Countries around the globe are adopting zero waste to landfill policies to help combat greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and recapture valuable materials. Legislative measures are holding businesses accountable for their waste – from the point of extraction to processing and manufacturing, aiming to replace the disposable economy with a sustainable circular model.
While such measures will help protect the environment and human health, the question remains as to whether zero waste to landfill is a financially viable business model.
Zero waste to landfill: What is it?
As the name suggests, zero waste programs aim to divert 100 percent of all waste from landfills, instead generating value through reuse or waste to energy conversion. Typical materials include:
- Plastic. Plastics are generally recycled for bottle to bottle reuse or as resin pellets that can be used to manufacture a diverse range of products, including automotive and aeroplane parts, clothing, construction materials, and packaging. While high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are the most commonly recycled plastics, others include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP), and polystyrene (PS).
- Glass. Reuse and re-melting do not compromise the quality of glass, making this material infinitely recyclable. Recycled glass has a wide variety of applications, including bottle-to-bottle reuse, appliances and electronics, fibre optic cables, renewable energy equipment, and housing, landscaping, and construction materials.
- Scrap paper. There are three classes of recycled paper: cardboard, old newspaper, and mixed paper. Cardboard is of particular interest as it tends to hold its market value because of stable shipping and packaging needs. While other scrap paper commodities are hurting due to China’s recent import bans, cardboard demand is likely to remain steady.
- Food and organic waste. While food is generally diverted for compost, other types of organic waste can be broken down via anaerobic digestion, which produces biogas that can be used as fuel or digestate.
How to improve US material handling and recovery infrastructure to achieve zero waste.
To make zero waste to landfill a financial possibility, recyclables must meet two requirements to outcompete virgin commodities: predictable supply and reliable quality. There are a number of solutions commercial recyclers can implement to achieve these standards, including:
- Material bale audits that can be used to generate price structures that incentivize suppliers to provide cleaner bales and allow recyclable handlers to accurately predict quality and material flow.
- Artificial intelligence coupled with advanced robotics could revolutionize material recovery facility (MRF) procedures, enhancing sorting efficiencies and the ability to respond to changing waste streams.
- Developing diverse networks rather than linear commodity streams. Basically, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – and don’t lay just one egg. Commercial enterprises ought to diversify both their offerings and their markets, especially in light of China’s escalating material import bans.
There are many potential benefits of implementing a zero waste to landfill business model, including:
- Protecting the bottom line by lowering disposal costs and generating new sources of income.
- Cleaning up recovered materials increases their value on the market. Businesses that invest in producing higher-quality materials stand to gain the competitive edge as manufacturers – and governments – heighten material standards.
- Diversifying product portfolio for recycling industry outsiders. Ever-changing markets necessitate a diverse range of offerings to maintain a company’s financial stability. Businesses that add recycling to their portfolio can increase revenues and protect their bottom lines in times of market flux.
- Meeting ever-evolving legal requirements. While a complete zero waste program has not yet been implemented in the US, states such as California mandate businesses to recycle, whether signing up for local pickup or sending recyclables to market. As finite resources are increasingly strained, businesses should expect local and state governments to install tighter regulations. Why start recycling later at a significantly higher cost, when you can get ahead of the curve, generating rather than sacrificing revenue?
Zero waste success: General Motors generates $1 billion from business waste
In 2016, GM surpassed their zero waste target and achieved landfill-free status at 152 facilities. They ended up recycling or reusing 2 million metric tons of byproducts each year, which generated up to $1 billion in revenue that has been reinvested into research and development of more fuel-efficient cars and newer technologies.
The major car manufacturer converted recycled water bottles into engine cover insulation and facility air filters and converted some of their Chevy Volt battery covers into wildlife habitat nest boxes. Additionally, they intend to make $1 million worth of in-kind donations of their displaced office furniture and equipment over a two-year period.
Can other US companies implement successful zero waste models like GM?
Zero waste policies are not solely an issue of corporate social responsibility; rather, the circular economy can help many companies – regardless of industry, whether a part of the recycling sector itself or manufacturing and retail sectors – generate higher revenues. Organizations can absolutely be both environmentally and fiscally responsible – it’s simply a matter of creating intelligent strategies and partnerships.
If you own or operate a commercial, retail, or recycling business and are interested in improving profits – and environmental outcomes – through a zero waste business model, please contact Berg Mill Supply. For over half a century, Berg Mill has offered companies practical solutions for all their recyclable needs.