baled cardboard recycling

Consumers Create Change: Why Your Business Needs to Aim for Zero Waste

It may sound far-fetched to live a zero-waste lifestyle, yet there are some simple changes we can make as consumers to make this perceived fantasy a reality.

Before I dive into what we can do, let’s back up a little bit and delve into what zero waste really means.

Zero waste is a principle that involves the application of tools, strategies and resources in order to completely eradicate waste, rather than sending it to landfill.

This can utopia can be created through every person involved taking responsibility; from consumers, business owners and governments.

And if saving the planet wasn’t incentive enough, research shows that UK companies can save money by helping the environment, sparing £23 billion a year by improving the way they use energy, water and materials. Expanding on the zero waste movement, ‘zero waste to landfill’ is a hot subject right now, offering a tangible policy that organisations can follow in order to stop sending waste to landfill.

Through recycling, composting and waste reduction, businesses can be kinder to the environment and save money in the process. Good for business, good for the planet.

Adopting a zero waste business model is not always easy; knowing where to begin can be challenging. Here are eight ways to get the ball rolling.

1. Get to know your garbage

The first step on the road to zero waste is to audit your current waste stream to establish a control baseline. Before you start making changes, you need to know how much waste your business is generating – and what happens to it. And on top of that, you need to assess your current waste facilities and how well they’re being used.

Once you have an understanding of your waste stream, you can move on to managing it more effectively.

2. Prevention is better than cure

Diversion, reduction, prevention. Make this your waste-not mantra. These three approaches are among the most important when it comes to responsible waste management.

Let’s start with prevention: the ideal scenario. Stop generating so much waste in the first place, and you no longer have to deal with it. While this is the preferable option, it’s often the hardest to achieve, especially for bigger companies with stakeholders throughout the supply chain. You need everyone to be on board.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. By enthusiastically involving your suppliers and stakeholders in your zero waste efforts, you can take all sorts of unnecessary materials out of the whole product lifecycle – a win-win result for everyone. Look out for unit load design and packaging reduction opportunities and consider reusable or compostable packaging where possible.

3. Recycling is still relevant

Despite your best attempts, there will still be times when things need throwing away – especially as you make the transition to zero waste. In this case, recycling is still preferable to landfill. Today, it’s possible to recycle more materials than ever: cans, paper, cardboard, plastic, glass – even trainers and computers. There are services that recycle an assortment of different goods, if you look hard enough.

If you’re a large company producing a lot of waste, think about investing in a bulk recycling service like this one to help you achieve your zero waste to landfill goals.

Another reason for recyclable materials ending up in landfill is simply convenience. Most people would rather not think about sorting their waste. Make it super easy for your employees to recycle properly by having a series of clearly labelled recycling bins at regular intervals, depending on the size of your premises.

I also want to mention the Ecobricks initiative, based in South Africa. Ecobricks are plastic bottles packed full of non-biological un-recyclables, like plastic packaging. The bricks can be used to make modular furniture, walls, and even buildings. It offers a solution that effectively traps plastics out of the biosphere and stops it ending up in the ocean. It’s also a great way to gain perspective on how much plastic you’re using.

4. Educate and involve your employees

Once you’ve established your zero waste goals, it’s time to get the whole team involved. Achieving zero waste to landfill is a group effort that requires everyone’s commitment and cooperation – getting employees engaged is the next step to making it happen.

Start by raising awareness: call a company meeting to discuss your zero waste policy, provide training resources and elect a waste prevention team. Sir David Attenborough’s Plastic Message should help whip up some enthusiasm:

Embracing zero waste requires a shift in perspective: from waste reduction to resource conservation. A lot of what we throw away isn’t ‘rubbish’ – it’s a resource that needs managing. Celebrate successes and implement rewards and incentives to keep employees invested. Why not display the results visually?

5. Dispose of your ‘disposable mentality’

One of the reasons waste is such a pervasive problem today is modern society’s disposable mentality. We’ve become so used to single-use products like plastic bottles, bags and straws that they seem normal – the default option for our beverages, snack and groceries.

But we are entering a reusable revolution. Reusable product makers are seeing unprecedented growth. Ultimately, switching to reusable products saves money as well as resources, and should be embraced by all industries. Here are some switches you can make right away:

  • Plastic cups → switch to reusable drink bottles
  • Paper towels → switch to organic cotton dish towels
  • Batteries → switch to rechargeable ones
  • Rubbish bags → switch to compostable bags
  • Coffee pods → switch to a reusable filter pod
  • Notebooks → switch to reusable, wipe-clean notebooks (it’s a thing!)

6. Reduce, reuse, recycle – or redesign

Many of us were taught the phrase ‘reduce reuse recycle’ at school, but they missed out one crucial alternative – redesign. If your products generate non-recyclable waste later in their lifecycle, something needs to change. Single-use disposables are choking oceans and ecosystems, quite literally.

Much of it is pointless. Just look at these oranges.

peeled oranges wrapped in plastic packaging

Someone, somewhere, thought that was a good idea.

Your zero waste ambitions must therefore extend to eliminating waste during both the production and consumption phase, whether that’s through compostable packaging or by redesigning your goods to be more durable, reusable and recyclable.

7. Trash money

A growing number of businesses have started trading their trash for cash. The contents of your bin bags may be worth more than you thought. If you needed an added incentive to stop throwing so much away on top of the many compelling environmental and ecological factors, let this be it.

For example, did you know that baled cardboard can be sold? If your business gets through tonnes of the brown stuff, you can turn that into a revenue opportunity. Otherwise, you’re literally throwing money away (money isn’t biodegradable either; UK banknotes are made of polymer). You will, however, need a baling machine.

8. What else can you do?

Finally, here are 10 other quick wins that will help you on your way to zero waste and helping the environment in general:

  1. Use concentrated, eco-friendly cleaning products
  2. Encourage staff to pack a zero waste lunch
  3. Set all printers to print double-sided
  4. Use refillable printer cartridges
  5. Ask suppliers to take back bulk packaging
  6. Reuse incoming packaging for outgoing orders
  7. Start a compost heap for your tea bags and coffee grounds
  8. Repair something when it breaks
  9. Set up a grocery bag sharing point with reusable bags
  10. Use social media to share your zero waste initiatives and encourage other businesses to do the same

Why we need to act now

The startling numbers we are seeing in regards to ocean debris tell us that something needs to change. As environmental awareness spreads, consumers are increasingly on the lookout for greener products. Zero waste is just one way for organisations to up their game and take responsibility.

It’s a long road, but the destination is worth it: for your employees, your customers, and the environment. I urge you to take action and get started today – even small shifts add up to significant benefits, compounded over time. Let today be the day you start viewing waste differently.