Manufacturing a world beyond zero waste

Eliminating waste streams is just the starting point for manufacturers when it comes to sustainable growth - it's time to change the rules, argues Ramon Arratia

With landfill space running out and landfill tax increasing annually, it makes sense that more and more manufacturers are setting zero waste targets. There are many levels of ambition in achieving zero waste, depending on the scope of your goal.

Eliminating direct waste streams from facilities is the most obvious action, but sticking to only that is lazy. A narrow focus limits innovation, which in turn will limit the impact that the goal has. However, if considered broadly enough, zero waste strategies can be very transformative and game changing for manufacturers.

Eliminating your company’s direct waste steams is the first step, but it shouldn’t be the only goal, and in many ways it is relative. For example, a zero factory waste to landfill goal in Germany is of little significance, because that’s the default option for that country. You really need to be aiming higher.

Achieving this goal in Thailand and India is more of a challenge as there is no infrastructure in place for take-back schemes, nor is there the legislation in place that obliges you to do it.

The typical linear method of manufacturing products is: take, make and waste. Products are usually over engineered to last much longer than people need, so they go to landfill well before their useful life is over. Industry thinking needs to change so that end of life responsibility is considered and ‘designed in’ at a product’s conception.

Designing products for zero postconsumer product waste – so that they can be easily de-installed, separated, brought back to the manufacturer and recycled – has the potential to make a major impact. However, it is extremely difficult to achieve.

Drastic change can be achieved if companies are ambitious and lobby for products to be banned from landfills. Not many companies are daring enough to ask for a ban on the landfill of their own products.

However, taking the easy option away will lead to behavioural change and innovation as well as cutting the cost of disposal. At Interface, we are lobbying to ban the landfill of carpet across Europe as well as investing in our ReEntry 2.0 separating technology to recycle carpet tiles.

Skyrocketing costs of resources were blamed for 29% of profit warnings issued by UK-listed companies in 2011, according to Ernst & Young. The EU Resource Efficiency Strategy meanwhile warns that we need a four to ten fold increase in resource efficiency by 2050 to achieve sustainable growth. Put simply, the demand for virgin raw materials is much greater than their supply – and this is hitting prices hard.

The key to achieving sustainable growth is to go beyond traditional models. A zero virgin raw materials goal can be realised in two ways: using bio-based materials and making use of waste from other industries and businesses, just like in nature, where waste from one organism becomes food for another.

The EU Resource Efficiency Strategy suggests that improving the reuse of raw materials through businesses across the EU and using the waste from others as a resource could save €1.4bn a year and generate €1.6bn in sales. Figures like these are hard to ignore.

We are also seeing a more controversial shift as new technologies emerge. Over the past few years, and increasingly more so, solutions are being developed that cancel out the waste from other products by simply replacing them.

An example are smart phones, which create a lot of electronic waste, but are also replacing the need for traditional alarm clocks, calculators, cameras, as well as the need for landline infrastructure in many developing countries among others. And as more multifunctional technologies emerge, we may see older products die out – together with their waste streams.

Ramon Arratia is sustainability director for Interface in Europe, Middle East, Africa & India

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