In this article, I review the 6 parts of the Waste Hierarchy Pyramid. By working your way down the levels the waste produced within an organization can be reduced.
Throughout the business world, corporate executives are always discussing different strategies to increase productivity and decrease inefficient processes. Often times these solutions are focused on the core aspects of the business and tasks of their employees. One area that is usually overlooked is that of the physical waste produced within an organization. Taking time to review this area can result in a wide range of benefits for both the environment and bottom line. By analyzing the hierarchy of waste within an organization, executives can reduce expenses associated with the procurement of supplies and materials as well as minimize the costs for proper disposal.
The first and most important part of the waste hierarchy is the concept of preventing the purchase of material that could potentially go to waste. When unnecessary supplies and materials are avoided, there is nothing to dispose of which saves money and automatically reduces waste. A perfect example of a very simple method to reduce waste could be encouraging employees to bring in reusable coffee mugs and water bottles. Although the purchase of these materials is not that expensive, over the course of a year it can be substantial and add up to around 500 disposable cups per employee (1). Even more important is the focus that is being put on the prevention of waste. Every time an employee takes a sip of coffee or refills their water bottle, this will reaffirm the goal of prevention and hopefully translate into other areas of the business.
The next step of the waste hierarchy is to minimize the amount that is being produced. This process is towards the top of the pyramid because despite the fact that there is small amount of waste, the focus is still on making decisions focused on reducing consumption. An area of business that the concept of minimization can be clearly seen is manufacturing. When companies look for ways to innovate and streamline their product design, it usually results in fewer materials and less waste. To demonstrate this concept, we will look at the redesign of plastic water bottles to minimize material usage. In 2009, PepsiCo’s bottled water known as Aquafina began releasing an “Eco-Fina” version to reduce the amount of material used in each bottle. According to PepsiCo this weighs only 10.9 grams and uses 50 percent less plastic than bottles of the same size produced in 2002 (2). Although the idea of single use products is controversial from a sustainability standpoint, a reduction in half the material being used is a step in the right direction.
Eventually as a business continues to analyze the different areas of potential waste, they will reach a point where there is nothing else to prevent or minimize. This is where the idea of reusing materials comes into play which can also help the bottom line in terms of lower the costs of procurement. Although many documents can now be accessed and shared without the need for printing a physical copy, there is still a need to print some. Depending on the type of business and the information printed, the option to reuse previously printed paper could be a viable option. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, if Citigroup employee’s used double-sided copying to conserve just one sheet of paper each week, the firm would save US$700,000 each year (3).
After the option to reuse a particular material has been considered, one of the most well-known ways to reduce waste can be considered which is recycling. This option takes materials which can no longer be reused and turns it into a different product. One of the easiest materials for an organization to recycle and have a measureable impact on their sustainability data is the office paper. The University of Southern Indiana claims that each ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water (4). By translating the data for each ton of recycled paper, the importance of responsible recycling can be seen. Not only is the amount of source material reduced but also the other finite resources such as water and fuel to process it. In addition, the ability to show employees a more relatable format of the information will hopefully help to increase program participation.
The second to last portion of the waste hierarchy is much less well known and often times not and on site option. It is the process of energy recovery from the non-recyclable waste that is produced within an organization. Energy recovery takes the waste and converts it into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas recovery (5). By choosing to dispose of waste in this manor, the materials are permanently converted into another form eliminating the possibility for reuse. In terms of sustainability it does not have as great of an impact as the previous possibilities but does help to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
Once all of the previous options for waste have been considered the last resort of disposal must be used. At this point of the process, all of the potential value has been removed from the material and the most common method of disposal is a landfill. In 2014, Americans produced close to 260 million tons of waste with over 50 percent going straight to landfills (6). This figure does stray away from the direct focus of sustainability within a business but also shows the importance of corporations taking this aspect seriously. Through providing consumers with more environmentally friendly products, they will be able to help reduce the human impact on the environment. It can also serve as a competitive advantage in the marketplace by demonstrating corporate responsibly and the desire to make a difference.
In conclusion, although the concept of waste within an organization may not be the most glamorous subject it does provide much opportunity to benefit a business. Through the process of trying to prevent the purchase of unnecessary materials business can lower their overhead. For the materials that are necessary, it is very important to carefully procure them and attempt to minimize the amount used. After materials have been used always try to reuse or at the very least recycle them. When neither of those options is available consider responsible disposal that uses energy recovery techniques to collect every last bit of value. If all else fails disposing of waste materials in a responsible managed landfill is the final option.
At the end of the day, when corporate executives take the time to consider these options they are leading by example and making an effort to run a sustainable business. This helps to show employees and customers that it is important to reduce our impact and make responsible decisions that help reduce of negative impact on the local and global communities.