Sustainability: stop talking recycling – start thinking opportunity

Corporations are looking closer at sustainability initiatives. But getting one off the ground is tough work, because people holding the purse strings aren’t easily swayed by good intentions alone. You’ve got to reframe recycling as a business opportunity to loosen the purse strings.

If retail giant Walmart can divert 81% of its waste from landfills, then why not you? Walmart and other high profile examples of waste minimisation put fire in the belly of sustainability champions, steering them to what appear to be tantalisingly accessible initiatives, such as email signatures asking people to think twice before printing, composting cafeteria food scraps, and other waste separation and recycling.

But these initiatives frequently fizzle out through lack of commitment and dependency, and sometimes even fail in the first place, because the money and commitment required up front isn’t forthcoming.

Take composting, for example. Most large organisations baulk at the cost and effort of setting up waste separation at the staff cafeteria, never mind the business of changing staff behaviour, waste handling and the mechanics of composting at the back-end. What looks good on paper quickly loses its gloss.

However, despite these hurdles, a number of EnviroWaste’s large corporate customers have successfully launched and continue to run, large-scale food waste capture and composting programmes. The common factor in their successes is thinking in terms of dependencies. People other than you must have a stake in the project at both the front and back ends of the programme.

We’re often approached by customers keen to grow a more sustainability-minded workplace culture. People naturally gravitate to the most visible opportunities, which is why diverting food and organic waste from onsite cafeterias often tops of the list.

However, in one case, the customer’s operations were scattered across the regions – typically in remote locations, where organic waste collection services aren’t available.

So we put our heads together to identify a few dependencies providing the essential ingredients for a self-sustaining programme at one of their regional sites.

What fast became apparent was that many workers on site had kids at the local school. Meanwhile, the local school, keen to launch a composting initiative of its own, required a consistent supply of high-quality food waste. Bingo! Two dependents.

The symbiosis also extends to the wider community, with a local group using the school’s compost for a planting programme. And what the customer spent on food separation at the front-end was more than recovered by the newly reduced volume of waste going to landfill.

Thinking only in terms of recycling, particularly in the current environment, in which many so-called recyclers simply bail recyclables for commodity sellers,  may not remain sustainable – because there are no dependents in a system geared to simple waste diversion.

A better approach reframes sustainability as a closed loop economy – a regenerative system that ensures materials have more than one useful life, either re-used, repaired, reconditioned, or remanufactured and ultimately cycled at different levels in the economy. Dependents are the engine that powers this economy.  

Right now we’re working with a grocery retailer to divert broken plastic shopping baskets from landfill. Thinking in terms of closed loop economics, we helped facilitate a process that turned old trollies into plastic pellets to provide the essential ingredients for a building product. Now everyone is focused on developing a market for the new product, knowing that the ongoing success of this initiative rests on sales.

Putting economics front and centre immediately elevates sustainability from corporate responsibility to business opportunity. Only then will people holding the purse strings look up and listen, because missed opportunities are expensive.

 By Dave Elder, General Manager – Business Development

Pictured below: EnviroWaste's closed loop innovation in action

Closed Loop4