Zero Waste Programs are a Smart Investment in the Future

Collectively, humans generate enough waste each year to fill 177 trillion garbage trucks. While this realization may be sobering for some, most of us pay little attention to what happens once we’ve finished opening, using or eating something. We are likewise unconcerned with all the unnecessary packaging, especially now that many of us view recycling as a panacea.

Greater self-awareness by consumers is encouraging, but individuals are only part of a complex waste equation. Businesses must take stock too. In fact, some argue that we should focus as much attention on the "removal chain" as we do the supply chain. Research by the SENSEable City Lab at MIT makes a compelling argument for this, concluding that "Pervasive monitoring and analysis can also improve environmental sustainability by revealing inefficiencies in the waste-removal chain to municipalities and waste service providers, as well as monitoring compliance with environmental regulations."

When companies with massive global footprints such as Dow, GM, Unilever and Thermo Fisher Scientific take action, the impact is not trivial. That’s what makes the "zero waste" concept so compelling. While businesses define zero waste differently, most adhere to the definition provided by the Zero Waste International Alliance, which adopted the first internationally accepted definition of “zero waste” on November 29, 2004. According to the Alliance, "Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them."

For its part, Thermo Fisher defines a site as zero waste if it achieves "90 percent diversion from landfills of non-hazardous waste, where waste is incinerated for energy only as a last resort." A site can only achieve this status after validation by third-party audit.

"The environmental benefits of our zero waste program are obvious; after all, humans will live here for roughly 80 to 90 years, but our waste endures for 500 years or more," said Cristina Amorim, who is one of the architects of this initiative. "But the benefits go far beyond environmental sustainability. We’re saving significant costs and giving employees a source of tremendous pride."

Like many businesses that implement zero waste programs, Thermo Fisher can point to demonstrable savings. Across the 13 sites now participating in the zero waste program - including Asheville, N.C.; Pleasanton, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Frederick,Md.; Warrington and Inchinnan, UK; Bleiswijk, Netherlands; Regensburg and Lohne, Germany; Marsiling and Tuas, Singapore; Bedford, Mass.; and Kiryat Shmona, Israel, the company has already realized nearly $2M in savings. Amorim attributes this to three things: smarter purchasing, material reuse and recycling/upcycling – turning waste into something more valuable and employee engagement.

"Our zero waste program has opened our eyes to new possibilities, such as how we can stop generating waste altogether," said Amorim. Glass bottles are one compelling example. "Sure we can recycle glass bottles, but why not take delivery in bulk and skip the recycling step entirely." Thermo Fisher’s site in Israel found $27K in annual savings simply by purchasing aluminum oxide in bulk. Likewise, Frederick, Md. saved $88K by purchasing preservation media in larger containers.

Amorim says that Thermo Fisher’s formula is fairly straightforward: segregate all waste, find a home for each separate stream other than a landfill and get employees actively involved. This last part of the formula, employee involvement, has been easier than many imagined. Amorim notes that millennials, in particular, "love this stuff."

Tim Hamel, who runs the zero waste program for Thermo Fisher’s Asheville site, echoes the importance of employee participation. "People in North Carolina love the outdoors, and it’s not hard to get our people on board to make a difference." Hamel’s site has set a five-year goal to achieve 100 percent waste reduction. “When we say zero, we mean zero,” he adds. Hamel’s team has already received an E3 (Economy, Energy, Environment) award from the state of North Carolina for its work thus far. What’s more, Asheville’s program has already netted hundreds of thousands in annual savings and diverts more than 400 tons from the local waste stream each year.

Amorim and Hamel both agree that the work they’re doing, which is being duplicated at Thermo Fisher sites elsewhere worldwide, has much larger implications that many initially envisioned. The program isn’t static, so teams continue to think of creative ways to drive removal chain innovation. This is leading to new relationships with suppliers – which extends the program well beyond a site’s four walls – and Thermo Fisher is now working with many customers to help them adopt their own zero waste programs.

"We’d like to think that we’re future-proofing our businesses by thinking more progressively about the removal chain," said Amorim. Even now, the company is benefiting tremendously: real cost savings, engaged employees and true environmental stewardship – all proof that investment in zero waste initiatives is good business indeed.

Our zero waste program has opened our eyes to new possibilities, such as how we can stop generating waste altogether. Sure we can recycle glass bottles, but why not take delivery in bulk and skip the recycling step entirely.”

Cristina Amorim Head of Global EHS, Thermo Fisher Scientific
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