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3 Big Sustainability Issues Facing Every Business, and How to Respond

As 2018 draws to a close, the increasingly loud conversation surrounding recycling, food waste, plastic pollution and zero waste is helping to reinvigorate people and businesses to work towards more sustainable solutions. Now we have the added urgency of the UN report finding that the world has just 12 years left to take action on climate change. The landscape is changing and business leaders understand that they have to be prepared. What should businesses do? Here are three of the biggest sustainability issues that businesses had to deal with in 2018, that will continue to impact their operations in 2019.

 

Impact of the China Import Ban

Across the country, waste and recycling costs are rising, and have been for some years now. A big reason for this is the continuing China import ban, which stops contaminated materials from entering the country. China was a big recipient of US recyclables. Now other countries are also starting to take steps to limit scrap imports. Until we can achieve cleaner, better separated recyclables, or find better alternatives for processing recycling, we will continue to face higher fees for waste removal and processing.

What businesses should do:

Contamination is the crucial metric to watch. Your business must reduce contamination to maintain the value of your recyclable materials. Conduct a comprehensive waste audit to understand what is actually ending up in the trash and recycling streams. Look at how your waste and recycling program is set up, how it’s communicated, and what vendors you’re using that support your sustainable waste efforts.

 

The Economics of Recycling

Even without the China import ban, the recycling market goes up and down depending on oil and commodity prices. If oil is cheap, “virgin” plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic. If the demand for recyclables drops, there will be a corresponding drop in the value of recyclables. Other factors that affect the economics of recycling include the number of recycling facilities across the country, the presence or absence of local government recycling programs, and the strength of the overall economy.

What businesses should do:

Avoid being beholden to these fluctuations by taking control of your costs. This means developing a sustainable waste and recycling program that works for your business with better materials management, improved purchasing decisions, and a focus on reduction and reuse strategies and other solutions. Disrupting your recycling program is not recommended because it does not solve any problems. Moving your recyclables to the trash will lead to increased waste costs, and more materials headed to landfill, which means a bigger carbon footprint. You will also loose all the investment in time and training involved in setting up your recycling program. Besides, the public, your consumers, staff and tenant demand recycling. Instead, move towards a zero waste mindset to close the loop. If you don’t purchase it or dispose of it, you save money.

 

Changing Regulatory Landscape

Worldwide, more and more regulations are coming down the pipeline to address everything from food waste to plastic use and greenhouse gas emissions. While requirements differ on city and state level, one thing is certain – businesses will be targeted. Governments that want to reduce their carbon footprint, cut waste and save money will look to businesses because they are the largest consumers of electricity and are large producers of waste and recyclables. With more local and national governments setting sustainability goals, you can expect voluntary and mandatory guidelines to affect businesses.

What businesses should do:

Our first advice is to be in compliance and avoid fines, which can balloon. Check your local regulations regularly as laws are updated constantly. And give yourself ample time to prepare before laws go into effect.

Beyond being in compliance, businesses should take the lead in areas that can really make an impact for them. For example, food service businesses can start saying no to single-use plastic straws starting with a simple but effective straws on request policy. Many businesses in the hospitality industry have already started to do this even though they may not be compelled to do so by law. They recognize the benefits this move has amidst the public outcry over plastic pollution. Showing leadership in sustainability will not only benefit your operations but earn you crucial support from customers and the public that could translate into benefits for years to come.

Finally, consider carbon footprint accounting. Even if you do not disclose the data, the insight it provides will give you a better idea of the environment in which your business is operating now, and how that might change and affect your future.

By Ross Guberman, CEO, Great Forest, Inc.

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