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Is Zero Waste Achievable?

We are an increasingly disposable society who for the past decade or so have realized that while disposable is convenient, it is not necessarily good for our communal existence here on Planet Earth.  Today, waste is big news.  It’s serious.  And it’s hard to ignore.

The 5 R’s

We need to manage our waste by methods of the 5 R’s.  Here’s how it works…

  1. Refuse what you don’t need.
  2. Reduce what you do need.
  3. Reuse by using reusables.
  4. Recyclewhat you can’t refuse, reduce, or reuse.  And finally,
  5. Rot the rest – compost.

We have been trying to recycle for quite a few decades, but now the pace has picked up considerably.  There is an increasing focus on waste diversion from landfills and measures to reduce waste before it is generated.  30 years ago, 15% “diversion” from landfill was a good level; nowadays cities and states are mandating goals for 50 – 75%; and some individual facilities are trying to achieve net zero …90% diversion from landfill.

What Does It Look Like?

So, if our Utopian goal is “zero waste,” how do we achieve anything close to this in a commercial setting?  What can proactive waste diversion look like when commercial and institutional buildings generate significant amounts of materials and waste?

Understanding Why Waste Management is Important

Perhaps the most important reason for proper waste management is to protect the environment and the health and safety of the population.  Certain types of waste can be hazardous and can pollute the environment.  Poor waste management practices cause all sorts of problems from land and air pollution to serious medical conditions.  Alternatively, a well-planned waste management program helps to protect the environment and all of us, while benefitting your business with energy efficiency, cost savings, and resource recovery measures, to name a few.

It Starts with Education

The first step is to understand the increasing need for separation, and proper separation, at the point of generation.  What does this mean exactly?  It means not all trash can be treated the same.   Take two disposable cups, for example.   Even though they might look the same, they are not necessarily made of the same material.  We can’t just toss them both in the same blue recycling bin to be hauled to the recycling center.  Another example is a food bowl – given the bowl is a compostable type material, it and the left-over food content can go to the organics stream, but often the bowl’s plastic lid is not compostable, and it must go to another stream. This is how entire loads are contaminated and while the good intention is there, the effectiveness is not.  The more effective model is to separate items at the point of generation as the first step in waste stream diversion.

Effective separation at the point of generation requires a well-planned program for materials used, space and waste equipment.   It necessitates buy-in from people using the facility, operators, building managers and haulers so that the different kinds of waste streams can be held in central trash rooms effectively, composting can occur if it makes sense, and coordination with haulers for off-site processing can be administered correctly.  Bottom line, we want to ensure that effective waste stream diversion increases, while decreasing the amount of waste sent to the landfill for eternity.

Municipality Mandates and Regulations Are Key

Any way you look at it, waste recycling regulation is here to stay, and by all accounts become more stringent.  In most US and Canadian states, cities and provinces we are seeing an uptick in mandates and codes, as well as required waste management plans linked to building permits.  While general diversion goals and regulations are more common, many new regulations target specific waste streams – two of the more critical are plastics, an increasing environmental issue; and organics/compost, a promising recycling stream through aerobic and anaerobic processing.

It Doesn’t Need to be a Headache

And while calculating anticipated waste for your facility and generating a report to submit to your municipality may seem like a headache, it doesn’t need to be.  Whether or not it’s mandatory in your jurisdiction, it’s smart to seek out an experienced waste management specialist to become a part of the architectural planning team. It is best to deal with your anticipated waste stream as early in the design process as possible.  Ideally, this means while you are in the concept stage, so the waste infrastructure can be integrated seamlessly into the whole design rather than an afterthought.  A non-existent or ill-conceived waste management program means lots of problems and lots of money to address them after the fact.

Future Earth will Thank You

While zero waste is a lofty goal, it is not insurmountable.  You can take steps today to begin on the track to a cleaner and more viable Earth for decades to come.

By:  Joe Sorgent

Director of Sustainability | Los Angeles

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