Debunking Zero-Waste Myths for a More Sustainable Business
13 October 2022
Currently, the economy is predominantly linear. Within this economic model, this entails the extraction of resources to be used for the creation of a product. After a product has been used, what remains is usually discarded and typically not reintroduced back into the manufacturing process. This means that the full potential of a product and its material is often not met as the lifecycle is short-lived and avenues of keeping material in rotation are unexplored and/or ignored.
As a result, this economic model and the associated way of operation is inherently unsustainable as there are only a finite number of resources available. For example, the present extent of consumption and its trends outpaces the availability of resources as material is seen as limitless. Furthermore, this is exacerbated by the encouragement of overconsumption and overproduction within this economic system.
However, the linear model is not the only blueprint available for how to run an economy – quite the contrary. There are alternative approaches and economic prototypes that can be implemented instead as a means of being more sustainable. One such approach is that of going zero-waste as a business.
Nonetheless, there are numerous misconceptions associated with zero-waste. These can be confusing and overwhelming as it can be difficult to sift through what is reality and what is farce. Additionally, fallacies associated with zero-waste can also lead to apprehension for those considering its implementation. Some of the major myths covered in this blog post include:
- Zero-waste means all or nothing
- Going zero-waste is too expensive – especially for businesses
- When implementing a zero-waste strategy, an external party must be involved and
- One zero-waste company does not make a difference.
Here within, zero-waste is not only defined, but the aforementioned misconceptions are also addressed and scrutinised as a means of clearing up the air and helping put any uneasiness towards zero-waste to rest.
Watch our webinar with Connor Hill on debunking zero-waste myths for businesses now.
What is Zero-Waste?
While there are numerous benefits for going zero-waste, especially for businesses, there are a variety of misconceptions that are generally associated with it, including what zero-waste inherently means. The definition itself varies depending on who you may ask.
According to Gary Lewis, CEO of Resourcify, zero-waste can be framed and approached as such: one should evaluate the ratio of production coming from recycled materials, i.e., the percentage. For example, when a plastic water bottle is being produced, the percentage of recycled plastic going into its manufacturing would ideally be 100%. However, as of 2016, the majority of products do not focus on the use of recycled materials as a core source - it is reported that the percentage of recycled material used in production Europe-wide is at approximately 12%.
Furthermore, zero-waste is not merely a method of production, but rather it should also contribute to a sense of mindfulness at both the consumer and business level. As stated by Jon Khoo, Head of Sustainability (Europe & Asia) at Interface, “zero-waste is thinking about how we can make sure that we send as little as possible to landfill. We must think about taking responsibility for our products at the end of life and working with our customers and local authorities to make sure things are going to the best destination they can.” For example, this may include reusing a product, ultimately redesigning a product so it is more sustainable in the first place, repairing instead of replacing, or an overall repurposing at the end of a product’s original intended use. In general, a transition towards sustainable thinking is an important step.
While the general concept of zero-waste can be rather simple, various misconceptions associated with it add unnecessary confusion and complexity. Therefore, to truly appreciate zero-waste’s potential, the most prevalent myths should be addressed.
Myth #1: Zero-Waste Means All or Nothing
In tandem with the misunderstanding of zero-waste’s general definition, it is quite often assumed that, when going zero-waste, it is an all or nothing endeavour. This assumption can be overwhelming and off-putting.
In fact, zero-waste is both an end goal and a journey and it is all about progress. It is a shift in mentality, approach and how a company orients itself and it cannot be figured out overnight – assuming otherwise is unrealistic and can derail a zero-waste strategy. The process can potentially take years, so setting realistic goals and stages is the encouraged approach.
For example, viewing it as a pyramid may help divide up the necessary stages. As Gary Lewis points out, the base of the pyramid could be the step in which a business takes control of waste and waste streams – i.e., the acknowledgement of waste, knowing what is going into waste containers, measuring amounts, etc. This oversight is a great initial step as the analysis can help pinpoint areas where material in one waste stream could potentially be shifted into another, more sustainable stream.
After this stage, depending on a variety of factors, a business could then venture into looking at aspects beyond waste. However, the general premise of the pyramid framework is to demonstrate that, by breaking a zero-waste strategy into stages, each step generates value for the next stage and the overall scheme is more transparent and palatable. Moreover, splitting the journey into various steps turns what could be perceived as a daunting journey into manageable pieces.
Myth #2: Going Zero-Waste is Too Expensive – Especially for Businesses
Another leading myth is that it is assumed that going zero-waste is too expensive and does not make sense financially. However, it is argued that it is the other way around: while the initial steps may cost a bit more – such as the need to possibly change recyclers, hire new staff, etc. – maintaining the present course of action of participating in a linear economy is more expensive in the long term for companies.
Evaluating costs associated with waste are key and may shine light on financial benefits. It creates the opportunity to truly scrutinise factors that are associated with waste management, and it creates the opportunity for dialogue and questions. Such questions that could be considered are:
- Are there charges for having material go to a landfill – overall or for specific material?
- Are there any other hidden fees?
- Are there any regulations that must be followed and are there any legal ramifications and/or fines that may come up when they are not followed?
- What does the bill for waste look like after a month and/or a year? How does it look if providers were switched?
- Could there be a revenue opportunity by implementing recycling programmes and rerouting material into other waste streams? (i.e., plastics, metal, etc.)
Overall, consistency and transparency are crucial. Posing questions to providers and digitising waste management also helps bring costs to light and may bring about the chance to adjust in areas that may already be creating financial burdens and leaks.
Also, it should be said that, by waiting, it will be more expensive in the long run to not implement such strategies. With the upswing of new, environmentally conscious regulations and policies – such as carbon charges and incineration fees – pre-emptive moves may combat future financial penalties and strain. Additionally, at the present moment, the production of an item itself is becoming increasingly more difficult as factors such as resource extraction and acquiring new material become more and more unstable. By using material already in circulation, it not only aids in possibly lowering costs from needing to acquire new material but can also add a layer of stability in supply and production.
Myth #3: Must Have an External Party to Plan
It is often assumed that, even if there is a will, the only way towards realising a zero-waste policy is to exclusively have an external party plan everything. While external parties can guide a company in the right direction, most of the facilitation towards the realisation of a zero-waste initiative can come from within the company itself.
For starters, the company can evaluate where they stand and what their goals are. They can also start by asking waste providers questions about topics such as where their waste is going and what it is being used for. If the questions are met with hesitation and/or vague responses, it may be an indication that waste is not being treated sustainably and a company can therefore make a judgement call if they want to continue this partnership.
Additionally, a company can look internally to see if there are already individuals passionate about the topic at hand and see if there are skills already present in their own personnel that can also be used to help achieve zero-waste goals – for example, individuals who are apt at data analysis and coordination.
Overall, a balance between internal organisation and the use of external agents may be the most beneficial. Find those who are interested from within while also not shying away from a third-party opinion as it can give a different perspective and they can also provide support. As Jon Khoo puts it, “Use your externals to disrupt, to measure and to help you on your journey – like a critical friend – and grow your internal awareness of it so it fuels that fire to make waste work for you.”
Myth #4: One Zero-Waste Company Does Not Make a Difference
One of the main misconceptions that discourages those contemplating going zero-waste is the idea that it does not make a difference – what can one company do? However, it is quite the opposite – every step counts, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Before zero-waste can become the new normal, it has to start somewhere. It is true that it is still relatively new, and some industries have made more progress than others, but viewing zero-waste as an opportunity helps shift the narrative from being pessimistic to one that is encouraging. For example, a company who implements zero-waste could potentially serve as a beacon within its industry and could spur others to follow suit.
Overall, a shift in beliefs and practices is necessary as it will not only be beneficial for finances and production, but it will ultimately be favourable for everyone on the planet. Going zero-waste is positive for businesses, consumers and the planet - therefore, a step towards being more sustainable is a move in the right direction.