New Bottom Line Volume 13.5 – What is it about 'zero waste'?

Tuesday, August 30, 2004

What is it about “zero waste”?

Some people argue against it. Some people agitate for it. Some people dismiss its feasibility. Some people teach its pragmatic application. Some people laugh all the way to the bank.

All I want to know is: When are we going to get as smart as a chicken?

When a chicken makes a chicken, the only “wastes” are chicken manure, carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane, and eggshell. All food for soil, plants and chickens. Zero waste. Can’t industrial society get that smart?

The example may be flippant, but the issue is significant – for policy, for environmental activists and for business leaders.

The story so far

Something significant is going on in what some still call the imaginary world of “zero waste.” Dozens of companies and communities around the world have declared commitment to “zero waste” in some form. 2800 Japanese companies have committed to zero emissions, according to Gunther Pauli of ZERI, half of which have already eliminated all landfill.

Good enough? Maybe not, since many of these companies may be relying on incineration as an alternative to landfill – an alternative still very much under attack by zero waste advocates who are more concerned about the pollution risks of “waste to energy” than its potential energy contribution.

So, consider: What does it take to begin to get to “good enough”? How can business pragmatically approach clean production & zero waste? When asked to address this challenge at a recent international conference, I offered this five-step roadmap.

Commitment: “Zero was easier”

Dupont – not the first choice, in my youth, for the poster child of corporate goodness – set a corporate goal in 1990 to reduce company emissions by 80% in five years. An impressive goal – and one they largely achieved. Management met to review the accomplishment, and consider what goals, if any, they should set going forward: 10% more reduction? 50%? 90%? Declare that enough had been done?

Instead Dupont chose zero – not only zero emissions, but zero defects and zero injuries as well. Was it because of a sense of accomplishment from what had already been done? Was it from the momentum of the learning curve? Was it, as I like to think, the simple clarity of the binary logic of “any waste at all” versus “zero waste”? Whatever the reasoning, Ed Woolard, Dupont’s then chairman and CEO, said that the decision to go to zero was easier than the previous decision to cut waste 80% had been.

When I asked Dawn Rittenhouse, Dupont’s Manager for Sustainable Development, what she does when staff push back against such “unreasonable” goals, she said “We run the numbers – and in every case so far the zero waste strategies have been more profitable than the more ‘reasonable’ strategies they were replacing.”

Design: “Nobody asked us.”

Bill McDonough offers a telling story on the design process and the nature of engineering. I’ve telegraphed the punch line, but that doesn’t seem to weaken the story. Commissioned by a furniture company to develop a fabric line that contained no carcinogens, no mutagens, no teratogens, McDonough’s company set out to review the molecular catalogs of the leading chemical companies, to screen the substances that could provide the palette for the dyes he needed to create. Most companies turned him away, claiming the catalog was proprietary; Ciba-Geigy was one for the few that let him in.

After reviewing 8,000 constituent chemicals, and passing them through the MBDC screen, only 38 remained that met the non-genic criteria – and from those 38, MBDC could formulate every color needed, except jet black.

“Not bad,” they thought. As they packed up to leave, they asked the extraordinarily capable Swiss chemical engineers at Ciba-Geigy, “Why haven’t you ever produced non-genic dyes before?” The answer, as stunning as it was telling: “No one ever asked us to.”

Sustainability, after all, is all about design, and brilliant design depends on setting the right conditions of satisfaction. Perhaps zero waste isn’t absolutely achievable; many zero waste advocates talk of “Zero waste, or darn close!” But it certainly isn’t if we don’t try to design for it – in products, production systems, supply chains and regulatory regimes.

Operations: “When does a ‘waste’ become a ‘waste’?”

While design sets the parameters of the possible, much of the attention to resource efficiency has traditionally focused on operations; in fact there is great opportunity here as well – to redesign as well as to refine production processes. The literature is filled with approaches, and we’ve applied those approaches and our own in some 150 site assessments in a wide range of industries.

One interesting excursion we took into this space – in collaboration with Environmental Science Associates, and funded by the Alameda County Waste Management Authority & Recycling Board (WMA/RB) – looked at the question of “when does a ‘waste’ become a ‘waste’?” Since “waste” is a purely contextual definition, not a chemical definition – a chemical out of place is not more intrinsically a waste than a plant out of place is intrinsically a weed – at what point in a production process does a resource, raw material or feedstock, a subcomponent, product, or package, become a “waste”? What decisions – whether explicit or implicit – what interpretations change the nature of a material whose material nature has in fact no changed at all?

We crafted a taxonomy that looked not at industry sectors but at activities – such as shipping/receiving, cutting, forming, blending, accounting, etc. – which typically cut across industry sectors. We observed those activities in multiple industries; mapped the decision flows; evaluated the potential waste prevention impacts of various decision points; and used those maps to identify both the priority industries and priority decision points likely to deliver the best return on the WMA/RB’s waste prevention investment.

The WMA/RB was then able to use those maps to identify the priority industries, activities and decision points that offer the highest return on its waste prevention investment, and the best chance of achieving its 75-plus percent diversion goals.

Metrics: Are you delivering the goods?

Next, the operations that implement the designs driven by the initial commitment need to be tested. Do the results deliver on the goals?

There are myriad ways to measure performance, of course, but there’s one – we call it the Throughput Pie™ – that stands out in its power to focus a zero waste agenda. Let me explain.

At the simplest, schematic level, you can model any company by the primary physical flows that pass through it: energy and materials in, product and non-product out. Any company, regardless of industry, scale or sophistication – in fact any economic entity, from company to farm to government authority to household – can be modeled the same simple way, since all take in energy and materials, and nothing else, and all emit product and non-product, and nothing else. (What about “service industries”? Think “intended results” and “unintended results”.)

The Throughput Pie graphically presents the ratio of product to non-product – and a if a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture is often worth millions of dollars . We’ve found few executives who know what the ratio for their company is – and typically their eyes pop out of their heads when we show them. (The ratio for the US economy as a whole, according to the National Academy of Engineering, is 6% product, 94% non-product. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but it’s a safe bet that the ratio is worse – far worse – than you might expect.)

Most people have the very same reaction – after falling off their chairs, of course. They look at the pie chart, they point to the large section representing “non-product” – every unit of physical mass that leaves the facility as emissions, effluents, solid waste, hazardous waste, as output that can’t be sold, that often incurs further costs to dispose of – and they say “That makes no sense.” CEOs say it, activists say it, and bankers say it. The inescapable logic of “zero emissions”.

There are other useful key metrics of course. . But there’s enormous mileage in this one alone – especially if compared across facilities within companies or companies within industries – to drive “continuous improvement from the ground up.” (We designed our Business Metabolics™ performance indicators software to drive just that sort of outcome.)

Hungry mouths: “Make it tasty”

Of course no matter how brilliant the design strategy, there may always be non-product. But that’s something that can be designed too – Design for Zero. NonProduct is only a problem if no one wants it. If you can design your non-product to be something that one of those hungry industrial mouths wants to eat, then – lo and behold – it’s become a product. If no one wants it enough to pay for it or take it off your hands, at least design your non-product to be edible, without harm, by Earth’s living systems.

The ultimate test isn’t “Is it natural?” (Since we humans are natural, one could argue that whatever we do is natural too – a true but less than useful distinction.) The ultimate test is “Does it support the conditions of life?”

The key question, always

Here’s the good news: The technical challenges of sustainability are relatively straightforward, if the problem is framed correctly – and “zero,” as Dupont and others are finding, provides an unusually clear and powerful frame.

Here’s the bad news: People need to change their fundamental thinking about these problems, and that’s not as straightforward. In fact if you’ve ever tried to change a habit of your own – much less someone else’s- you know how hard it can be.

There’s much more to be said about the challenges of change, and I’ll explore the subject in future articles. But one thing is clear: In every conversation for change, each request, each offer is met by a listener who at some level is thinking “what’s in it for me?” How will this affect my career, my compensation, my day-to-day burdens, my self-image?

The propositions that anticipate and address that question – whether they are aimed at personal habits or company policy – are the ones most likely to succeed.

(c) 2004 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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