Trash as Treasure: From Setting to Surpassing the Bar on Waste Reduction

April 17, 2015

Whether a sustainability expert or newcomer, those who work in this industry likely will tell you that ‘sustainability’ can be an elusive, rarely agreed-upon and often poorly defined term. But as Tony Robbins said, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

One sustainability issue that I consider the most visible, or tangible, for companies to grasp, is waste. This explains why it is often the first thing a company will tackle - particularly when it comes to those that manufacture products.

Wherever a company falls along the spectrum – whether that’s trying to be a just a little greener, a zero waste-to-landfiller or a trend-setting visionary – everybody has to start somewhere.  Let's step through the various levels of waste reduction goals -- all pulled from, which presents the publicly available sustainability goals of the Global Fortune 500. (Note: I serve as the Project Manager for


It’s not easy being “Greener”

In my consulting experience, it’s important to meet companies where they are currently. That usually means helping them come up with small, bite-sized goals, which are easier to “sell in” to the decision-makers up top.

Companies that are few steps or years out on their sustainability journey typically start with a goal that looks at reducing a certain percentage of waste within their operations that they know is achievable within a short period of time.

Then once they’ve got some real data results to work with, they are able to go back to the C-Suite and propose more long-term, cross-cutting goals. This kind of ‘relentless incrementalism’ is critical in the beginning stages of building a waste management program.

This is the category that most companies currently are in.  One example from Pivot Goals is Volkswagon (VW), with a goal to reduce waste by 25 percent across the Group. Like VW, it’s not uncommon for a Greener’s waste goal to live within a larger, more holistic sustainability target; VW aims to reduce their entire environmental footprint by 25% by 2018 (compared to 2010 levels), including not only waste, but water and energy consumption, CO2 and solvent emissions at all VW plants throughout the globe.


Zero is the Loneliest Number, but a Good Kind of Lonely

Once a company realizes that these incremental steps can add up to big cost savings and palpable environmental impact, companies like Walmart and Toyota aim to take waste out of their business’ equation altogether – setting their sites on being Zero Waste-to-Landfillers.

The scope of this kind of goal is usually laser-focused on manufacturing facilities and/or retail locations, as those are the areas of the business where the company has the most control over the waste generated.  

For example, Walmart’s goal is to eliminate landfill waste from U.S. stores and Sam’s Club locations, while Toyota’s is to achieve zero waste to landfill at manufacturing plants. 


A Vision Beyond ‘End of Life’

For a few rare companies, achieving zero waste within their own operations simply isn’t enough – they need a bigger waste reduction fix that touches waste throughout their entire value chain, and better still, aims to influence their industry at large.

These are what I call the waste Visionaries. Bridgestone and Honda exemplify this mindset. Honda is challenging itself to completely close the loop for all resources and bring product life-cycle waste down to zero, and Bridgestone seeks to create a waste-free tire industry with programs like the “Tires 4ward Recycling Program,” which ensures that for every tire sold, one spent tire will be given a next, valuable life.

This ‘cradle to cradle’ mentality is one where companies don’t see waste; they see a second, third, fourth life for those materials – new products and revenue streams. In other words, product “end of life” is out of their vocabulary.

This game-changing approach is the future of waste reduction goal setting – and one that will hopefully inspire industries to think “outside the landfill.”





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