Deliver Sustained Value to the Economy through Increased Recycling
For many companies with multiple locations, waste costs are simply another bill that gets paid along with electricity and water. Services are established when a site opens, and then dumpsters are filled and hauled away, with little thought given to what is in them. But if those dumpsters were filled with cash or precious metals, most companies would put more effort into investigating what was in their waste stream. What many companies don’t realize is that they actually are throwing away valuable commodities and not doing anything about it.
Globally, less than one-sixth of e-waste was diverted to proper recycling and reuse. According to the United Nations University, the UN’s think tank, global e-waste topped 41.8 metric tons of electrical and electronic products, and almost 60 percent was a mix of large and small equipment used in homes and businesses.
This e-waste waste is not junk — it contains valuable commodities like iron, copper, gold, silver, aluminum and other resources. It also contains toxins like leaded glass, batteries, mercury, cadmium and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Globally, the e-waste generated in 2014 contained an estimated value of $52 billion, and this number is expected to rise as manufacturers continue creating new electronics with shorter life cycles.
Over 16 years, the value of raw materials in e-waste alone will add up roughly to the same amount as the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. There’s great opportunity for society to create its own market-based “stimulus package” without increasing its debt, simply by increasing recycling rates, recovering valuable materials and striving for a zero waste model across the entire waste stream, not just e-waste.
There are two very good reasons for companies to pursue increased recycling rates. While we may believe that the issue is space — i.e., where are we going to bury all of our trash? — the implications for not recycling are much greater. Valuable commodities — cardboard, paper, plastics, metals, glass, etc. — can be recovered and put to a better use. And because recycling is more labor-intensive than sending waste straight to landfills, more jobs can be created for separating and recycling the materials. According to a 2011 report prepared by the Tellus Institute, More Jobs, Less Pollution, if the national recycling rate increased from 34 percent (in 2011) to 75 percent, we would create 1.5 million new jobs, while at the same time reducing 515 million MTCO2e.
Businesses have a third reason to decrease what goes to the waste stream that more directly affects their bottom line. Over the past five years, waste sent to landfills increased by 8 percent in the US while waste disposal costs have risen 28 percent over the past 10 years. In addition to natural cost inflation, some municipalities and counties are accelerating this trend by utilizing price pressure to motivate businesses to divert materials to recycling, either by heavily taxing landfill waste or by embedding recycling costs in waste disposal costs.
So whether you have a business that simply wants to reduce waste charges, or you want to improve your environmental profile and increase recycling rates, where do you start?
First, start with data analysis. Companies should examine waste bills month after month because you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Maybe there are extra charges for overflowing dumpsters, or there suspiciously high service volumes for some sites (i.e. large containers at low volume sites), or even charges for sites that closed long ago (it happens). Analyzing the bills for “low hanging fruit” savings can deliver quick wins, freeing up capital to kick-start a broader waste diversion program.
Second, literally dive into your dumpsters. To get the most accurate view into waste composition, companies should regularly inspect what they are throwing away (or hire someone else to do it). How much can be diverted to recovery and recycling — such as food, cardboard, aluminum, paper, plastics and electronics? Diverting these materials can reduce the cost of disposal and even generate a new revenue stream from selling commodities like cardboard, metals and plastics.
Third, collaborate with every stakeholder across the business, from supply chain and purchasing to facilities and operations. Don’t just look at the “downstream waste” — what you are throwing away — but the upstream waste as well. Work with suppliers to decrease the amount of materials coming into your facility. Set up a kick-off event before embarking on a waste diversion initiative and ensure that everyone in the company knows they have a role to play in reducing waste, from those who procure supplies coming into the company to the end user who chooses between tossing paper or electronics in the trash or recycling bin. For maximum impact, collaborate with your in-house HR or marketing team to develop the right message that will ensure active participation.
Last year in the US, the consumer electronics industry recycled 660 million pounds of electronics — the industry’s highest ever annual total. While this is great progress, there is still more to be done both domestically and globally. The first step many companies still need to undertake is implementing or enhancing their basic recycling programs. For multi-site companies, it takes just one site to implement a successful program and share its actions, and others will follow. Soon, peer companies will take notice and follow suit. Collectively, these efforts will help us reach the goal of a 75 percent recycling rate and new recovery arm of our economy.
Erik Makinson is the director of product management for Ecova. Erik has led the implementation and growth of Ecova’s Waste Solutions group since 2009. Ecova’s Waste Solution experts assist clients in all of their waste management needs, including the design and implementation of multi-site recycling projects, assessment of environmental impacts of packaging changes, identification of significant waste hauling savings and more.
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