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A Roadmap to Zero Waste

Companies with environmental sustainability commitments used to be touted as progressive or ahead of the curve. Today they’re the norm: 70 percent of companies have permanently placed sustainability on their agendas in the past six years, according to an MIT Sloan Management Review/The Boston Consulting Group survey.

In recent years, a growing number of companies have also started to realize that our system of extracting natural resources into materials that will later be discarded for disposal is not sustainable. This reality, coupled with economic pressures, high-energy prices, population growth and less landfill space, has encouraged some to adopt a zero waste commitment. Zero waste is a philosophy focused on reducing the amount of generated waste produced by a company and its customers throughout the entire product lifecycle, from raw materials to final disposal. This new way of looking at the waste stream, in which trash is seen as a valuable resource, is at the core of Waste Management’s values.

Case Study: Bringing Caterpillar to Zero Waste

In 2008, Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of equipment maker Caterpillar, announced a zero waste commitment. Within days, the company audited the business and identified ways to create more value from its waste output.

One of the first areas for improvement was ramping up recycling, including instituting the distribution of prepaid, shippable containers for recycling items like fluorescent lamps, batteries and electronics. The team placed several recycling kiosks and solar powered compactors around the site to encourage employees to recycle used bottles and cans. The team also recommended that Caterpillar begin washing more than 14,000 pairs of gloves per month for reuse rather than discarding them in the garbage, further reducing the amount of materials sent to the landfill.

After three years of work, Caterpillar’s focus on sustainability and zero waste netted significant benefits, including:

  • Increased landfill diversion rate from 26 percent to 93 percent
  • Reduced trash from over 500 tons/month to less than 100 tons/month
  • Decreased their average waste cost from $95/ton to $22/ton
  • Documented cost savings and avoidances of over $2MM
  • Revamped their waste collection system to include collection points for: –Metal –Wood –Cardboard –Polypropylene Film –PET Banding/Tie Wraps/Caps –Cans/Bottles/Paper –Used Personal Protective Equipment
  • Increased or introduced recycling of various items: –Wood – From 50 tons/month to 750 tons/month

–Cardboard – From 0 tons/month to 60 tons/month

–Plastic (Caps/Ties/Banding/Film) – From 0 tons/month to 10 tons/month –Cans/Bottles/Paper – From 0 tons/month to 0.5 tons/month –Personal Protective Equipment – From 0 tons/month to 0.5 tons/month

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3 thoughts on “A Roadmap to Zero Waste

  1. I’m confused. The headline talks zero waste as does the roadmap. Yet the bulk of the article references Cat’s work to avoid landfill by ramping up recycling. What’s their plan to reach zero waste and not just zero landfill?

  2. His statement: “Zero waste is a philosophy focused on reducing the amount of generated waste produced by a company and its customers throughout the entire product lifecycle, from raw materials to final disposal.” is incorrect – there is no disposal if you have zero waste. This also includes not sending anything to a “waste-to-energy” plant since that is simply incineration of your waste … unless the ash is put into a product for beneficial use. Zero Waste means having ZERO WASTE – anything else is purely greenwashing.

  3. What a great case study! The roadmap to set the ambitious goal of zero waste and to track efforts towards that goal really sets a good example to follow. Can’t wait to learn about what additional steps Caterpillar will take to continue toward their goal.

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