Rubber mulch and playground surface from recycled tires. photo: flicker/pinnaclerubbermulch

You may have heard the term ‘zero waste’ used recently.  For many businesses and consumers, the term is usually met with a degree of skepticism.  ‘No waste? – that’s pie in the sky talk’ they say.  But while the naysayers continue believing it just can’t be, others are genuinely (and successfully) reimagining waste.

At its core, zero waste encourages product design (business) such that products are continually reused (consumers) and no waste (trash) is sent to landfills or incinerators (business and consumer).  According to zerowaste.org, ‘waste should be thought of as a “residual product” or simply a “potential resource” to counter our basic acceptance of waste as a normal course of events.’

Whether you represent a business or household, the benefits of achieving zero waste are the same – financial savings, increased innovation and sustainability.  For businesses, common manufacturing wastes often include overproduction, transportation, processing, inventory and quality control issues (defects).

After using products manufactured by businesses, many households miss opportunities to reuse or recycle those products.  According to Green Cities California, ‘only 1% of the products we buy are still in use 6 months after purchase.’

In Stop Trashing the Climate, authors outline that ‘’A zero waste approach is one of the fastest, cheapest, and most effective strategies to protect the climate.’  They go on to say that, ‘Significantly decreasing waste disposed in landfills and incinerators will reduce greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent to closing 21% of U.S. coal-fired power plants. This is comparable to leading climate protection proposals such as improving national vehicle fuel efficiency. Indeed, preventing waste and expanding reuse, recycling, and composting are essential to put us on the path to climate stability.’

In helping a national retailer towards its sustainability initiatives, Quest Resource Management Group has helped the retailer reimagine several waste streams – food, tires and motor oil. In 2010, Quest designed and implemented a successful coast-to-coast food waste recycling program the retailer.  Meat that is not suitable for donation to local food banks is now donated to local animal shelters and zoos.  To date, Quest has helped donate over 10 million pounds of meat through this program.

Used cooking oil (prepared food department) from fryers is now collected and recycled into biodiesel, which is then used by companies to fuel their transportation fleets. Motor oil collected from oil changes is now re-refined into base oil which is then used again by consumers. Scrap tires (automotive department) are turned into rubber-based mulch.  Mulch is used by local landscaping companies or re-manufactured into crumb rubber for use in playground or other sports surfaces, such as running tracks in stadiums. Some is even resold at retailer locations – essentially closing the loop.

As outlined in the USA Today, ‘DuPont Building Innovations, which makes countertops and Tyvek building wrap, announced earlier this month that — within three years — it has slashed the annual amount of waste it sends to landfills from 81 million pounds to zero.’ ‘It’s good for our business, both its bottom line and public image’, says spokeswoman Patty Seif.

The city of San Francisco has reduced its waste to landfill by 77%—the highest diversion rate in the United States through incentives and extensive public outreach.  The city is on track to reach 90% by 2020.

Whether you are a business, municipality or household, achieving zero waste is not a dream.  By reimagining waste as a product, achieving zero waste can be attainable with forward thinking, research and determination.

By Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for Earth911.com.