When the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) was founded in 2012, lots of businesses were already talking about their zero waste efforts. The problem was, they were all saying something different.
“It was like apples and pineapples,” says USZWBC founder Stephanie Barger, director of market development at the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). “It was all over the place. There really weren’t standards and guidelines on what zero waste meant. That was one of the reasons businesses came to us.”
The definition of zero waste calls for no waste to go to landfills, incineration facilities, or the environment. The “zero” is, of course, aspirational, and the organization awards different levels of certification to businesses based on their waste diversion rates and practices. Much like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, the Zero Waste certification provides common standards, guidelines, and vocabulary that help companies to see for themselves—and demonstrate to others—the impact of their sustainability efforts.
The ideas behind zero waste efforts aren’t new, of course, and the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra dates back to the early days of sustainability thinking. But recently, much of the national conversation about sustainability has centered around carbon emissions, and until now there haven’t been many good ways for businesses to show the rest of the world what they’re doing to minimize their trash output.
“Most businesses want to do the right thing,” Barger says of zero waste programs. “One, because it saves them millions of dollars. But two, because of all of the benefits around employee engagement, and leadership, and responsibility to the local and global community. The environmental, human rights, and social benefits of going to zero waste are incredible.”
This past fall, USZWBC and GBCI, which administers LEED certification, formally joined forces—a move that is expected to increase the capacity of the Zero Waste certification while allowing GBCI to more effectively engage the organizations it works with around zero waste goals. USZWBC has been fully integrated into the global GBCI community that drives sustainability across all sectors.
“By reducing and eliminating the volume and toxicity of waste and materials and aligning green rating systems, we are one step further in transforming the market to be more sustainable,” says Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO, USGBC and GBCI. “GBCI is uniquely positioned to engage market leaders in accelerating the adoption of zero waste strategies by building upon the work and mission that USZWBC began in 2012.”
For organizations that have already made other sustainability-focused investments, zero waste may present an opportunity to achieve some big “wins”—both in terms of the impact to the environment and to the company’s bottom line—relatively quickly. Zero waste initiatives often require a minimal upfront investment, with lightning-fast paybacks (for example, it costs relatively little to reduce packaging or replace disposable dishes with reusable plates). However, because external certification is a somewhat new phenomenon, such steps have sometimes been overlooked. Additionally, businesses’ zero waste efforts are often limited by the availability of trash haulers that pick up recycling and compost, and these features are becoming more and more common.