibers in its "eco line" of organic cotton jeans since 2009 and has added a plug for Goodwill donations on its label, right next to the washing instructions. 

Even Starbucks, with its dismal 18 percent storefront recycling rate, is working on ways to recycle more of its cups and other storefront trash, says Jim Hanna, Starbucks' director of environmental impact in an April 2012 article in On Earth magazine.

The saga of the Starbuck's throwaway cup is an excellent example why getting to zero waste isn't as easy as it sounds. The major stumbling block: the thin polyethylene waterproofing on the inside of the cups. While state-of-the-art paper mills in some parts of the country can separate the thin film from the paper, Hanna says he's still looking for a sufficiently modern mill in the New York area that can do the job without polyethylene mucking up its works.

"Yeah, the New York City pilot illustrates this point. Quite often, it's not strictly a question of whether the process is possible, but whether there's enough economic incentive for various parties to take on the challenge. That's why our challenge is not only to come up with a better recipe to make the cups more easily recyclable but also to help develop viable markets for the resulting paper," Hanna told the magazine, which is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hanna went on to say that the company is working "city by city" to find ways to meet Starbuck's pledge to recycle every cup by 2015. The most promising experiment, he says, involves sending cups used in the Chicago shops to a Wisconsin mill that makes the company's napkins. "So the cups come back as another Starbucks product." 

World Materials Flow

On a world scale, however, there is zero evidence that the zero waste movement has reduced demand for freshly mined or smelted raw materials used in heavy industry, road building and construction, says Grecia Matos, an economist with the U.S. Geological Survey who tracks materials flows through the world economy. Even for such highly recyclable — and highly polluting — items such as aluminum, there's no evidence that recycling has increased significantly, she says.

"We see recycling is taking place, but at the same time, you don't see a big trend where recycling has been helpful in terms of metal ore or a decline in energy use" to refine it, she says. "So far, the data is not there."

Incineration on the Rise

Activists are also concerned that less than environmentally friendly "recycling" is trying to put down stakes inside the big tent that is the zero waste movement.

Owing to its status as "a profit center," zero waste has been one of the rare win-win corporate policies, popular with the public and good for the company balance sheet. But that same bottom-line thinking doesn't always lead to the most environmentally friendly approach, critics say.

In the competitive rush to zero waste, companies have turned to garbage incinerators to get rid of whatever they can't reuse or recycle, wracking up double credits for reducing trash and producing "renewable" energy.

Incinerators around the country are vying with wind and solar power for renewable energy grants and tax credits from government and private sources, much to the horror of watchdog groups such as at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Food & Water Watch, which say burning trash releases dangerous toxins into the air, essentially "shuffling around" pollution rather than eliminating it.

Gary Liss, a California-based zero waste consultant, says old-school landfill operators' are trying hijack the burgeoning zero waste industry with technology that's far from clean or renewable.

"We are fighting for the brand right now," he says. "Zero Waste does not include burning waste."

Keeping incinerators out, Liss says, is high on the agenda of a recently formed group, the U.S. Zero Waste Council, which will hold its first national conference in Costa Mesa, Calif., in June.

That's just one of the speed bumps along the way to the no waste revolution. William McDonough, who didn't respond to requests for an interview for this article, complained about companies that attach the upcycling label to recycled products that can't be meaningfully reused again in a podcast on Treehugger last December. He and Braungart have their own critics, who say the duo hasn't done enough to explain how "waste = food" works and speed its adoption beyond a few hundred products.

Meanwhile, Miller, who has followed corporate recycling for decades from his post at the waste industry trade association, is skeptical that zero waste is even achievable.

"People have made waste since the beginning of time. It's part of life," Miller says. "It's hard to believe we'll ever get rid of it completely."  

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