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Achieving Zero Waste status at your organization may seem like a daunting, if not impossible, task—especially if you don’t have the resources of a large corporation that can assign the job to a dedicated task force.

Indeed many large companies (Walmart, Levi Strauss & Co., Dell, and Unilever, to name a few) have taken huge strides in making better use of resources while managing less trash. But you don’t have to be a multi-billion dollar corporation to practice zero waste.

There are many steps small businesses can take toward achieving a zero waste goal, with certification and recognition for those who do.

4 Reasons Why You Should Aim for Zero Waste

Zero waste goes far beyond recycling. For businesses, zero waste means redesigning your entire product life cycle so that all resources are used or re-used and nothing goes to waste. You make complete use of the resources you bring in. Discarded materials are non-toxic and become resources for your own business or others. Organizations of any size can work toward achieving zero waste. Here’s why you should try:

1. The numbers are too big to ignore.

The U.S. economic engine is powered by the country’s 30 million small businesses. Nearly 48% of workers are employed by small businesses, and more than a third of the national waste stream comes from businesses and industry. That adds up to a lot of trash.

2. Attract more customers.

Statistics show that most consumers prefer to buy from companies that are committed to environmentally friendly practices. While big businesses are well aware of this fact and making good progress, smaller businesses get left behind. They think they lack the economies of scale that large businesses can leverage to create sustainability programs.

3. Generate goodwill.

Your zero-waste efforts will impress your employees, community, customers, and prospective customers. When your business does something positive to improve the environment and the world, people notice. Employees are proud to work for a socially aware company; this is especially important if you want to attract younger workers.

4. Improve your bottom line.

By eliminating waste, you also eliminate the costs of waste management and removal. You increase the efficiency of your operation because you get a clear idea of what you are spending money on and how you are using those resources. When you use less, you buy less and throw away less. In a Zero Waste world, all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. You can reap additional income by selling your recyclable components to someone who can save money by using them.

According to Zero Waste International Alliance, “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.”

8 Tips for Getting Started

1. Know your trash.

Think of your trash as evidence of inefficiency. Observe what you throw away to determine if some can be disposed of through recycling, resale or composting. By understanding what you throw away, you can find ways to use less or re-purpose items you routinely toss. Look at the sources, types and volume of trash generated by your business. Find out if your current trash hauler conducts trash audits. If not, try partnering with a local environmental group or college program to understand what you throw away and how you might cut back.

2. Compost your food waste.

Food that goes to the landfill undergoes anaerobic (without air) decomposition that leads to an increase in methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. When you compost food, decomposition is aerobic (with air), produces carbon dioxide, and reduces methane production. While an abundance of CO2 is not good for the atmosphere, over a 100 hundred-year span, methane is 28-36 times more potent (Source: EPA). In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Source: Environmental Defense Fund).

3. Consider your supply chain.

Encourage your suppliers to practice Zero Waste or choose suppliers with an environmentally-friendly track record. If your business process creates by-products, make arrangements with another business that can use those by-products. If you receive shipments in cartons, you might find a nearby shipping service to pick up your gently used cartons for their own use; this gives them a needed product at a discounted price and relieves you of the waste. Get creative when looking for ways to reuse materials. Get your employees involved by asking them for ideas.

4. Change behaviors to reduce and reuse.

Because recycling uses energy, businesses should work toward reducing the overall number of materials coming in. Consider the fact that you are paying for items coming in and paying again to have them go out via your waste removal provider. Instead of ordering supplies daily or weekly, consider placing your order once a month. Work with your suppliers to pack items more efficiently with less stuffing and boxes. Buy needed products in larger containers to reduce packaging. Save fuel and pollution by scheduling fewer deliveries. If you sell a packaged product or pack products into plastic bags or shells, find another way to deliver your goods or set up recycling programs for your containers. Check to see if your recycling receptacles are convenient for your workers so that they will use them. Color-coded containers make it easy to put recyclables into the right bin. Reduce paper usage by printing on both sides or designating a copier drawer to hold once-used paper for all those draft print-outs that go immediately into the wastepaper basket. Share successes with all your facilities to motivate additional zero-waste behaviors.

5. Measure current usage and set future goals.

Agree to cut trash by a certain percentage by a target date. Begin by looking for quick fixes that will motivate your employees with early successes. Set up challenges and incentives for success. Keep employees motivated with regular communications about your successes. Focus on the financial savings and how that money will benefit the company or your staff.

6. Encourage zero-waste practices outside your business.

When you share successes with your clients and suppliers, it sends a positive message that you care about efficiency and trimming waste. That’s a message your customers can appreciate. Share your goals and collaborate with fellow business leaders; you may be able to leverage your collective purchasing power within your supply chain or with area waste haulers and recyclers. Work with an organization such as Rubicon Global, a disruptive waste industry player that persuades businesses of all sizes to consider options other than those provided by big-name waste-management haulers.

7. Geography matters, so get involved with your state, region or town to encourage support of zero-waste initiatives.

What a great way to make your business stand out as a leader! Zero waste efforts are already taking off in the eastern and western portions of the U.S. where land is expensive, the population is concentrated and legislators feel the pressure to lessen trash. In the middle and southern portions of the country, where land is cheaper and more plentiful, zero-waste may seem less important. If your state doesn’t mandate some level of recycling, there may be cities or regions where voluntary efforts are setting good examples: Colorado as a state has not taken significant action to enforce recycling, but the City of Boulder has forged ahead with its own programs and guidelines. Austin, Texas, and Missoula, Montana, have taken similar steps without state mandates. Find like-minded businesses and brainstorm to encourage zero-waste efforts in your locale.

8. Take that first step!

If you can’t achieve Zero Waste, work to achieve Zero Landfill, defined as a complete or nearly complete diversion of all solid waste from the landfill. Because it allows for recycling as part of the solution, it can serve as an initial step toward achieving a Zero Waste business.

If achieving “zero” is overwhelming, start smaller. Any steps you take towards Zero Waste are on the right track. Click here to learn more about zero-waste practices, programs and certifications.

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