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Developing a Zero Tolerance for Trash

August 4, 2015

The effort to reduce the environmental footprint of waste in the Unites States has certainly seemed to have hit its stride. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) most recent estimates state that industrial facilities generate 7.6 billion tons of non-hazardous solid waste every year. By comparison, household waste production, at 87 million tons annually, produces only 3 percent of that amount.

For this reason, efforts to recycle non-hazardous waste must focus on the huge amounts produced by industries. According to the USEPA, much of this is carted away to both public and private landfills, though that agency has no figures how much is recycled. What is known is that landfilling saps money from businesses and industries, depressing surrounding land values and creating various environmental problems.

To save costs and the environment, many businesses are taking aggressive measures to control their garbage output, reducing and even eliminating any bound to a landfill.

For example, a Starbucks plant in York, Pa., achieved a 100 percent landfill-free status last year, meaning they shipped no waste to a landfill. The site houses a coffee roasting facility and the company’s largest distribution center, totaling 450,000 square feet, so this was no small feat.

Denise Wills, senior sustainability and maintenance coordinator for the Starbucks York plant, said the company had always been active in recycling waste. But upon learning in 2009 that a supplier did not ship any waste to landfills, “we made it our mission to do the same at York,” she said.

A large part of the effort involved simple, but thorough, accounting practices, using spreadsheets to track where waste was being produced and where it was going. The facility managers worked with their suppliers and with own their employees, getting them to change behaviors and adopt policies mandating them to reuse and recycle waste.

To make sure they met their goal, Starbucks chose to have UL do a third-party validation of the achievement.

UL created the first program to validate zero-waste claims in industries, offering “100 percent Landfill Diversion” Environmental Claim Validation (based on UL ECVP 2799). UL Environment Research Scientist Bill Hoffman, who heads this program, said Starbucks, like many businesses, had multiple reasons for pursuing this goal.

“Throwing waste in a garbage can may seem like a free activity, but companies pay plenty to have waste hauled away to landfills,” Hoffman said. “When deliveries come in packages that are then thrown out, Hoffman said businesses are paying twice for this waste.”

But money isn’t the only factor. Businesses today see recycling and promoting green practices as a valuable corporate goal, one that squares a business’s private interests with the public interest.

Click here for a recent webinar with UL and Walmart on turning waste into opportunities.

Hoffman said one essential way to eliminate waste is by training workers how to recycle.

“You have to have employee education or it’s not going to work,” Hoffman said. “It’s still employees throwing waste into the right bin.” In Starbucks’ case, the plant employees formed a recycling committee made of “partners” from every department in the facility to self-police their efforts.Recycling

Hoffman said most industries should be able to eliminate between 70 percent and 80 percent of their landfill-bound waste streams. Often, the hardest part of achieving a 100 percent waste diversion rate is eliminating the last few percentage points. Hoffman said a common source of difficulty is cafeteria waste, where organic and inorganic material is mixed. Another common difficulty is processing the waste produced from sweeping the floor.

“Some industries, particularly those in the food and beverage manufacturing and shipping, have an easier time eliminating landfill-bound waste,” Hoffman said. “Grocers get their food delivered in recyclable cardboard boxes now, instead of crates. Breweries can turn spent grains into animal feed,” he added.

Hoffman said when landfill-bound waste can’t be recycled or resold, a third option is incineration. Businesses, however, should only send waste to facilities demonstrating proper emission controls, and should be able to document the composition of the ash and where it goes.

One high-profile example of zero waste diversion is the Waste Management Phoenix Open PGA Tournament, which earned UL Environment’s Zero Waste to Landfill certification for the third straight year. The 2014 effort was achieved even while attracting a record 563,008 attendees.

Using 6,000 recycling and compost bins and 60 solar compacters, Dave Steiner, president and CEO Waste Management said, “everything that is generated at the Waste Management Phoenix Open recycled and re-used, turned into energy or composted.” As measured by UL, the tournament only sent 10 percent of its waste to be incinerated with energy recovery.

For more information, read UL's whitepaper on a quest for zero waste.