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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Beyond Landfill Diversion

In many sustainability reports, "diversion rates" are a key component in the zero waste section. Diversion refers to an initial destination other than landfill.  It is time to address final destinations and highest good use of the disposed items, rather than simply diversion from the landfill.

As companies shift from zero waste programs to materials management focus, waste and recycling cost centers often evolve into recycling profit centers.  The ZWA Blog post, Emerging Trend:  Recycling Profit Centers, details how astute business leaders understand by-products generated in their operations are valuable materials for another industry's production process.  At the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council June conference, the powerful presentations validated a strong materials management program improves bottom lines.  The ZWA Blog post, U.S. Zero Waste Business Council hosts first-rate conference, gives an overview of the conference along with links to speaker presentations.

single-stream load during an
Ei MRF tour
Single-stream recycling systems often are a false recycling indicator.  With significant contamination common in single-stream collections, the final destination of an unacceptable  percentage of the intake is either incineration or landfills, not intended recycling. China is tightening its material acceptance standards and the U.S. generated mixed plastics bales filled with contaminated material are losing their welcome at our faraway friend's recycling centers.  The ZWA Blog post, Single-Stream Recycling Controversy, documents how single-stream systems achieve their goal of increasing "diversion rates" yet result in decreased actual recycling due to contamination.

In July, 2011 The U.S. EPA hosted a webinar, Single Stream Recycling: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. addressing single-stream recycling's effectiveness, or lack thereof.  The ZWA Blog, Single Stream Recycling: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, gives a webinar overview along with commentary.

Within Recycling Integrity, maintaining maximum material value with minimum energy expended, the by-product generator retains responsibility for a "highest good" material destination.  Education on the available options and infrastructure is key along with a proactive approach.  

A common theme in successful materials management programs is teamwork between companies and their suppliers.  For many manufacturers a significant portion of their waste is in the form of packaging.  Companies like Ricoh Electronics and Subaru of Indiana Automotive  worked with suppliers to develop reusable packaging that is returned for use in the next shipment.  Thus, reducing waste and costs.

waxed cardboard is
one of the fire log ingredients
As documented in the ZWA Blog post, The Perpetual Spiral, extending a material's end of life is not recycling and is only one step away from landfill destination.  An example of extending life, versus recycling, is sending waxed cardboard, not recyclable or compostable, to "fire log" manufacturing.  Without diving into the possible toxins involved in manufacturing and burning the logs, the use gives a false sense of environmental stewardship. Waxed cardboard is commonly used in produce and meat packaging for commercial food operations, ranging from retail outlets to hotels & conference centers to restaurants.

Cost-effective coatings that are recyclable and compostable exist to replace traditional wax . Thus, the cellulose fiber in the cardboard may recycle another five to six times before its final paper use in compostable napkins and tissue paper. Note a significant portion of napkins and tissue paper is made from virgin forests, wasting potentially six to seven fiber lives in various paper products.  

waxed cardboard box
It takes the power of consumer demand to educate farmers on the importance of using an alternative to waxed cardboard. The personal consumer is the perfect vehicle to inspire corporate consumers like Whole Foods to use their powerful voice to effect change at the farmer and produce company level.  

The ZWA Blog post, Waxed Cardboard = Landfill Destiny = $$ Lost, is an overview of the National Restaurant Association 2012 Show educational session, Challenging the Value-Chain to Transform Transport Packaging:  Eco-Friendly , Wallet-Friendly Solutions.  Ei Chair Scott Seydel orchestrated and Lily Kelly with Global Green's CoRR moderated an excellent educational session on transport packaging, with a focus on waxed cardboard boxes.

Working together and using the power of consumer demand, national industry leaders are creating an evolved paradigm where sustainable practices are best practices as they make solid business sense.  The ZWA Blog post, Consumer Demand: A Powerful Voice to Effect Change, sets the stage for Ei's Product Stewardship focus grounded in Economics 101, the power of supply and demand.

These are thrilling times!  Pioneers are stepping forward as industry heroes and blazing trails to a reality where landfills are mined for valuable material and no longer a destination.  Stay tuned ...


  1. The information is quite insightful and sheds a lot of light on one of the most promising problems faced by US or by any other country. It will be quite interesting to see how digging the landfills could turn profitable or even churn some money.

    1. Thanks Becky! When the landfills start getting mined, it sure will wake-up communities and businesses as to the value of what they viewing as trash! Fun times on the horizon!

  2. Now how do we get this information out to "Joe & Jane Public" who think "single stream" is the greatest thing since sliced bread?

  3. My sense is the economics inherent with clean, source-separated material will be the driver. First, recycling profit centers in business will become common place. Next, an astute community will make the move to abandon s-s and be rewarded with the economic benefits. Then the tables will turn. At Elemental Impact we lead with programs that make good business sense. Then, by the way, environmental stewardship is at the core program value. Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment.

  4. Great article!

    I love that you brought up the problems with single-stream recycling and plastic-coated cardboard; both are issues I dealt with when I was working on zero waste efforts at UC Berkeley. We were one of the few campuses that continued with dual-stream recycling because we not only got more money for cleaner, sorted paper vs. cans and bottles, but in my opinion, it trains the campus community to hopefully think a little more about whether what they are purchasing, using and throwing away/recycling is ACTUALLY recyclable.

    And the coated-cardboard... don't even get me started! I have yet to find almond milk or soy milk that comes in a reusable, recyclabe (like plastic milk jugs) or compostable container so I've actually started making my own and storing it in glass.

    Fantastic article!

    1. Thanks Kimberly - I LOVE your enthusiasm!!! I feel the cracks in the surface of current systems with action ready to flourish - the real fun is almost here!