Waste Management: Why and How Should Organizations Improve Their Practice

April 22 marked Earth Day, an annual day of environmental awareness started in 1970 to recognize the environmental damage industrialization was causing to the globe. Now, Earth Day has grown into the world’s largest environmental movement encouraging people to live more environmentally friendly; but the responsibility does not stop with individuals.

For the sake of clarity,

“plastic pollution involves the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affects wildlife, habitat or humans” (SaveEarth).

The problem is that plastic never goes away:

“Plastic is a durable material made to last forever, yet 33 percent of it is used once and then discarded. Plastic cannot biodegrade; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (plasticpollutioncoalition.org).”

Plastic pollution is one of the most concerning environmental issues of the 21st century, having really garnered attention in 2018 with numerous reports published on the unparalleled levels of microplastics found in the sea and the life-threatening damage they’ve caused to animals and other marine life. It’s on our minds now more than ever.

Infographic - Waste Management MattersHow much plastic are we throwing away?

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year (weforum.org). By 2050, this number is expected to rise to 60 tons per minute arriving at sea if we continue to use plastics at the current rate.

To put the increase in our consumption into perspective, in 1974 the global average per capita plastic consumption was 2kg, whereas today it’s 43kg! That’s a 2,050% increase in the last 44 years. (How did we ever come hundreds of decades without it!?)

Plastic and other types of waste are having a devastating impact on our environment; it’s a big problem to solve, but it’s through small initiatives, such as efficient waste management in organizations that can help to sustain our environment.

Organizational responsibility

Along with individuals, organizations and industries carry their responsibility. Many industrial processes produce hazardous waste; for example, in the heavy construction industry, wastes produced include asphalt wastes (widely recycled), petroleum distillates, and used oil. Some of the industries that generate the most hazardous waste are chemical manufacturing, paint manufacturing and paper manufacturing.

The easiest and most cost-effective way to minimize waste would be not to generate it in the first place. But we know that not many businesses are willing, nor do they have the option, to go down this road. Therefore, the next option is to look at pollution minimization; know how to reduce and reuse waste within your sector of work.

Re-evaluating waste management starts with asking questions

The responsibility of organizations is to look for ways to reuse and recycle materials, and to decrease the amount of waste ending up in landfill.  Asking the following questions might help when re-evaluating your waste management procedures:

  • How much waste do we generate?
  • What steps could we take to generate less waste?
  • Could we reuse or recycle more?
  • Could we buy and/or sell used materials?
  • Could we utilize materials and equipment more efficiently?
  • What do the legislation/policies say?

There are many ways companies can reduce waste; one of them being using fewer and more sustainable materials for packaging. Reducing excess packaging is one of the simpler options and will result in lower transportation and storage costs.

Waste management best practice improves the recycling of materials and the correct disposal, treatment and shipment of different types of waste, which comes with a set of benefits. An efficient system helps businesses to:

  • maximize the use of their resources, therefore reducing the costs associated with buying new materials;
  • cut down your waste disposal costs with less waste leaving the premises, and
  • meet the environmental obligations.

Efficient waste management can also have huge economic benefits for an organization. Rather than simply reacting to waste once it’s created, manufacturers should proactively plan how to utilize the waste produced from the outset: going back to the very beginning of when materials are acquired, to develop a watertight plan for a high percentage of waste diverted from landfill.

materials managementSwitching to materials management

As science advances with new technological developments, the sustainability onus will likely shift from remedies to prevention. David Stead, the Principal and Vice President of RRS has put it well:

“Stop Thinking Waste Management – Think Sustainable Materials Management”.

Stead proposes that waste management should be implemented as part of a materials management strategy. This means that by looking into what materials can be bought (used or new), what materials can be reused within the organization, what materials can be sold to another company for reuse, and what materials can be recycled and sorted, an organization can better manage the cycle and reduce the waste they generate.

If businesses focus too much on achieving the requirements for diversion from landfills, sending poorly sorted materials towards recycling, these might eventually end up in landfill anyway (contaminating their batch of recyclables in the process).

So, by detecting opportunities to reuse, recycle and recover materials before they are selected for operations, organizations can make use of their resources and minimize the amount of waste they generate.

The economic benefits of waste management

It goes without saying that investing in good waste management benefits the environment. However, in addition to this, having an effective waste management plan is also a cost-efficient solution. General Motors generated $1 billion from recycling and reusing waste streams. In 2015, 53% of the company’s manufacturing operations and 41 of nonmanufacturing operations were landfill-free!

Waste management can result in sustainable and cost-efficient processes because:

  • Materials are cheaper when they’re bought used;
  • Finding points for reuse will reduce the need to buy new materials;
  • And the costs of waste disposal will be lower if less waste leaves the premises.

Such economic benefits are a powerful tool when translating the need for an updated waste management strategy to the board.

How waste management software can help

Waste management software regularly falls under the responsibility of Environmental Management. The software allows businesses to track and report on both hazardous and non-hazardous waste, thus helping to meet compliance with environmental regulations.

Waste management software helps businesses to minimize the damaging impact of hazardous waste on the environment by enabling them to optimize the way in which waste is recovered, reused, stored, transported and disposed. In addition to this, the system will help to meet compliance with standards such as and will keep your organization up to date on your performance and objectives.

If you’re struggling to monitor and capture data on your waste streams, have a look at our waste management solution »

Local and global initiatives

It is sometimes difficult to get your head around the impact your organization’s waste management efforts can have on our globe. To help you understand how you can make a difference, let’s look at some successful initiatives and developments that demonstrate the power of local efforts. 

Mexican flagMexico

There are means by which governments, communities, and organizations can reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. With efficient waste management solutions and policies in place, its damaging impact to our environment can be reduced; for example, in 2016, Mexico recycled 57% of the PET plastic it produced (up from 9% in 2002), making it the unlikely leading country globally for recycling PET.

French flagFrance

In 2016, France became the first country to prohibit supermarkets to throw away unused food. France is not the country that wastes the least food, however, they have become an example to follow. According to a report by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN), the French waste 234 pounds of food per person per year, whereas in the U.S. the same number is 430 pounds (csmonitor.com).

Swedish flagSweden

In Sweden, thousands of homes are being heated by waste incineration. In fact, Sweden had to start importing waste from other countries because they ran out of burnable waste to power the incinerators. In case they run out of burnable waste again, they will use biofuels to cover the gap (mnn.com).

Also, individual companies such as Tetra Pak have made steps to reduce their environmental footprint on the globe. The company is developing a paper straw for its portion-sized carton packages, and is using renewable materials and recyclable paperboard in their packaging. Why don’t you float this idea at your organization?

The future solution for plastic recycling?

One of the latest breakthroughs in plastic recycling has been the plastic eating enzyme discovered in Japan. The enzyme is produced by a bug – which may set alarm bells ringing for zombie apocalypse movie fanatics, but scientists are hoping that this enzyme could be safely used to break down PET, the plastic used for water bottles, back into its original component. In this state it would be much easier to recycle back into plastic: currently clear plastic bottles can only be turned into opaque fibres, whereas with this new biotechnology clear plastic bottles can become, again, clear plastic bottles.

It is likely that companies continue to buy virgin PET because of its low price, and with 1 million plastic bottles sold each minute, this hungry enzyme could be hugely beneficial in reducing our plastic waste.

Waste as global business

waste as global businessRecycling has been around for thousands of years, and during World War II, recycling increased for economic reasons and the lack of materials. However, it was in the 1970s that recycling centres were established and the universal symbol for recycling was introduced. Since then, the recycling industry has gone global.

In low-income countries most spend goes towards waste collection whereas in high-income countries the focus is on disposal. Urban areas produce the most waste, and according to a report by the World Bank, it’s the increasing urbanization in developing countries like India that will drive the increase in global solid waste. 

So, despite the great initiatives and innovative solutions, the numbers that show high-income countries improving and lowering their environmental footprint can be deceiving. By outsourcing their production and manufacturing to developing economies, the problem is basically moved to another location (Guardian). As they say: out of sight, out of mind. Whatever the solution, it has to be sustainable and affordable in every geography.

China and the business of foreign garbage

China has been affected by the global waste business. In 2016, China took in more than half of the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper. The recycled waste has been a way for China to get raw materials cheaply; however, the imported recyclable materials tend to be dirty, badly sorted and/or may be contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 2017, China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would stop taking in foreign garbage.

The U.S. and Japan are the biggest sources of plastic waste, with both countries accounting for around 10% of volume each.

Environmental policies

Environmental PoliciesThere are laws and regulations that enforce the proper management of waste and the minimization of its risks to the environment. The main aim of environmental and waste legislations is to help reduce environmental damage, such has been achieved in Mexico. However, businesses have their own objectives which don’t always necessarily address waste management issues, so if there are laws put in place companies may be more inclined to change their processes to comply.

Setting laws is out with the average Environmental Manager’s hands, but don’t forget you are also an individual; if pressure is kept up on governments to legislate sustainability, we’ve already seen what can be achieved. For example, the UK government recently took the step of banning microbead plastics in products such as face wash and are facing strengthened calls from the TV-viewing public for more action after the award-winning documentary Blue Planet II highlighted the severe damage that plastics are causing to marine life.

For laws and policies to work, they must encourage the desired behaviors. In addition, appropriate infrastructure (waste collection etc) is needed to make it easier for companies to follow best practice.

In the UK, there are laws around the disposal of business and commercial waste.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates household, industrial, manufacturing, and commercial solid and hazardous wastes under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Other bodies that enforce and develop regulations for the protection of our environment and health are the Carbon Trust (an independent, expert partner of leading organizations around the world) and The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

In summary

universal recycling symbolAt the time of the initiation of the Earth Day in the 1970s, recycling centres and the universal symbol for recycling (we all know it!) were introduced. Since then the global consumption has increased to unprecedented levels, threatening our environment. Urbanization and the use of non-renewable materials is contributing to global climate change, with solid waste being a major source for greenhouse gases.

Many industrial processes generate hazardous waste, which is why organizations carry a huge responsibility, and with the choices they make, they can play a significant role in the future of our planet.

Waste management is not only environmentally beneficial, but also cost-efficient; and being recognized as a sustainable/green organization is good for a company’s reputation. With the help of waste management software businesses can track and report on waste movements, meet environmental obligations, and make the most of their materials.

Every positive initiative helps to sustain the environment, no matter how small, and with local infrastructure supporting businesses’ efforts sustainable management of waste can become the norm.

Glossary

PET
PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is a lightweight, clear plastic generally used in water and soda bottles. PET is 100% recyclable and it’s the most widely recycled plastic in the world.

Municipal Solid Waste
“Municipal waste is collected and treated by, or for municipalities. It covers waste from households, including bulky waste, similar waste from commerce and trade, office buildings, institutions and small businesses, yard and garden, street sweepings, contents of litter containers, and market cleansing. Waste from municipal sewage networks and treatment, as well as municipal construction and demolition is excluded (World Bank)." Municipal solid waste doesn’t include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.

Landfill
“Environmentally acceptable disposal of waste on ground. Sanitary landfills are where non-hazardous waste is spread in layers, compacted, and covered with earth at the end of each working day. Secure landfills are those where hazardous waste is disposed of by burial, in holes or trenches in ground lined with impervious plastic sheeting to prevent leakage or leaching of dangerous substances into soil and water supply (Business Dictionary)."

Additional resources

Video from OECD about how 3D printing’s impact for the environment
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8&v=0b6MzUQBhEI

CSRwire: “CSE Forecasts Top 10 Sustainability Trends for 2018
http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1866-cse-forecasts-top-10-sustainability-trends-for-2018

World Bank’s report “What a Waste
https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTURBANDEVELOPMENT/Resources/336387-1334852610766/What_a_Waste2012_Final.pdf

Guardian: “CO2 emissions are being 'outsourced' by rich countries to rising economies”
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/19/co2-emissions-outsourced-rich-nations-rising-economies

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A Copenhagen Business School graduate with a MA in International Business Communication, Tytti joined the Pro-Sapien marketing department in 2017 and brings a wide range of experience to the team – not to mention the ability to fluently speak three languages, Finnish (native), English and Spanish. Outside of business Tytti is an avid gymnast having competed at international level in the Aesthetic Group Gymnastics Championships, and has lived in Finland, France, Argentina, Spain, Denmark and now the United Kingdom. As the Graduate Marketing Executive Tytti coordinates Pro-Sapien’s social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at tytti.rekosuo@pro-sapien.com.