If you haven’t already heard, waste is a big problem in the U.S. Current estimates put the total figure for municipal solid waste at around 267 million tons a year, with as little as 67 million tons recycled and 27 million tons composted.

However, the nation is waking up to its waste output. And as new legislation and state-wide initiatives place increased emphasis on producer responsibility, businesses everywhere are looking for ways to reduce waste. Simultaneously helping them to become more efficient, be more responsible, and achieve compliance.

To reach this, many businesses are beginning to explore zero-waste concepts. With strong ties to the circular economy, it is seen as a viable alternative to conventional waste management. At its core, it aims to reassess the way we see waste, working through a set of hierarchical principles to rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, and otherwise manage our growing piles of waste.

How to implement a zero waste strategy for your business

But how can your business implement a zero-waste strategy? And what kind of benefits can it bring? Here we look at where to begin on your zero-waste journey and why businesses everywhere should be focusing on the zero-waste hierarchy.

1. Assess, examine, engage

As with any type of waste management plan, the first step is always to assess and examine your existing output. Implementing a zero-waste approach is no different, and taking a long, hard look at your waste generation allows you to identify areas in which to improve and highlight inefficient practices or processes.

At this stage, depending on the size and scale of your business, it may be useful to retain the services of waste management professionals. These experts can systematically examine and assess your waste generation and provide detailed metrics on the amounts, frequency, and types of waste, as well as how it is dealt with (recycled, landfilled) after it has left your premises.

Alternatively, you can take care of this process yourself. If this is your preferred approach, then it’s a good idea to set up a dedicated waste management team or assign the job to an individual. It is important that your assessments are comprehensive, for example taking into account waste at the production level as well as in your offices, while also following through and recording how waste ends its journey. Bear in mind, that this probably means a little dumpster diving to build up a comprehensive picture of what you trash, so be prepared to get your hands dirty.

Either way, none of this happens without the help of your employees, and engaging them from the beginning of your company’s zero waste journey is key. Make sure you share your new vision with managers and employees, discuss the benefits for both the company and the wider world, ask for personal experiences of where waste occurs, and of course, ideas on how to reduce it. A business-based zero waste strategy is a team effort, and the more people you have on board, the more successful it will be.

2. Rethink and redesign

Once you have a handle on your existing waste output, you can build a plan that aims to generate less waste. The first step is by rethinking and redesigning your existing systems and habits to eliminate waste at the source. This can include anything from refining production processes to using less raw materials to simply phasing out single-use plastics in the office kitchen.

By rethinking and redesigning systems that currently generate waste, not only will you be able to minimize waste output, but also create more efficient processes and practices that have the potential to deliver cost savings over the long-term. Every stage of waste generation should be examined and open to redesign. Whether that’s taking time to design cardboard mailers that utilize less card or overhauling your most popular products to include recycled materials, it’s critical that you explore all available options.

For a simple example, providing reusable cups alongside a water cooler cuts out plastic waste while also delivering cost savings when compared to a fridge stocked with single-use water. The same may be true for replacing polluting materials such as petroleum-based plastics with sustainable and less toxic materials (such as bioplastics) in your products.

3. Reduce, reuse, recycle

Any materials that prove difficult to integrate into your redesign are still not “waste”. The next step is to look into how they can be reduced, reused, and recycled — in that specific order. Changing our disposable mentality is among the biggest challenges facing the zero-waste movement, and once you’ve dealt with the steps of rethink and redesign, it’s time to push so-called waste further up the hierarchy.

To refer back to our example, single-use plastics are often fully recyclable. However, reducing their use wherever possible is the preferred measure, helping you to cut out waste at the source rather than “manage” it later. And here is the crucial point, demanding the “best use” of materials in line with the zero-waste hierarchy ensures that we place greater value on all of our resources.

Any materials or products that cannot be reduced or reused must be recycled conscientiously. This means sorting materials correctly at your premises, providing clearly marked bins and signage that help staff to do this, while also organizing regular education sessions and updates on current best practices. 

Once collected, tracking your waste to the correct facility can also be useful, providing concrete data that can become part of the consumer-facing drive to highlight your sustainability credentials—an important metric that increasing numbers of consumers are now looking for when choosing products or services.

LivePlan no guesswork

Improve and refine your strategy

None of these steps towards a viable zero waste strategy are set in stone, and you should look to constantly improve and refine your plans. For example, redesigning existing processes and practices may create new waste streams or inefficiencies which should then be addressed as you circle back to the top of the zero-waste hierarchy.

The overarching idea is to promote the best possible use of materials at any given stage. Ideally, you want to continually push materials further up the hierarchy. By ensuring you have a comprehensive plan that can be revised and developed as you progress along your zero-waste journey, you’ll be working towards more efficient waste management every day.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to remember that the “zero” in zero waste is an aspirational goal. Reaching absolute zero may never be possible, however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As zero waste chef Anne-Marie Bonneau puts it:

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly. “

AvatarShannon Bergstrom

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.