New Bottom Line Volume 6.15 – What's New? Nothing

July 17, 1997

What’s New? Nothing. Or more precisely: Zero.

The discussion of “zero waste” and “zero emissions” systems is emerging as one of the most important concepts in business today.

To some it’s outlandish folly. You can’t have perpetual motion machines and you can’t have zero waste. Yet a growing accretion of forces seem to be taking the idea seriously enough. The “Third Annual World Congress on Zero Emissions” is taking place this month (July 1997) (this year in Indonesia). The Zero Emissions Research Institute (at United Nations University in Tokyo) continues its research and training work, much of it focused on developing countries. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer, has publicly committed his billion dollar company to a goal of zero emissions, and has challenged his employees to invent factories that have “no smokestacks and no sewer pipes.” A coalition of US recycling professionals has embraced the “zero waste” goal as core to their activist agenda. And the provocatively titled book “Factor Four”–exploring the feasibility of four-fold efficiency increases using off-the-shelf technologies–is being rewritten with a focus on the goal of “factor ten“, the next way station on the road to zero, since “factor four” just wasn’t seeming challenging enough.

This space has talked periodically about the notion of zero waste industries, which is compelling for both business and ecological reasons. From a business perspective, wastes are products that companies “manufacture” that incur costs, yet add no value; prudent management would work to eliminate such economically irrational outputs. From an ecological perspective, zero waste strategies would bring the human economy into closer alignment with the multi-gigayears experience of natural systems, where “waste” is a concept without meaning.

It’s partly a question of boundaries. It may never be possible to have a zero waste company–any more than a zero waste rabbit–since each and every transformation of energy and matter will inevitably yield degraded energy and matter. But it may be possible to have a zero waste “ecosystem” of companies, just as it is possible–in fact it is so–to have a zero waste ecosystem of plant and animal species in which the “waste” outputs of one organism become the food of the next. And it is certainly possible to aim a company toward that distinctive target, rather than the honorable but relatively ho-hum goals of compliance or 10% improvements.

Those who consider zero emissions an impossible goal tend to forget that the planet carrying us around the sun–Spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller called it–is a zero waste system, closed to matter and open to the flows of [largely solar] energy that power the endless cycles of matter. The secret has been hidden forever in plain sight.

How do we get there? No one knows the definitive answer; at least no one has gotten there yet in industrial systems, though one could argue that many traditional agricultural systems come close. But we can make some observations that might help point the way:

Essentially there are two main strategies to staunch the flow of “Non-Product Output”: Stop making it. Turn it into product. How? Here, in no particular order, is a collection of strategies.

Reduce waste: Process efficiency

Whether through pollution prevention, waste minimization, business process re-engineering, design for environment, or any of a dozen other terms and approaches, most businesses can discover significant-to-vast opportunities to improve production efficiencies–through redesign and re-specification of products, processes, and equipment–and produce less waste and use less resource per unit of product.

Waste as feedstock: Internal and external cascades

Internal cascades include steps as simple as paper or fabric mills cycling scraps back into a lesser grade product, or cogeneration systems cascading waste heat from electrical generation into lower grade heat requirements, such as water heating. Thoughtful design can substantial increase the net useful harvest–of energy and materials–from a given resource flow. External cascades may start as simple recycling efforts and mature into regional waste exchanges, regional industrial clusters with symbiotic material and energy needs, and even eco-industrial parks.

Make it tasty: Shift waste chemistry

It may not be possible to completely eliminate wastes, but perhaps changes in process or materials can produce waste that is more “digestible” by the next company down the food chain.

Break the addiction to “stuff”: dematerialize and deproductize

Though it goes against the economistic tradition of “more stuff means more money,” the value equation of the future is in fact “produce more value with less physical throughput.” Redesign products to get more done with less stuff–dematerialization (just look at the electronics and telecommunications industries if you need inspiration). Redesign business transactions to deliver value with less stuff (electric utilities profiting from conservation services is just one of many examples).

Pay attention: measure what matters

Use business performance metrics to aim toward the right goal; track resource efficiency (resource use or waste generation per unit of product), and throughput efficiency (the ratio of product to total output, including all non-product output).

Go from ISO to zero

Environmental management systems (such as those specified by the ISO 14000 standards) may help your company get where it wants to go, but can’t tell you where you want to go. ISO certification may improve practices, but is an insufficient target for business leadership.

(c) 1997 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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