A World Without Waste?

Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Environment with 1 Comment

Rick Docksai | WFS

GLOBAL WASTE RESEARCH INSTITUTEIf current trends continue, we’ll be dealing with three times as much waste by the end of this century as we are now, warns the World Bank. One solution is to treat waste as a resource—a solution that could also cut global pollution, stave off looming resource crises, and lower manufacturing costs, among other benefits. Another solution to combat pollution is by removing waste or at least limiting it as much as possible.


Waste is, well, wasteful. Communities and industrial facilities all across the globe let ton after ton of scrap metal, chemical sludge, glass, plastic, and other raw materials slip from their grasp every day. The disposal costs money and time, and inevitably results in some spillover into nearby ecosystems, thereby jeopardizing the health of wildlife and people. Moreover, it discards volumes of still-good materials that we could find new use for if we just looked.

Fortunately, numerous communities and industries are finding ways to cut down on trash outflows and to repurpose their rubbish as new recycled products. These “zero waste” efforts, as their initiatives are called, offer the hope of a waste-free future, where not only landfills, but also the unsustainable consumption habits that they embody, have become things of the past.

The Military Gets Out of the Landfill Business

A military force’s survival depends on making the best use of the resources at its disposal. That includes garbage. So goes the thinking behind the U.S. Army’s Net Zero Waste 2020 initiative, by which eight Army installations are pursuing full-fledged programs to downsize their garbage output to zero—or at least close to it. The eight are upping their recycling, utilizing recycled building materials, and gathering up and redistributing as many used household items as possible.

Fort Hood, Texas, is one of the eight. As of 2013, the Net Zero Waste 2020 project’s second year, the inflow of garbage into the Fort Hood landfill has dropped by 20%.


“Our goal is to get out of the landfill business,” says Steve Burrow, Fort Hood’s chief of environmental programs. “We’re a guinea pig, along with a few other installations, to see what we can do to get there.”

The installation aims to increase recycling by 5% a year for every fiscal year. In 2012, the goal was 50% of waste diverted from landfills; while the installation didn’t meet that target, it came awfully close: 48%.

“We keep trying to set the bar higher, and if we don’t get there we just try harder,” says program manager Jennifer Rawlings.

Some of the recycling-enhancement measures were surprisingly simple. One change consisted of replacing Fort Hood residents’ original 18-gallon recycling bins with 96-gallon ones. Having larger bins around prompted residents to put more recyclables into them. Not long after the new bins’ debut, recycling uptake had doubled.

“We found out that, the larger the containers for recycling, the better the participation,” says Burrow.

Recycling is certainly nothing new. Communities throughout the developed world have had recycling facilities in their midst for more than 40 years. But most of these sites are chronically underutilized, and some have been shutting down, as local governments look for ways to trim expenses.

Fort Hood makes use of some new technologies, which helps. Its on-site recycling center, which processes recyclables from administrative offices and work stations, now accepts many products that your typical neighborhood facility won’t, such as plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam.

Recyclables from Fort Hood’s residences go to another recycling facility in Austin. This one is another rare find among today’s recycling facilities: It is “single-stream,” meaning that human operators don’t have to feed it plastics, glass, paper, and such categories of waste separately from each other; it can receive them all at once. Fort Hood’s residents thus don’t have to spend any time sorting their recyclables into separate bins anymore. The work of recycling consequently becomes immensely easier, which means that people will do more of it.

The households are Fort Hood’s number-one generator of waste, according to Burrow, so any increase in recycling on the household front adds up in an especially big way. The facility has also begun letting residents opt out of receiving paper junk mail, cutting down on bulk paper waste.

Among the enlisted personnel, Fort Hood has assigned a few soldiers in every unit to serve as “recycling coordinators,” who make sure that their fellow troops keep up with the recycling protocols.

Finding new uses for old household items is another component of the program. The Fort Hood community has been organizing numerous furniture donations, for instance, to transfer old hardwood items from those who no longer want them to those who do. Also, the garrison’s director of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation held an auction that sold off a warehouse-worth of gym equipment, office hardware, and other merchandise that hitherto might have simply gone to the dumpster.

Even more used items are available at the Hood Classification Unit, an on-site facility where residents and personnel can drop off batteries, cleaners, pesticides, and other chemical products. If something still has any good use left to it, the facility will keep it on hand. And families who need it can come, fill out some paperwork, and help themselves to it.

“A lot of it is just reducing the costs we’re spending on new items,” says Rawlings. “We’re able to find furniture that’s been sitting in warehouses and get them to soldiers that need furniture.”

Burrow and Rawlings don’t promise that they and their team will completely eliminate garbage at Fort Hood by 2020—that would be a huge stretch with today’s technology, they caution. But an 80%–90% reduction in garbage outflow by that date is possible. The installation will strive to get as close to 100% as it can over the remaining six years and will take note of every practice or policy change that helps bring it closer.

Come 2020, Fort Hood and the other seven installations involved in Net Zero Waste 2020 will reconvene and compare notes. Then it will be time for the next phase: disseminating what they learned throughout the whole army. By 2050, it is hoped, every army installation will be as waste-minimal as Fort Hood, if not more.

“The goal is, by 2020, to have a sum total of best practices we can share with all army installations and that they can put into practice so that they all get there by 2050,” says Rawlings.

Civilian communities are learning from the army experience, too. As Fort Hood and the other Net Zero Waste 2020 installations make progress on their waste-reduction goals, they share their best practices with nearby communities in workshops and forums. Thus, the Fort Hood–adjacent towns of Copper’s Cove and Temple recently instituted single-stream recycling in some of their neighborhoods. While the dynamics of policy making are clearly different in civilian settings, the right practices and tools can enable some positive outcomes.

Repurposing Waste in Europe

Europe imports more materials than almost any continent on Earth. It throws more away than most other continents, too: On average, 60% of Europe’s municipal waste ends up in landfills or incinerators. But a few countries on the continent definitely beat the average. There’s Norway, for example, which recycles 68% of its garbage. What if every European nation recycled like Norway?

The organizers of ZeroWIN are doing their part to help make that happen. This initiative, whose name is an acronym for “Towards Zero Waste in Industrial Networks,” has spent the past five years channeling funds from the European Commission to host research-and-development ventures among 31 business and academic institutions from across Europe and Asia. Together, these partner groups have been looking for new ways to minimize or eliminate consumer and industrial waste.

Community recycling, as most of us know it, is just one of ZeroWIN’s tools. They’re also looking into business-to-business recycling streams, whereby one company invites another to share a work site with it, and waste byproducts from one company’s industrial operations get collected and reused as a raw material by the other company.

“Sometimes, you have byproducts that come out of the process that are usually dumped but could be used to make other products. They have the possibility, on their sites, of bringing in other firms that use their byproducts to produce their own products,” says Luk Van Wassenhove, professor of operations management at INSEAD, a Paris-based business school that is one of ZeroWIN’s participating institutions. “So it’s no longer waste. It’s being used.”

This industrial waste swap is actually more common than many might think. For example, in Denmark, smoke from DONG Energy’s smokestacks can be retrieved and converted into gypsum, a mineral sulfate that can be used as fertilizer or as an ingredient in plaster. Danish biotech company Novozymes hands over some of its organic waste to Kalundborg Kommune, which turns it into an agricultural fertilizer.

ZeroWIN’s partners have been researching more potential waste-reuse collaborations and discussing how to put them into action. If the program succeeds to the degree that its organizers hope for, all of Europe will see the difference: a possible 30% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, a 75% reduction in the use of freshwater, and 70% increase in recycling and reuse of waste.

The iameco D4R laptop is one early achievement of the ZeroWIN collaboration. Manufactured in Dublin, Ireland, by MicroPro, it is a personal laptop computer on par in speed and performance with just about any standard model you’ll find in an electronics outlet near you. The only difference: It’s wood, made with 89% recycled materials, and thus contributes 61% less greenhouse-gas pollution during its manufacture.

The largest source of waste in Europe nowadays is the construction sector. Building roads, bridges, homes, and any other structure typically leaves hefty piles of waste cement, scrap wood or metal, and other such materials. Much of this residual material could be repurposed if the companies invested in it, Van Wassenhove notes. Even more gains would come about if they up their deployment of recycled fibers in insulation, recycle glass to use as an ingredient for cement or concrete, and restore waste wood or steel into new wood or steel fixtures.

Of course, not everything from the scrap pile is salvageable, but if demolition crews are careful not to smash a condemned structure’s components too thoroughly, a surprising amount of them can find new life in new buildings.

Automobile manufacturing is another growth area for waste-repurposing methods. Van Wassenhove points out that many car parts could be made from recycled plastics. Doing so would more than benefit the environment, he adds; it could benefit the companies’ bottom lines, as well. Recycled plastics are lighter than many conventional materials, so the finished cars would be less costly and better on fuel—improvements that are sure to go over well with the customer base.

“There is an element of low-hanging fruit,” he says. “If you look at your processes and you take an angle like quality improvement or environmental footprint, you usually come up with ideas that will improve the indicator but at the same time will be opportunities to reduce cost. So there is no conflict for a while.”

INSEAD and the other ZeroWIN partners have completed five years of R&D, and are now in a dissemination phase. Most are holding conferences and seminars to share what they have found with the larger business communities. They, like the Net Zero Waste 2020 group, look forward to setting in motion a much bigger change in waste management far and wide.

Waste Not, Spend Not

Businesses are often all for more sustainability but fear that it will cost more. That’s not necessarily the case in waste management. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite: By eliminating or repurposing waste byproducts, they also eliminate the need to spend money on cleaning them up and disposing of them. Less waste thus translates to more savings. That’s why the UK’s metal-manufacturing sector could save an estimated £4 billion a year if it applied resource efficiency measures more fully, according to the European Commission.

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  1. I support the warns the World Bank for waste removal and save the environment. And I totally agree with you, with new technology we can easily remove any type of waste and today many industries are also use waste removal technology.

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