Waste or Waste Not – That is the Question
By Joe Carpenter, Director of Sustainability and Operations
Unfortunately, there is a massive floating swirl of plastic in the Pacific ocean and more microplastics in all our oceans than stars in the sky. These are just a couple of mind-blowing facts about the waste, and persistent waste at that, that we as a species have generated just in the last century.
Like the fossil fuels that power our world, the waste that we have created has improved our lives in a lot of ways – before it became waste, at least. Rather than demonizing what we have done, I’d rather ask the question: can we somehow retain the benefit of these products and services that we use while doing away with the negative impacts?
Waste comes in many different forms. If you look at the textbook definitions of waste, they embody a spirit of something falling to ruin or not being taken full advantage of. In the context of sustainability I believe both are appropriate because sustainable business practices focus on waste minimization and reuse potential. Both of which have the potential to improve financial performance and overall resilience to market disruptions.
So, what is waste to you? Is it using too much packaging to get your product out the door, or not enough, leaving the package damaged and subsequently returned? Is your waste a liquid by-product of your manufacturing process, or reams of paper being used to print out redundant forms? Or it it time that’s wasted – can your employees be more effective throughout the day? Is it your product that is discarded after one use and then lasts a thousand years in the ground?
Last month I suggested that you know your energy flow and the same applies to your waste. The idea that you first need to know how you are doing something before you can improve on it is hardly a revolutionary or complicated concept, but gaining this understanding is often neglected due to the ever present constraint of time.
Now, go back and look at how you actually operate. One method of analyzing operations often used as the gold standard in the manufacturing world is the Toyota Production System and its focus on continuous improvement. Their efforts to optimize efficiency through the reduction of waste, be it material or time, has allowed their company to thrive.
A carpet company called Interface presents another example of efficient operating. Interface and its former CEO Ray Anderson are known for their pioneering work in sustainability, namely waste reduction. Ray got curious about how they could both reduce the amount of material they use to create carpet (increasing profit margin) and make the materials used less harmful to people and planet.
This idea is conceptualized by programs like Design for the Environment, Cradle to Cradle, or Value Stream Mapping. Essentially, these are codified methodologies to help one reduce and/or eliminate the waste generated by the products they create. Of course, not every organization creates a product. An evaluation of waste for those organizations might be better suited by doing a flowchart of the organization’s process much like the Value Stream Mapping.
Your Business and Waste
By working to identify and remove waste from your business you will potentially find opportunities to save money. Subaru gives us an example of how their zero waste efforts saves money while highlighting how they generated the ideas needed to make that happen.
Of course only you can answer if it is financially viable for your business, but you can’t determine that without first spending some time understanding your waste streams. Sustainability is about looking holistically across financial, environmental, and social considerations in order to increase resilience and the possibility of both short and long-term success.
So I ask the questions from before in a slightly different way – can your business retain or enhances its value proposition while reducing or eliminating its waste? This may be a hard questions to answer, but one worth exploring.
As a closing thought I’d like to emphasize to people that sustainability isn’t easy – it’s more than installing an energy efficient lightbulb, but a mindset and way of operating on a daily basis. It’s something that needs to be ingrained in a culture and does not develop overnight. Do what you can, celebrate what you have done, and keep taking steps in the right direction by continuously seeking ways to improve.
Joe Carpenter is the Director of Operations and Sustainability at CABA. Previously, he served as an Officer in the U.S. Army for nearly 10 years, including three combat deployments, and working for a small manufacturing company in a number of capacities. Joe graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and from Harvard University Extension School with a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Sustainability; among a myriad of other educational experiences. Joe enjoys spending time in nature, working out, playing video games, watching improv comedy shows, and trying to figure out how things can be “done better.”