If you’re like a lot of business people I know, you have colleagues who cringe at the term “sustainability.” You bring up the concept and they immediately envision anti-capitalist tree-huggers. Sustainability is so much more, but it can sometimes be hard to explain.
So, just what does sustainability mean? The term gets tossed around casually. A useful broad definition is “the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That comes from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development.
One of the most important concepts underlying sustainability is the circular economy. The terms are often used interchangeably. At its essence, that refers to moving from the take-make-discard economy, to one in which materials are continuously reused and repurposed until nothing's left -- or what's left is ultimately recycled.
The point is to keep resources in circulation as long as possible, extracting the maximum value. And then, rather than simply disposing of what’s left, the goal is to recover, regenerate or recycle. By extracting the maximum value out of the components that we consume, we can stave off depletion of vital natural resources needed for basic living, like water, oil, natural gas, etc.
After all, what we call “waste” consists of many useful primary materials with their own economic value. And as we’ll discuss in a moment, it can also function as a renewable energy source.
More than just “going green”
By promoting more efficient use of resources, this closed loop approach has the potential to improve the bottom line for businesses and add value to what’s previously been considered useless.
For now, the concept is more popular in Europe than in America, but as the economic and environmental cost of waste disposal continues to climb, it’s beginning to catch on here. We’re starting to see some startling predictions:
- By 2030, the circular economy could generate $4.5 trillion of additional economic output globally, according to Accenture Strategy.
- More than $1 trillion a year could be generated for the global economy by 2025, and 100,000 new jobs created within the next five years if companies focus on building circular supply chains, according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum report.
Waste management is ripe for such transformation.
Cost of waste
Waste generation is costly to society, the environment and, often, a business’s bottom line. It’s difficult to quantify the exact cost, because so much is dependent on the industry, the location, the type of waste, and available disposal options. But the basic concepts apply across the board. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center makes the case thusly:
- Waste results from inefficiency.
- The costs of waste come from the economic cost of removal and the environmental and social impact.
- We can turn waste into profit by avoiding those costs and properly valuing the waste stream.
When it comes to waste, this third point is the heart of the business case for the circular economy in particular and sustainability in general.
A common refrain, “Waste is merely a resource in the wrong place,” has been attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Buckminster Fuller. But no matter who gets credit, it’s increasingly being adopted as a credo by businesses around the world.
Zero Waste and Zero Waste to Landfill
The solutions to natural resource depletion and waste management are complicated, but two new movements, zero waste and zero waste to landfill are important steps in building sustainable business practices.
Zero waste is the goal of advocates of the circular economy. Zero waste is a broad idea that is focused on eliminating waste in all its forms. This involves an overhaul of how goods are produced and consumed by both businesses and individuals. It puts emphasis on how important it is to evaluate choices to make sure waste is avoided as much as possible.
The U.S. Zero Waste Business Council advocates that by embracing zero waste, businesses can increase their efficiency and create more value for the community.
Zero waste to landfill means exactly what it sounds like - sending nothing to the landfill. It focuses on diversion methods, such as upcycling or recycling items that would normally be thrown away, both of which are better for the environment.
It can also include methods like thermal treatment, which involves burning trash in waste-to-energy plants.
Hazardous waste and sustainability
Hazardous waste poses particular challenges. Defined broadly, it’s waste that is potentially harmful to human or environmental health. It can include household chemicals such as pesticides, discarded commercial products such as solvents, byproducts of the manufacturing processes-- the list is endless. (See “Why Is the Hazardous Materials Definition Important?” for more details.)
Given the environmental impact--and cost--of hazardous waste management and transportation, a closed-loop approach makes sense. Waste-to-energy offers a path forward--not just for hazardous waste, but all waste, from food and household garbage to solvents and plasticulture.
Recent advances in waste-to-energy technologies can produce biogas, steam and synthetic fuels that can be converted into energy. Significantly, most of these processes have minimal residue. A few have none.
At Temarry in response to client demand, we have continually invested in new technology and systems aimed at developing our business sustainably.
As a recycler of spent industrial solvents (a hazardous waste stream), all waste received by Temarry is recycled, and nothing goes to landfill. Spent liquids are filtered and blended, then directed to a solvent recovery still, which allows us to recover technical grade solvent products that are sold back into industry.
Solid waste is thermally treated at 1500°F in our waste-to-energy system to generate steam that powers those stills, saving us valuable natural resources like water and propane that would otherwise be needed for our closed-loop recycling process.
The byproducts of both processes are blended and sent to cement kilns to be used as alternative fuels. This approach eliminates material requiring hazardous waste disposal. Everything is used, which benefits the bottom line and the environment while reducing fossil fuel use.
This proves that sustainability goals can be achieved in even the most challenging industrial industries like hazardous waste management.
So, should your business focus on sustainability? Probably. At this point on our planet, sustainability, like recycling, is a necessity, not a luxury. What does sustainability mean? Change.