Note: This article has been repurposed and abridged from Chapter 5: Waste Reduction Product & Packaging of my book Sustainable Business in Iowa: How Leading Companies Profit from Environmental and Social Responsibility.

Waste reduction is often the first stop for any company on their environmental journey. 'Reduce, reuse, and recycle' has been in the psyche of most Americans since the well-known 'Iron Eyes Cody' television public service announcement by Keep America Beautiful in the early 1970s. Using and wasting less appeals to varying sensibilities across the aisle. Recycling is engaging on a daily, if not hourly, basis for employees. All three concepts are simple and easy to understand. For these reasons, waste reduction is a strong anchor for most corporate

Knowing the 5-Stage Journey

Facility managers responsible for internal waste diversion at their company have their work cut out for them. It's never easy.

But luckily, there have been five different sets of research done over the past 70 years on corporate sustainability initiatives: Archie Carrol (1950), Bob Willard (2005), Sustainable Mining Institute (2010), Dawn Mills (2011), and Frederic Laloux (2014). And they all have significant agreement that there is a noticeable process that successful businesses share.

Specifically, a 5-stage journey exists that - if navigated in order - consistently explains success. While each research group uses different descriptors and labels for those stages, they can be summarized as: (1) pre-compliance, (2) compliance, (3) efficiency, (4) effectiveness, and (5) integrated strategy.

Knowing the 5-Stage Journey

These stages can be identified by things like leadership worldview, data collection and analysis, project implementation, and performance. And it allows a company to map their sustainability program across multiple categories - including waste.

sustainability profile

You can read in-depth analysis of these five research models or get a great summary in Chapter 2: The Five-Stage Journey of my book Sustainable Business in Iowa: How Leading Companies Profit from Environmental and Social Responsibility.

But here, let's look at how this plays out specifically in waste management for facility managers.

STAGE 1 & 2: Getting to Compliance

Despite what we may like to believe, there are many businesses - albeit very few as a percentage of all actors - that still bury, burn, or dump their trash on public backroads or others' property as a strategy for waste removal. Legal and appropriate waste removal and disposal is critical to consider when evaluating if your waste initiative has reached the Compliance stage in its five-stage sustainability journey. Here is some information from my home state, Iowa, but you can find similar data for any region you do business within.

Iowa DNR enforcement actions include fines for open dumping. They state that "illegal dumping impacts the environment, the character of neighborhoods and the quality of life of local residents. It causes safety hazards to the public and costs local governments millions of dollars every year in cleanup costs."

Hazardous waste and process chemicals used in manufacturing must be handled according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Hazardous waste and chemicals require special storage, additional signage, and protective clothing for handling.

In 2017, there were fines levied up to $9,000 for dumping and/or improper storage of waste on-site for businesses. The EPA can levy corporate fines up to $15,000 on the spot. For strict liability waste, fines could be up to $1 million and $120,000 per day if not discontinued by the business. When harm to environment is likely or actual, willful offences carry a maximum penalty of $5 million and negligent offences a maximum of $2 million. For repeat offenders, vehicles used can be seized and forfeited, with potential jail time of up to two years.

There is nothing sexy about Compliance, yet it is exponentially more stable and profitable long-term than remaining in Pre-Compliance. Avoiding fines, shutdowns, and bad public relations that damage your brand are all fundamental before moving on to the more 'feel-good' efforts that are typically associated with 'sustainability' in stages 3 through 5.

STAGE 3: Waste Reduction

Stage 3: Efficiency is often characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Departmental considerations
  • Achievement-focused leadership
  • Established formal processes
  • Metrics identified with accountability
  • Tracking in spreadsheets
  • Continuous improvement focus
  • Led by volunteer committee
  • Quality management: Six Sigma
  • Regulators seen as partners
  • Set internal targets but keep private
  • Informal reporting
  • Quick payback projects (1-2 years)
  • Invest in employees as resources
  • Merit-based compensation

A business in the Efficiency stage has noticed that reducing waste-to-landfill can be a real cost benefit. 'Low-hanging fruit' - savings obtained with minimal effort at a low cost - is often harvested by simply assessing the materials hauled away in the dumpster and finding alternatives to the landfill.

Project implementation typically includes things like waste audits, bins and signage, single-stream recycling, adjusting service levels, etc. It has not included product and packaging changes yet.

Waste Reduction, Products & Packaging
Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5

Waste Reduction - Early

  •   Waste Audits
  •   Bins and Signage
  •   Single-Stream Recycling
  •   Adjusting Service Levels

Waste Reduction - Advanced

  •   Centralized Recycling
  •   Organic Composting
  •   Avoiding Hazardous Waste

Zero Waste Certification

  •   One Facility
  •   Multiple Facilities
  •   Companywide

Products & Packaging - Early

  •   Dematerialization
  •   Recycled Content
  •   Design for Durability
  •   Design for Disassembly

Products & Packaging - Advanced

  •   Take-Back Programs
  •   New Service Models

Business Opportunities

Reduce, reuse, recycle is not just a popular saying. It is a compelling business strategy, because waste is a cost that goes straight to the bottom line. Certified zero-waste facilities are becoming more commonplace. Major brands have earned the designation at unique facilities and made public commitments companywide, including: The Hershey Company, Toyota, Facebook, Ford, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, and New Belgium Brewery, just to name a few.

A company could conservatively expect to divert at least 20 percent of their waste stream with serious efforts. According to Bob Willard, in The New Sustainability Advantage, an average small or medium enterprise (SME) in professional services could turn that 20 percent into a $2,500 savings within three to five years using only best management practices. For a large manufacturer, that same diversion could translate into $7,500,000 in the same period.2 Waste reduction is not only the right thing to do, it is the profitable thing to do, and therefore a great starting place for any corporate sustainability initiative.

CASE STUDY: Meredith Corporation

Project - Meredith Corporation tracks the following waste streams: cardboard, office paper, plastics, metal, and redeemable cans and bottles. During the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Meredith Corporation headquarters diverted 65 percent of total waste (by volume). Its test kitchens and production studios regularly donate materials like food to employees, and hold prop sales to divert furniture, paint, and materials used in photo shoots by its magazines and websites. Jenny McCoy, director of communications, said, "Recycling is something that our employees see every day, so we are very proud of what our Facilities employees have accomplished and continue to support them in furthering our sustainability efforts."

In 2016, Meredith conducted a waste audit with the Iowa Waste Exchange, the company's Sustainability Committee, Facilities team, and employee volunteers. This confirmed that employees were effectively sorting most recyclable material and identified compostable material as its largest opportunity. Kitchen food waste was 18.42 percent of its waste stream by weight (22.22 percent by volume) and other compostable material comprised 35.58 percent by weight (50.15 percent by volume).

Profit - In 2017, Meredith piloted a composting program with Sodexo and a local veteran chicken farmer, Joe Villines of Halfacre Farms. The program expanded from the employee cafeteria to include test kitchens and photo studios, which tripled the amount of compost diversion. During August and September of 2017, the company successfully diverted an average of more than 650 gallons (over 2,600 pounds) of compostable material per month. Sodexo's Chris James said, "My kitchen staff loves the fact that our waste is going towards something meaningful instead of a landfill." Facilities employees also applauded removing food waste from the waste compactor because it improved the smell in the basement near the receiving dock.

A perspective on waste management focused only on end-of-line diversion at a company's dumpster will evolve over time to include reducing waste at the source. Most notably, that means waste impacts from upstream product design and downstream packaging decisions along the value chain - from suppliers to consumers. Product and packaging decisions outside of the business can have a massive waste footprint, sometimes larger than inside the organization.

STAGE 4: Products & Packaging

Stage 4: Effectiveness is often characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Company/community considerations
  • Pluralistic leadership
  • Complex systems established
  • Tracked in enterprise software
  • LCAs and Value Chain Analysis
  • Set targets and make public
  • Led by full-time position or consultant
  • Quality management: Lean
  • Increased employee decision-making
  • Formal reporting
  • Longer payback projects (3-4 years)
  • New niche products and services
  • Leverage recruitment and retention
  • Specific third-party certifications

A business in the Effectiveness stage has learned they are paying for waste at least four times. For any material to end up in the trash, we can deduce that it was paid for first when purchased, second when processed or utilized in a business setting, third when sorted and stored for removal, and fourth when hauled away to a landfill. Advanced companies investigate organic composting and avoiding hazardous waste altogether by finding substitute non-toxic materials. But eliminating waste at the source is the only way to tackle all four costs, so they also begin making wiser product and packaging design decisions.

Project implementation regarding waste reduction becomes more advanced, and typically includes things like centralizing collections, organic composting, avoiding hazardous waste, etc. It also begins to include early forms of product and packaging changes like dematerialization, design for durability, design for disassembly, recycled content, and compostable content.

CHAPTER 4–Waste Reduction, Products & Packaging
Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5

Waste Reduction - Early

  •   Waste Audits
  •   Bins and Signage
  •   Single-Stream Recycling
  •   Adjusting Service Levels

Waste Reduction - Advanced

  •   Centralized Recycling
  •   Organic Composting
  •   Avoiding Hazardous Waste

Zero Waste Certification

  •   One Facility
  •   Multiple Facilities
  •   Companywide

Products & Packaging - Early

  •   Dematerialization
  •   Design for Durability
  •   Design for Disassembly
  •   Recycled Content
  •   Compostable Content

Products & Packaging - Advanced

  •   Take-Back Programs
  •   New Service Models

CASE STUDY: Eco Lips

Project - Eco Lips employees work hard to reduce and eliminate waste at their facility. This includes separating out paper and food products for composting, for which they contract a haul-away service. Because they share dumpsters with another tenant, the company only receives financially billing making it difficult to track. Encouraged by a recent BCorp score and assessment report, they are working with their waste hauler to get more detailed breakdowns of their waste streams by weight and volume. With this data, they will be able to more clearly communicate to employees and report their successes.

In product and packaging design, Eco Lips has taken a progressive approach. Their lip balm containers are made from 40 percent recycled content plastic and FSC-certified paperboard,30 which are both recyclable. In 2014, the released the first biodegradable, compostable lip balm container in the world using paper tubes - their ONE WORLD™ line.20 Their POGO™ line launched in 2016 in the first refillable lip balm in the world.29 All Eco Lips containers themselves were dematerialized last year, saving 30 percent more plastic through an update to their mold injection machine.

Profit - The POGO™ container won a 2016 AmeriStar award for its repurposed plastic patented lip care system. According to Jane Merten, VP of sales and marketing, "Landing the design for a lip balm delivery system that aligns with our company ethos was paramount. Versatility, individualization and refillability were key as we continue to innovate within the lip balm category."

STAGE 5: Zero Waste

Stage 5: Integrated Strategy is often characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Evolutionary leadership
  • Global considerations
  • Embedded in corporate strategy
  • Formal reporting meets standards
  • Set and achieve public BHAGs
  • One or more full-time positions
  • All employees receive training
  • Leverage additional sales
  • Compensation tied to group performance
  • Comprehensive third-party certifications
  • Customers willing to pay a premium

A business in the Integrated Strategy stage is an industry leader, with waste management integrated into their corporate strategy making public zero-waste commitments and including timelines for achieving them. This provides positive media attention that can be leveraged with employees, vendor-partners, customers, and potential customers. In exchange, they are held accountable by those same stakeholders with an expectation of progress and success. One added benefit includes being able to charge a price premium to a segment of the customers that are passionate about waste issues or attract those customers if they are not shopping with the company currently.

Some companies strongly committed to zero-waste establish take-back programs that embody extended producer responsibility (EPR) and allow them to reuse, repurpose, or recycle their own products. Some companies also consider switching from a product-driven business model to a service-driven one, which can provide on-going fees for service while incentivizing excellent maintenance and longevity for customers.

CHAPTER 5–Waste Reduction, Products & Packaging
Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5

Waste Reduction - Early

  •   Waste Audits
  •   Bins and Signage
  •   Single-Stream Recycling
  •   Adjusting Service Levels

Waste Reduction - Advanced

  •   Centralized Recycling
  •   Organic Composting
  •   Avoiding Hazardous Waste

Zero Waste Certification

  •   One Facility
  •   Multiple Facilities
  •   Companywide

Products & Packaging - Early

  •   Dematerialization
  •   Design for Durability
  •   Design for Disassembly
  •   Recycled Content
  •   Compostable Content

Products & Packaging - Advanced

  •   Take-Back Programs
  •   New Service Models

Zero Waste

The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) was organized in 2002 to create zero waste standards that could followed worldwide. In their words, "zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use." Said another way, and tailored for the business community, zero waste means tracking and measuring all waste streams to the landfill such that they can be diverted toward a useful purpose. The data gathered will enable companies to redesign products and packaging to systematically avoid and eliminate all waste. This includes avoiding toxic materials, conservation and recovery of resources, and working not to burn or bury any waste. According to ZWIA, "implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health."

Third-Party Certification

Third-party certifications provide both a simple, easy-to-understand symbol and customer confidence that claims of performance have been validated by a neutral organization. TRUE Zero Waste™ certification is administered by the Green Business Certification, Inc. (GBCI). Zero-Waste-to-Landfill certification is defined by UL Environment (UL 2799). NSF International provides Landfill-Free Verification™.

  • TRUE Zero Waste™
  • Zero Waste-to-Landfill™
  • Landfill-Free Verified™

CASE STUDY: West Liberty Foods

Project - West Liberty Foods certified their facilities through ISO 14001 in 2003, which included process documentation and continuous improvement for waste management. At that time, president and CEO Ed Garrett committed the company to achieving Zero Landfill™ certification after a visit to a Frito Lay plant in Illinois. Waste-to-landfill per year was 7.5 million pounds. By 2004, NSF International awarded West Liberty Foods third-party certification for becoming a Zero-Landfill™ business. Over 60 waste streams from each facility were diverted to recycling, composting, and (as a lowest priority) waste-to-energy incineration.

This year-long process was coordinated by Michele Boney, director of environment, health and safety. The effort included 1900 team members, with champions on each core team. West Liberty Foods provided new color-coded containers, clear signage, education, and games led by plant managers to reinforce learning. At one facility, team members spoke 15 different languages, so photo were used for all the items that needed sorted.

Profit- In 2014, West Liberty Foods produced 50,509 tons of waste. Less than 1 ton was sent to the landfill (0.0016 percent) - ash from the cement kiln after incineration. 49,955 tons were recycled (98.9 percent) and 552 tons were incinerated as waste-to-energy (1.09 percent). Boney estimated they paid extra to achieve certification initially. Since certification, the company saw an increase in national media attention resulting in more customer contracts, and waste costs continue to decrease for an overall annual savings. Gerald Lessard, VP & COO of West Liberty Foods, said, "We've done our small part and we hope other businesses take a look and duplicate what we've done. If we all work together, our grandchildren won't have to be concerned with some of these issues. That's the definition of a legacy. We've started something today that we hope will impact future generations."

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