By Kristi Eaton
The average person creates 4.6 pounds of waste each day. Everything from food packaging to plastic bags to a leftover dental floss container is potential waste, and Americans are generating it like never before.
A growing movement is looking at eliminating that waste. Zero waste is the idea that the entire concept of waste should be eliminated. According to the Zero Waste Alliance, instead of creating it, waste should be thought of as a residual product or potential resource.
“Zero waste means anything that can be removed from the waste stream is removed, from aversion or diversion, recycling or composting,” said Bonny Bentzin, Director of Campus Sustainability Practices at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability.
ASU is working to reduce its waste in a variety of ways. To reduce water usage, the school is using more efficient fixtures, better water management and distribution of effluent water for use by mechanical and irrigation systems. For solid waste, the school diverts waste from landfills through recycling, composting, reusing and repurposing. Waste is averted through reduced consumption. Aramark, which provides ASU’s food services, is working on a corporate policy to allow the school to donate leftover food. “No single effort is going to get us to zero waste. It’s a combined effort,” Bentzin said.
Aside from helping the environment, zero waste has financial benefits as well. Waste is considered inefficient, and eliminating that part of the equation helps reduce costs. The Zero Waste Alliance notes several companies that showcase the amount of money that can be saved. At Hewlett Packard in Roseville, Calif., the company reduced its waste by 95 percent, saving $870,564 in 1998. At Epson in Portland, Ore., reducing waste has saved the company $300,000, while Atlanta-based Interface, Inc. has eliminated more than $300 million in waste since 1995.
Some local restaurants are trying to incorporate some zero waste principles, like recycling, Bentzin said. “It’s commendable because here in the Valley we do not have a good recycling program,” Bentzin said. “Or if they do recycle, there’s a fee. Phoenix doesn’t offer anything. It’s costly to them, and they’re working on a very narrow margin. It’s a challenge for them, but they’re trying.”
The big challenge for restaurants is food waste. “There are lots of compostable products, but they don’t have a reliable place to take them,” Bentzin said.
A statute from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality makes it difficult for restaurants to compost on their own. Although it’s not geared toward restaurants, the statute “basically classifies all commercial waste as municipal solid waste,” Bentzin said.
“All municipal solid waste has to be handled in a fully lined facility,” Bentzin explained. “It’s not targeting food waste, but the waste stream.”
The statute was meant to protect citizens’ health and well-being. Until the law changes, Bentzin suggests the best way to deal with food waste is to reduce it.
For those restaurants and businesses interested in going zero waste, a new company, EcoMovement, is helping ease the transition. The New Hampshire-based company offers consulting services for businesses, schools and restaurants hoping to reduce waste. EcoMovement can also help create and implement zero waste programs, train staff, haul waste and help with composting.
While the company is mainly based in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Maine, EcoMovement founder Rian Bedard plans to begin webinars in 2011 so people all over the country can learn from his techniques.
Bedard can walk into an establishment and gauge their level of zero waste. “I walk into a café and see wooden stirrers, paper cups and paper plates. The first thing I’m going to say is, ‘You guys could use spoons for stirrers.’” Bedard said it is important to train staff to ask customers whether they would like food for here or to go. This reduces the packaging needs for people eating at the establishment. “Every time you say you’re changing customers’ behavior, you are also saving money because you’re not putting out disposable plates.”
How one company is going zero waste
While working at Mogollon Brewing Company in Flagstaff, David Williamson began thinking about ways to reduce packaging costs. He looked into creating a small, completely self-contained mini-keg that he believed would save money. Although he did not get the funding to create the mini-keg, Williamson still wanted to create a zero waste product. Enter Sustainable Packaging Solutions, LLC, the parent company for Kind Vines, a zero waste wine product that reuses bottles.
“Reusing our wine bottles eliminates waste – even the closure is reusable,” Williamson said. “Transportation costs are also greatly reduced, and this reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to get our product to the consumer.”
Williamson, now Founder and President of Sustainable Packaging Solutions, said consumers could feel good about purchasing the product because they know they are not contributing to unnecessary landfill waste. “We have the opportunity to set an example for the rest of the nation on a program that delivers a winery’s product (wine) to the consumer in a more economic and environmentally friendly way,” Williamson said.