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Embrace Your Waste

Being a relatively new entrant to the exciting and complex world of waste reduction one learning that has surprised me perhaps more than anything else is that many organizations and communities know relatively little about their waste stream.  Perhaps this is a function of waste being, well, waste, so it doesn't get a lot of love or perhaps it is a function of the fact that unlike things like energy or water there is no handy dandy meter to inform us.  Regardless of the reasons it is evident to this waste newcomer that a lot more businesses and communities need to make the effort to step up and embrace the waste.

Why you may ask do I believe this is so critical?  Good question!  Beginning with the basics of management - there is the premise that if you can't measure it you can't manage it.  Over the course of the past few months I have encountered a variety of organizations big and small that are actively pursuing waste reduction and even working toward goals of zero waste.  Amazingly enough in almost every instance these organizations have not performed a detailed waste audit that allows them to understand the true volume, make-up, source, destination and impacts of their waste stream.  Admittedly this is, at least to me, somewhat of a baffling practice that I would equate to beginning a diet without knowing your current weight, what you eat or what would be a healthy end weight.

Another reason to get to know your waste is so you can understand and effectively prioritize your options for reduction.  Many organizations begin down the path of waste reduction assuming that the only thing that stands between them and success is employee or community engagement.  Often enough, this assumption may prove somewhat true and behavior change can go a long a way to reduce waste.  The questions remain however, how far will your existing infrastructure get you and is the course you are on a meaningful and cost-effective way of changing your relationship with your waste?  While you are pursuing incremental improvements via behavior perhaps you could be eliminating toxic materials, replacing materials with better, less expensive alternatives or actually generating revenue from your waste or excess materials.

A third reason to embrace the waste is that it allows communities and businesses alike to make more aggressive, impactful decisions that protect people and the environment.  The fact is that not all waste is created equal.  Toxic materials, plastics and organic materials are all examples of waste that reap a uniquely harmful toll.  At Zero Waste Alliance we are firm believers in what we call ERRR.  This is the same Reduce, Ruse, Recycle that we all know and love but with the firm addition of Eliminate.  There is no excuse for the volume of toxics that enter homes, schools or the environment.  Nor is there an excuse for the massive volume of plastics choking our oceans.  Getting to know your waste stream allows your organization to more definitively address these pressing issues by Eliminating these types of materials by making their elimination one of your highest priorities.  

So the case is clear (I think at least) that more businesses and communities must take the step to get to know their waste stream.  So as far as making it happen, it does not have to be expensive or time consuming.  There are a wide variety of assessment templates and case studies to be found on the Internet to support your work.  If you are not ready to dumpster dive yourself, reach out to your local college or university and discuss starting a waste assessment service.  If that is not an option, then look to your local nonprofit or consulting community.  Regardless of how you do it, commit yourself to take the dive and Embrace the Waste.

Getting To Scale

As the Executive Director of the Zero Waste Alliance I doubt that people expect to hear me say that when it comes to waste, more can be better.  Yes, more waste can be better and this is why - with more waste comes more opportunity.  To be clear, that is not an attempt to increase consumption or disposal.  This is an effort to have communities rethink their perception of waste and consider the value of scale.  Waste from a single business location, a single construction site or a single home is a costly problem.  It has to be collected, sorted, sent away and managed.  However, waste from a campus, a district, a community or even from an entire state, now that is an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to aggregate material flows, to pursue innovative practices and technologies, and ultimately, to create robust, self-sustaining markets that transform our relationship with waste.

Agree or not, I believe that private commercial ventures that create and sustain positive community and environmental outcomes are a cornerstone of long-term community well-being.  To attract the talent, capital and technology necessary for these ventures however, you have to have the benefit of scale.  Without the benefit of scale corporate executives, institutional investors and venture capitalists can't justify their investments or sustain their enterprises.  Now for the good news - when it comes to waste the United States is the overwhelming global leader in scale.  A recent World Bank study reported that US per capita waste production is well in excess of 2,000 pounds per year.  The is a tremendous amount of scale and fertile ground for any venture seeking a steady supply and demand for its goods and services.

Out of the gates there continues to be massive opportunity capturing and recycling the various paper, plastic, metal and glass goods that for the most part we are already able to handle.  The US continues to lag behind many other countries in recovering these materials despite the fact there are proven strategies for success and markets already in place.  In contrast, study after study has proven in communities across the US that increased recycling rates directly contribute to more jobs.  Some studies even reflect that by increasing our national recycling to 75 percent, (more than doubling the current but still behind some other countries) we would create well over 1 million new jobs.

In addition to recycling, there are substantial opportunities to create jobs and eliminate waste by filtering out, refurbishing and reusing items that should not even be in the waste stream.  From industrial materials to furniture, it is estimated that the US unnecessarily adds over $20 billion of goods and materials to landfills every year.  By reducing this volume 1 percent each year over the next 10 years, we will retain $9 billion worth of goods and materials plus the added value of many items being refurbished.  That is a tremendous market opportunity for ventures willing to bring new thinking and new technology.  It is also a market that deserves more attention and support from public sector economic development.  We have to better consider businesses that are not dependent on imported materials to meet the needs of our community.

Last, we are clearly beginning to see new waves of practices and technologies that are allowing us to take large-scale, long-term approaches to converting our waste into value.  From energy generation to oil extraction and from precious metals recovery to organic fertilizer operations, just to scratch the surface, the are businesses and communities recognizing the opportunity of addressing the waste stream at a much larger scale.  You need to look no further that business like Waste Management and their investment in new businesses to understand that despite the name, this industry leader fully recognizes that they are in the resource business and that every truck they send out is bringing back opportunity.

It is imperative that even more communities reconsider the value of their waste and actively explore the role that new practices and new technologies can play in reducing waste and creating economic opportunity. Without greater recognition and commitment, sustained community vitality and environmental gains will remain amongst the valuables we are shipping to landfills every day. 

Time for Zero Waste!

For my first blog as the ED of the Zero Waste Alliance I figure I may as well jump in with both feet and get  it out there right away - our community is not where it needs to be when it comes to our vision for and commitment to a future without waste.  To clarify my view, this is not an indictment of our agencies, our businesses or our people.  Clearly as a community we have so much to be proud of when it comes to marking a path for sustainability and the progress we have made on waste.  Plus, this issue of zero waste is no easy matter.  It is wildly complex and fraught with competing views across the entire gamut of how, when and why we should pursue zero waste.


Regardless, the pursuit of zero waste is not an environmental nicety or feel good window dressing.  Waste is exactly what we know it to be....WASTE!  Waste is bad for business, bad for communities and bad for the global environment.  Stop for just a second to consider just the economic aspects of waste.  With one hand we are paying increasingly higher rates to acquire goods and materials for our businesses and our homes.  Then after some level of use (often well short of full) we pay to have those goods and materials hauled away.  Then, going back to that first hand, we pay again to acquire new materials to replace the stuff we just paid to have taken away.


Now you can argue that this is a gross over simplification of the waste stream and that what I am pointing to as a problem is in fact the foundation for what we know to be our economy.  I agree...this is a gross simplification and is the foundation of our economy.  In no way however, do these points make my assertion that this is a broken model that does not serve the best interest of businesses and communities is in any way wrong.  Also, in this scenario I never even went into environmental impact, higher cost of living, health effects on the most vulnerable or the jobs that we can create by breaking the model.  So let's consider a truly positive alternative.


Our community and our state have the opportunity to continue to be true leaders by declaring a meaningful, prosperous and inclusive vision of a future without waste.  A future where the goods and materials that we produce and acquire are not bound for landfills or shipped overseas to be reprocessed.  A future where we close the loop within our own local and regional economy, we strengthen existing businesses, we create new business and we tear away at the notion of have’s and have not’s as we become rich in resources just as we are now so poor in waste.  This is about rethinking our models, it is about rebuilding our markets and it is about bringing to forefront the capacity of our minds and our hands to create a future that is better than the one that sits before us now. It is time Portland!  It is time Oregon!  Zero Waste 2020!