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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Zero Waste: breaking down myths & establishing standards

Over the past decade zero waste evolved from a buzz word to an emerging industry standard for materials management. Inherent within the evolution are growing pains, misconceptions and an identity crisis.

When the Zero Waste Zones (ZWZ) launched at an acclaimed 2009 press conference, zero waste was a youthful buzz word without grounded definitions and standards. Crafting the ZWZ Criteria required creativity to develop challenging yet feasible program parameters. It was a zero waste frontier filled with pioneers figuring out how to shift wasteful industry protocol into practices respectful of resources and the bottom line.

In the early years zero waste became synonymous with recycling | food waste composting. 

... and then major waste haulers introduced single-stream recycling as the only offered recycling service in many communities. As documented in the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)'s December 2009 Understanding economic and environmental impacts of single-stream collection systems white papersingle-stream recycling increased diversion from landfill rates yet decreased recycling rates.

Ei Chair Scott Seydel at MRF
single-stream recycling material 
Thus, the dichotomy between diversion and recycling rates arose. Zero waste metrics were determined based on an initial destination other than landfill - diversion from landfill - without regard to the final destination. Per CRI Executive Director Susan Collins, approximately 25% of material collected for single-stream recycling is ultimately landfill-destined due to contamination levels. If a community or company utilizes single-stream recycling, diversion rates often overstate actual recycling rates degrading integrity within zero waste metrics.

Note single-stream recycling is delivered to a MRF - materials recovery facility - where it flows through a series of belts, blowers, optical sorters, human sorters and other mechanisms until the material is separated by type. The material is baled and sold in the commodities market. Contaminated material is hauled to a landfill; the MRF pays hauling charges and landfill tipping fees after it incurred the sorting expense.

Elemental Impact (Ei)'s definition of contamination: an expensive trip to the landfill!

... and then there is downcycling where a valuable material is made into in a product destined for the landfill. A common example is when clean PET bottles (water | soft drink bottles) are made into clothing or reusable grocery bags. IF the product is 100% PET, the item is recyclable yet quantities rarely justify the recycling process. Often other ingredients are added in the manufacturing process rendering the product "trash" at the end of of its useful life. 

Is extending a material by one life, instead of supporting a perpetual lifecycle, recycling? An important point to consider the next time a sports team or company announces they are "greener" because they now use uniforms made from "recycled" bottles.

Another side effect of PET clothing are the tiny plastic shards released in the washing cycle. The plastic shards flow into our waterways adding to the microplastic pollution poisoning marine life. Treehugger's post Your cloths are polluting the ocean every time you do laundry gives an overview of one of the biggest ocean pollution sources.

... and then there is incineration |  gasification | waste-to-energy. Florida law classifies "burning trash" for electricity as recycling. In the SunSentintel article County planning to burn its way past recycling standards, the controversial law is addressed via Palm Beach County's new incinerator announcement. In the article, Drew Martin of the Sierra Club is quoted:
"Recycling means you reuse something and it has new life. Burning something is the end of a life."
Are communities | companies overstating, or falsely stating, their diversion rates by including incinerated material in their zero waste stats? The topic is controversial and often the basis for heated discussions.

.... and then there is how can 90% be zero? A common misconception is the industry defines zero waste as a 90% diversion from landfill rate.

Founded in 2011, the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) plays an imperative industry role defining zero waste standards and protocol. At the annual National Zero Waste Business Conferences (NZWBC) business leaders gather to share their success stories, learn from their colleagues, and explore defining industry standards. At its foundation, the USZWBC educates on how zero waste practices make good business sense and the importance of integrating zero waste into corporate policy and culture. 

On March 4, 2013 the USZWBC announced the Zero Waste Business Facility Certification Program (ZWBFC) with the issuance of the first third-party issued Zero Waste certifications to three Whole Foods Market stores in San Diego County. 

The ZWA Blog article,Third-Party Certifications Edge Industry Towards a Zero Waste Economy, validates the important role third-party certification plays in defining industry standards. In addition to introducing the ZWBFC along with its specifications, the article features Green Seal and BPI Compostable Packaging Certifications as examples of established programs. Below is the article opening paragraph:
Third-party certifications play a valuable role for evaluating products and services. Independent review / testing ensures the product manufacturer proclamations are valid and follow industry standards. In addition third-party certification is instrumental in setting standards and protocol within evolving industries. 
Within the ZWBFC certification criteria, each of the previously mentioned industry misconceptions | challenges are addressed:

Diversion vs. recycling rates - companies are required to understand the final destination of their material; recycling rates are in accordance with final destinations.

Downcycling - extending a product by one useful life is not considered recycling.

Incineration |  gasification | waste-to-energy - burning material is the equivalent of landfill.

USZWBC Executive Director
Stephanie Barger with Board Member
Gary Liss
90% recycling rate - zero waste is defined as a 100% reduction | reuse |recycling rate; however, the 90% rate serves as the baseline to begin the zero waste certification journey; a challenging yet feasible benchmark for companies to achieve.

Zero waste is a journey with an ever-expanding path to explore and define. With the ZWBFC clearing confusion on initial misconceptions | challenges, industry pioneers are exploring new frontiers. The value chain impact is an emerging frontier with many questions:
  • How does the supply chain's material management practices impact a company's zero waste policy and rate? Can a company claim zero waste if their raw material suppliers generate landfill waste? 
  • How does the company's product end-of-life impact its zero waste policy and rate? Can a company claim zero waste if their product is packaged in "trash" and | or the product is landfill-destined once used?
Value chain impact is addressed in the top-tier ZWBFC levels.

In the ZWA Blog article, Business NOT as usual: fine-tuning the zero waste journey, the 2015 NZWBC overview substantiates the industry evolution-in-process and the powerful role pioneers play in fine-tuning the journey. 

Breaking down myths and establishing standards is a continual process within the evolutionary spiral of creation. Organizations like the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council are essential to establishing and maintaining integrity within emerging industry practices.

4 comments:

  1. Love it! Keep raising that bar, Holly...

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    1. Thanks John! It was an important article to write.

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  2. Go beyond! Nations should adopt Barcode vs Plastic Waste: put future trash into barcodes http://www.academia.edu/14657851/Barcode_v_s_Plastic_Waste_put_future_trash_into_barcodes
    LESS plastic-litter-drilling

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    1. Clara, thank you for reading the article & taking the time to comment. At Elemental Impact we are committed to taking baby steps, LOTS of baby steps, to ensure success. Before we can get to bar codes, there are many standards to establish & practices to implement. Again, thank you! Holly

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