The average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash per day. This seems insignificant, but with 323.7 million people living in the United States, that’s roughly 728,000 tons of daily garbage. The annual garbage weight for the entire country equals 254 million tons, equivalent to 1.2 million blue whales –enough to reach the moon and back 25 times, which is why zero waste is key.
These numbers are intimidating, but once business waste is added to the equation, the numbers only increase. Apple Inc. alone has sold over 570 million smartphones since the first iPhone in 2007 and recovered only 40,000 tons of e-waste in 2014. This does not account for the toxic waste created during the production cycle and iPhones that have been irresponsibly discarded or forgotten in a drawer. After Samsung's disastrous Note 7 recall in 2016, more than 4.3 million phones were considered unsafe.
Going from tons of waste to zero waste
So how does a business, with complex supply chains and consumer-producer relationships, become zero waste? Thrive Market, a certified member of the Green Business Network, sets an example: by committing more than 90% of their waste to go to recycling centers, be reused, donated or composted, they have diverted virtually all of their waste from landfills. They recently announced that they have surpassed this goal at two of their fulfillment centers.
Zero waste is also good for the bottom line. Epson in Portland, Oregon reduced waste to zero and has saved $300,000 and Xerox Corp., Rochester, New York has had a Waste-Free Factory environmental performance goal since the early 1990s, with a savings of $45 million in 1998.
Although zero waste at all ends of the supply chain is the final goal, zero landfill may be easier as an initial first step. It’s important to note that zero landfill goals should prioritize reuse and recycling streams, not incinerators; burning waste does not actually reduce consumption and can lead to other harmful environmental issues or workplace situations. Zero landfill goals can help businesses learn to divert waste from the production cycle, reduce disposal costs and maximize efficiency. This process can foster proper recycling habits, such as washing items of food or particle debris before sorting. Additionally, reinventing packaging to be minimal, recyclable or compostable can improve material flows, manufacturing efficiency and product appearance to the consumer.
Starting small is key
For organizations and businesses interested in zero waste or zero landfill goals, it may help to start small and build momentum. Restaurants purchasing biodegradable straws or partnering with food redistribution or composting organizations divert landfill waste and achieve zero waste goals. Color-coding packages by its recycling facility or redesigning training programs are all steps towards greening your business. Small but achievable goals satisfy consumers, shareholders, and employees; these steps chip away at unsustainable but convenient habits.
Monitoring the life of a product after it has been purchased is more of a challenge. Apple offers a free reuse and recycling program for old iPhones, iPads, and computers in an attempt to recover and recycle as much e-waste as possible. Customers who may not want to return products for ecological purposes are incentivized with the possibility that their product may qualify for a gift card. This example can model a way for other businesses with products that can also be recycled or reused. Samsung also has a recycling program in an effort to reuse, refurbish, and reduce their e-waste.
Zero waste and zero landfill are very appealing terms; however, we caution consumers to be aware that these terms do not necessarily hold value without prior research into business practices. At the Green Business Network, we vet all of our certified members to ensure that they practice what they preach in both social justice and sustainability. Certified zero waste and zero landfill organizations are becoming the standard across the country as the movement towards a holistic green economy grows.