There is no “Away”

streetsweeperWhen starting to look at using sustainability as a business strategy it is not surprising that many organizations first start looking at their waste processes.

In their book Green to Gold, Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston, identified waste management as a top 10 environmental issue. One of the three core goals that Wal-Mart set in October 2006 was “to create zero waste”, and their 2009 Global Sustainability Report states that they have redirected 57 percent of the waste generated by their stores, Sam’s Club facilities and distribution centers between February 2008 and January 2009.  While Interface’s Ray Anderson reports that a cumulative savings of $336 million has been achieved by eliminating waste in their quest for waste-free perfection by 2020.

So let’s look at “Waste”.

Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken

In The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken writes:

The critical myth is the assumption that we can “clean up” our environment. In other words, we can admit that industry was a little sloppy in the past, while being assured that it can do better in the future. With spit, polish, technology, and enough landfills, we can stop releasing pollutants into the environment. This strategy is often dubbed “end-of-pipe” clean-up. It is an attractive idea because mimics what we do in our own households: put waste into a dab and set it out for the municipality to haul off and worry about. The analogy is not sound. We can transfer our household waste from one small, “artificial” environment to the larger environment, but where then, does the larger environment, the natural world transfer the accumulated mountains of waste?

When I first read those words it occurred to me that the waste industry could be explained as a “3H” business model. We handle waste, we haul waste and we heap it on a pile. Not many people liked the simplicity of it, but it fit.

As Paul Hawken wrote we set our waste outside and it is taken away, the real issue is that their is no “Away”. There is an “other place”, but not an away. I’ve heard it also described as if homeowners and businesses place the waste in a container outside and wait for the “Waste Fairy” to magically make it disappear; full can at night, empty can in the morning.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote in Cradle to Cradle that waste is food, that there is no “away”, that everything is part of a cycle. (Think about nature, if a tree falls or an animal dies in a forest,  it decomposes, it’s material, it’s components are used as a food source by other organisms in the forest.) According to Cradle to Cradle, waste is a product of bad design.

Now, this is where it starts getting interesting and moves sustainability into the realm of  innovation! Dumpster diving is great to find out what you are throwing away, but the really interesting part of using sustainability as a strategic initiative comes when you start finding ways to create, produce, or transport your product or service “without’ those items you found in your dumpster. If you can find ways to produce the same level, or better, of service offered by your product you just established a strategic advantage. An advantage that you can use in the market place.

Not to mention the low hanging fruit that you can pick up through reducing waste disposal cost.

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