This week is National Environmental Education Week, the largest organized environmental education event in the U.S., created to engage both students and local communities each year around the importance of protecting the natural world and its resources. Teaching students at a time in their lives when they can serve as future change agents is a key way to make progress in sustainability and generate support for new practices, such as making an effort towards becoming a zero waste society.
Zero waste initiatives are becoming increasingly important across the country, and the world, as a way to effectively eliminate or repurpose waste products, reduce negative environmental impact and allow communities, companies and city governments to realize economic and financial benefits. In fact, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) estimates that if the national waste diversion rate was increased to 75 percent in comparison to the current rate of 35 percent, the U.S. economy would add approximately 1.5 million jobs. The ILSR also notes that we have the ability to “cost-effectively reuse, recycle, or compost 90 percent” of municipal solid waste, construction and demolition debris generated in the U.S. annually1. Unfortunately, this potential remains untapped. While there is still a long way to go for the country to optimize waste diversion, local governments, organizations and companies have the opportunity to lead the way by prioritizing zero waste initiatives in their sustainability efforts.
One leader stepping up to the challenge is the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO), which has implemented an on-campus program which takes local organic materials (e.g., food scraps, yard waste) and turns the materials into premium organic compost, utilizing an anaerobic bio-digester. The organic waste materials are carefully mixed and broken down in a fermenter chamber where, after 28 days, it becomes digestate − a great soil additive – which they then package and sell as Titan Gold Compost.
SCA offices and local employees pride themselves on being great partners who serve their communities. In an effort to become a zero waste office, SCA partnered with UWO to support its composting program. Employees at the Service Excellence Center in Neenah, Wisconsin put all food waste, napkins, tissues, paper towels and other compostable items into compost bins placed throughout the office. These efforts, combined with other sorted recycled materials, led to 88 percent of waste being diverted from landfills, according to a recent audit conducted by SCA in conjunction with an independent auditor. Today, these efforts continue to grow as both SCA and UWO work diligently to minimize their environmental impact, and help educate others to do the same.
Here is how companies and organizations can begin to implement zero waste initiatives in their facilities:
- Rethink – Our current consumption model is “take, make and dispose.”2 Thus, the first step to reducing waste is to not buy things we don’t really need, or to do so in a limited way. It’s important to keep in mind the reusability of a product when purchasing it. Products such as water bottles, paper towels and various containers can all be bought and responsibly disposed of or repurposed in a way that contributes positively to zero waste initiatives.
- Reduce Usage – The next step is reducing usage. Using products such as SCA-developed Tork dispensers, many of which are designed to guarantee a decrease in the number of paper towels used, can go a long way towards decreasing the amount of overall waste produced. This can lead to a healthier environment and a stronger bottom line, all while maintaining a hygienic hand washing experience.
- Educate and Communicate – Zero waste to landfill initiatives mean designing systems and using products to limit the volume of waste generated, as well as conserving and recovering resources. Clearly communicating and educating those goals is critical. One way to do so is placing composting and recycling bins in convenient locations with signs and visual aids illustrating the environmental and cost benefits of effective waste diversion.
- Closed Loop Recycling – Closed loop recycling is defined as recycling waste to make new products. These can include everyday items such as hand towels and bath tissue, made from your recycled office paper and corrugated waste. You can support this circular cycle by purchasing products that are produced locally, such as the Tork brand in the U.S., that are the result of a closed loop cycle and have the ability to be responsibly disposed of as well.
To learn about more ways to increase sustainability and increase waste diversion this National Environmental Education Week, visit the foundation’s website at neefusa.org.
1 Will These 10 U.S. Cities Achieve Zero Waste? – Earth911.com
2 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation