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Zero Waste-to-Landfill: Why It Needs to Be a Goal and How to Get There

October 6, 2022

Zero Waste to Landfill green hills

In the United States, we still bury more than half of our waste in landfills, losing valuable resources and harming the environment in the process as those materials release exorbitant amounts of methane into the atmosphere and contaminants into our soil and waterways.

On the surface, sending waste to landfills may seem to be the easiest and most economical route to waste disposal. But aside from the hidden liabilities and harmful effects, the upfront cost of landfill disposal is steadily rising as landfill space becomes ever more scarce. According to the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, landfill tipping fees increased annually on average between 5% and 7% —measurements taken before the sharp rise in supply chain issues and inflation.

By adopting zero waste-to-landfill processes and policies in order to divert waste away from landfills, companies can do more to preserve the environment and bolster their bottom lines: They can reduce logistics expenses and landfill fees, improve environmental compliance and reap positive public relations benefits.

This can all be accomplished by reducing the amount of waste your business generates, amplifying your recycling efforts, and finding sustainable solutions that extract value from the materials that remain. The following four steps can help you create the foundation of an effective zero waste-to-landfill plan.


Assess Your Waste and Assemble Your Team

Before you try to manage the waste your company generates, you need to better understand your waste stream by performing a waste audit. This will help you determine what kind of waste your business produces, how much it produces, where it’s coming from and where it’s going. What’s more, is it’ll give you insight into how you currently manage it and where there are gaps and room for improvement.

Look through your organization’s waste streams and recyclables. Consider every part of your facilities, including production areas, offices, cafeterias, storerooms and warehouses. Remember, waste can be viewed as any material leaving your facility that isn’t a finished product or its associated packaging, with no potential revenue generation. Map the flows of materials and their lifecycles and look for any missed opportunities for reduction, reuse and recycling.

Once your audit is complete, you should establish a sustainability strategy that’s composed of specific, realistic goals with clearly defined key performance indicators. Start with more easily attainable goals so you can build momentum for your end goal of zero waste-to-landfill. Then create a team to help you execute the strategy. In larger businesses, this should ideally be a cross-functional team with members pulled from several relevant departments.


Expand the Plan and Seek Broad Buy-In

As you see gains and success with your early goals, you can make a better case for going after more complex waste management ambitions. Expand your sustainability strategy with new initiatives that will get you closer to sending zero of your business’ waste to landfills. This will involve expanding your efforts beyond your initial team to a company-wide audience.

You’ll want to engage employees at all levels in the company, educating them about how zero waste-to-landfill not only helps the planet, but also sets up the business—and in turn, those who are part of it—for more growth and success. By providing the facts and building enthusiasm and momentum, you’ll be able to accomplish bigger and more challenging objectives. Motivation and participation throughout your company will help accelerate your progress, but ingraining a continuous improvement-type of mindset into your culture will help you go the distance and stay there.


Evolve Your Strategy for Further Gains

As your sustainability strategy makes gains and grows, it will also need to evolve. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different companies will have different resources and operate under different circumstances as they reduce their waste or extract value from the materials they used to throw away.

Look at your KPIs and evaluate how you hit your targets, if at all. As you weigh out what worked and what didn’t, you can trim the fat and refine your processes. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments, even in well-performing areas. Sometimes taking a step back is worth creating the opportunity to take two steps forward. Conversely, don’t be too quick to drop poor performing ideas either. Change takes time and its execution might be the issue. Fresher, less conventional ways of thinking and rolling out your ideas might be all it takes to get out of a rut and inspire superior waste reduction, reuse and recycling strategies. Just be sure you’re making timely, data-driven decisions across the board that aren’t confusing correlation with causation.

When you’ve exhausted all the ways you can reduce, reuse and recycle waste, explore processing technologies, such as waste-to-energy, composting or anaerobic digestion solutions, either in-house or with a partner company. While these solutions carry some environmental impact, they are minimal, effective and yield far more benefits than landfilling your remaining waste.


Verify Your Efforts

As you make progress on your zero waste-to-landfill goal—and especially once you’ve achieved it—you’ll want proof of your accomplishments. The best thing to do at this phase is to seek third-party verification of your efforts. Internally, it will help ensure that you’re doing all that you can and haven’t missed any opportunities for improvement. Externally, you can use the official validation of your efforts to boost your corporate messaging and public relations, as well as improve trust with local communities, your customers and other stakeholders.

Standards vary from provider to provider, so choose your verifier carefully. You’ll need to:

  • Make sure you understand the process and can fulfill all requirements
  • Research the reputation of the verifier
  • Ensure they have experience with your industry
  • Prioritize downstream verification to ensure all partners in the process are sustainable

As you begin this process, be sure to provide transparency and clear communication at every step for the benefit of the verifier and any public scrutiny later. Engaging in thorough environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting goes a long way too. Partnering with a firm that’s experienced in integrating ESG within and throughout businesses is immensely beneficial as well. Not only does such an arrangement help drive sustainable performance and demonstrate value to the public and regulatory entities, it helps businesses shoulder the burden of undergoing such a transformation.

In the end, these efforts will pay off—and not just for the planet. Companies that have embraced zero waste-to-landfill have seen a return on investment in terms of reputation and corporate growth. Your company can, too.

For more on zero waste-to-landfill and the value in verifying a business’s zero waste-to-landfill accomplishments, read our article.

A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

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