We often think of the concept of zero waste as it relates to the individual – trimming one’s life until the amount of waste generated is absolutely inconsequential (a year’s worth of might fill a jar or a small shopping bag, for example). The goal of producing zero waste isn’t just for individuals anymore; industries have started to jump on the bandwagon too, including this zero waste newspaper facility, and this is very, very good news.
Why? Well, because the waste footprint of a business is thousands – sometimes millions – of times greater than that of any one individual and thus, any positive change they effect will have a massive impact on total waste.
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An individual’s personal trash output, – those bags of garbage lining the street on garbage day – goes into a category referred to as municipal solid waste (MSW). Industrial Solid Waste (ISW), on the other hand, refers to the waste materials produced by industry. We have an extensive amount of data on MSW because the Environmental Protection Agency has collected detailed data on MSW for almost 40 years. This is how we know that in 2013, each person in the U.S. threw out roughly 4.4 lbs of garbage every single day. An individual living a zero waste lifestyle, on the other hand, generates virtually no waste and thus prevents just over 1,600 lbs of garbage from entering the landfill each year.
Oddly, this kind of detailed data simply doesn’t exist for ISW. We have been using the same data estimate for the amount of ISW generated in the United States since 1987, when the EPA stated that American industry collectively produced 7.6 billion tons of solid waste. It would appear that this amount hasn’t been measured or updated at all in the intervening 29 years.
The reason this lack of data is problematic is that in 1987, the average amount of MSW produced per person, per day was 3.83 pounds – 13% less than in 2013. If we assume that industrial waste has increased at the same rate as municipal waste, it means that American industry is now producing a staggering 10 billion tons of waste each and every year. Thus, according to these numbers industrial waste accounts for approximately 97.5% of the waste generated in the U.S. each year.
The disproportionate waste generated by industry compared to individuals means it is critical that companies are motivated to shift toward more environmentally friendly modes of production, where the condition of the world we live in is just as important as the bottom line.
Zero Waste Business
The U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) was created to recognize companies doing just that. The USZWBC was founded in October 2011 by three decidedly earth-friendly organizations, the Earth Resource Foundation, GrassRoots Recycling Network, and Zero Waste International Alliance. The council is a certification body which recognizes businesses that divert 90% of their waste from landfills and incinerators. This accreditation offers support to those companies looking to lower their waste footprint and present an eco-friendly presence for increasingly-earth conscious consumers.
But what does zero waste mean for business? The USZWBC has adopted the definition developed by the Zero Waste International Alliance, the only peer-reviewed, internationally accepted definition of zero waste in existence. It reads as follows:
“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
Businesses are accredited at four different levels – bronze, silver, gold and platinum. One business just accredited at the gold level, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has completely revamped their newspaper operations in order to lower their waste footprint and become the first newspaper in the U.S. to attain zero waste status.
The facility, located in Atlanta, Georgia, used to send 5,000 tons of waste to landfills and incinerators each year but has now virtually eliminated that amount through a combination of operational changes and employee education programs. Core to reaching their zero waste goal was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s commitment to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost materials whenever possible, and they’ve done so by creating an environment conducive to zero waste.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution created a program to recycle the aluminum litho plates used in newspaper printing – metal “originals” from which the day’s newspapers are printed – and reorganized their operations to create an environment with zero waste newspaper printing as a top priority. Other changes which helped them gain certification included:
- Redirecting the overhead conveyor flow to send materials directly into recycling bins
- Incorporating consistent, color-coded recycling bins at each work station
- Completing a lighting controls project that annually prevents the replacement of more than 900 lamps
- Partnering with waste management vendors to ensure the materials are properly removed from the facility
- Training new and existing employees on the recycling program during onboarding and lunch and learn sessions
Not satisfied with receiving a gold accreditation from the USZWBC , the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also pledged to lower energy and water consumption by 20% by 2026.
The most powerful message emerging from the zero waste movement is the knowledge that it can be done. This is true at both the individual level and in industry. We offer our congratulations to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and hope that as the number of zero waste businesses grows, stories like this can inspire others to do the same.
Feature image credit: zefart / Shutterstock