What does zero waste mean to business?

By Amjad Azmeer, Private Sector Associate, UN Global Compact Network Sri Lanka

Earth’s resources are precious and not limitless. In 2020, it is estimated around one third of all food produced around 1.3 billion tons (worth around $1 trillion) was wasted. Likewise, the rapid growth of population will significantly escalate consumption and waste generation. In 2018 the world generated 2.01 billion tons, by 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion and generate 3.40 billion tons of waste annually (which will require three planets to sustain with current lifestyles).

One area of concern is plastic waste management which is increasing beyond control, every minute one million plastic bottles are purchased, 5 trillion plastic bags are used every year and about 50,000 masks per second (plastic management problem exacerbated due to COVID19) Overall, since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced and only 9% has been recycled. If the current trends continue by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish, in addition to large waste mountains.

Also, the plastic crisis is inextricably linked to the climate emergency, as single use plastics are made from fossil fuels. By 2050 plastic is expected to account for 5%-10% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is incumbent that larger firms take the responsibility, in 2019 twenty firms produce 55% of world’s plastic waste, with ExxonMobil being the greatest single-use plastic waste polluter in the world, contributing 5.9 million tons.

Poor waste management practices not only create health and social problems but may also have unintended physical risks. For instance, in Sri Lanka the Meethotamulla garbage mountain collapsed in April 2017 on to a residential neighborhood affecting 1,765 people, destroying 146 houses and killing around 40 people.

Waste can be defined from a technical, economic, and regulatory sense. From a technical sense it refers to is the leftover after removal/consumption of useful components, from an economic standpoint it is when the present value is less than utilization cost and finally from a regulatory sense it is something that is discarded and can no longer be used for its original purpose.

When it comes to classification waste can be segregated based on the composition (Solid, Hazardous, Radioactive, Infectious), sources (Agricultural, Domestic, Industrial, and Municipal), chemistry (Organic, Inorganic), or useful characteristics (Combustible, Fermentable, Inert and Fine).

Zero Waste

The concept of zero waste has gained traction over the recent years. It essentially is the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.

Although it is extremely difficult for a business to go completely ‘waste free’, striving towards zero waste helps rethink business as usual practices and usual life cycle of a product.

Global Goals and UN Global Compact Principles

Any zero-waste strategy needs to be based on the premise of safeguard human health, maintain environmental quality, and accomplish sustainable development. In that sense, it is useful to align waste management practices to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and UN Global Compact Ten Principles.

Although, many of the UN SDGs are interlinked, when it comes zero waste the most relevant goal is arguably Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12) is about doing more and better with less for the planet, which means it is about decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency, and promoting sustainable lifestyles.

In terms of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact, which divided in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption, good waste management practices would most likely fall under the environment category (Principles 7,8,9). For instance, if we study Principle 9 it encourages business towards the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies. Environmentally sound technologies as defined by the Agenda 21 of the Rio Declaration are technologies are less polluting, use all resources in a more sustainable manner, recycle more of their wastes and products and handle residual wastes in a more acceptable manner.

The Business Case

With increasing environmental degradation, good waste management is not just merely desirable, it is essential. There are several business benefits to improve solid waste management including.

  • Reduction in operation costs: Can optimize operations to reduce material costs, resources needed for disposal and avoid regulatory costs (taxes, fines)
  • Improves reputation of a company: Stakeholders are becoming more mindful on environmental stewardship practices in companies
  • Competitive advantage: With increasing zero waste initiatives by companies in the same sector, it is important to keep pace with growing competition.

Waste Reduction Strategies

It is very likely that the waste management program implemented in your organization is not as cost-effective or comprehensive as it could be. Below are some steps organizations can use to make their waste strategy more robust:

Step 1: Measure Business Waste (Amount and Composition): It is important to collect information regarding the type of waste and the amount of waste in a given timeframe (Preferably through standards like GRI 306: Waste)

Step 2: Identify disposal options based on waste composition: The Hierarchy of management of wastes provides an overview of preference for waste treatment which can be summarized as below:

    • Waste Prevention: Ideal waste management method is to employ conscious manufacturing technologies or portions of product life cycle to eliminate waste, and in turn reduce pollution.
    • Waste Minimization: Source reduction refers mainly to strategies to design products to minimize waste generated and/or toxicity of resultant waste (less raw materials or material substitution
    • Recycling and Reuse: Recycling is the recovery of materials (glass, paper, plastic, metals, wood) so that it could be used for fabrication of new products
    • Biological Treatment: This form of disposal depends on the chemistry of the waste, if the organic fraction can be separated from the inorganic, then processes like aerobic composting, anaerobic digestion, or mechanical biological treatment (MBT) methods could be used.
    • Incineration: Incinerating waste at high temperatures could be used to produce electricity (Waste to energy plants), to produce ash which requires proper disposal (but could significantly reduce volume to landfill). Despite the advantages, due to high capital costs of waste to energy plants and emissions from toxic ash the technology is viewed less favored.
    • Landfill Disposal: This is the most common form of disposal. Although there have been attempts to design safe landfills, due to undesirable side effects like uncontrolled vectors, contaminated groundwaters and methane emissions it remains the least favored option.

Step 3. Identify suitable local partnerships: After assessing the current waste output and disposal options, it is advised to identify local organizations that specialize in waste management (Eco spindles, Zero Trash). In many instances, it could be the current waste service provider (private operator or local council).

Step 4. Implementation of strategy/collection: Each business is unique and generate different types of waste, therefore implementation would differ based on the zero-waste strategy.

National and Business Cases

There are several national and business examples of countries and business that are global examples when it comes to waste management.

Singapore is one of the most densely populated countries in the world housing 5.7 million people in an area of 728.6 km². Despite this, through strong governance and innovation it has become well-known for becoming a clean and green city allows for a high quality of life. For instance, one innovation is NEWSand which is created from repurposed municipal solid waste (and incinerated ash) which can be used for construction. In 2021, Singapore unveiled Singapore Green Plan 2030 as part of the plan, the country hopes that by 2030 it can achieve a 70% overall recycling rate: 81% non-domestic recycling rate 30% domestic recycling rate (Help extend Semakau Landfill’s lifespan beyond 2035). The SG 2030 Green plan is a buildup to the Zero Waste Masterplan, which aims articulate the Singapore government’s efforts to adopt a circular economy approach to sustainable waste and resource management through key policies and strategies.

In terms of business Patagonia, Inc is a great example. The outdoor clothing company founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard and based in Ventura, California. The company was voted in 2019 as UN Champions of the Earth. The main mission of the company is to save our home planet. In terms of sourcing in 2021, 100% of the virgin cotton is grown organically. When it comes to recyclability, 87% of the fabrics is made with recycled materials (In 2017, it made 50,295 clothing repairs). By 2025 its goal is to have all apparel products will be made from 100% recycled, reclaimed or renewable resources and that packaging will be 100% reusable, home compostable, renewable, or easily recyclable. (a zero-waste-to-landfill company). Patagonia has demonstrated that by courageous leadership, promoting mindful spending and high-quality waste friendly products a company can have a positive impact on people and the planet, while being rewarded by high profits.

Moving towards a zero-waste society

The bottom line is that environmental capital is the foundation of the current circular economic system. Therefore, waste management is an important cross cutting environmental issue and business models should also be designed circular. Zero-waste may not be entirely achievable, but it should be set as a societal benchmark where different types of stakeholders move towards it. Consumers have the power to create strong incentives for business to create a zero-waste retail environment. Business leaders should continuously be conscious of the 3Rs

Reduce: Can waste be minimized by changing the waste management practices?

Reuse: Does another local business have a use for the waste you generate?

Recycle: Which of your waste could be recycled?

Although there has been a lot of positive action around waste management, we all have a responsibility to do more.

To learn more about Environmental Stewardship become a Member of the UN Global Compact Network Sri Lanka.