TRUE Advisors Work Toward a Zero Waste Future

TRUE Advisors Work Toward a Zero Waste Future

TRUE certification and its network of TRUE Advisors support forward-thinking businesses’ efforts to clean up their waste streams.

Fall 2020 | Written by Kiley Jacques

“Individual action is an important part of the solution, but corporate involvement is critical to achieve the change we need.”

— Mahesh Ramanujan, President and CEO of USGBC, GBCI and Arc

In 2017, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the global certification body for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), began administering complementary rating systems to address key sustainability measures in the green building industry. The Total Resource Use and Efficiency (TRUE) rating system, a zero waste certification program, was among them.

TRUE is the first certification program dedicated to measuring, improving and recognizing zero waste performance. A TRUE project’s goal is to divert all nonhazardous waste from the landfill, incineration and the environment. Facilities achieve certification by meeting 90% or greater waste diversion over a 12-month period, in addition to implementing minimum program requirements and credits. Ultimately, the TRUE program aims to transform the way that business, campuses and communities manage resources and accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Bluff Cabin Overlook

Delaware North has a number of TRUE projects, including Kalaloch Lodge at Olympic National Park in Forks, Washington.

To date, there are nearly 200 certified TRUE projects, totaling more than 81 million square feet of space across 13 countries. Over the past three years, TRUE projects have diverted an estimated 1.5 million tons of waste from the landfill. At an average cost of $55 per ton to landfill for municipal solid waste in the United States, this represents a potential cost avoidance of more than $80 million.

The following projects illustrate what can be achieved when businesses shift to circular thinking and prioritize processes, operations and actions that reduce waste and resource consumption. All have redesigned their facilities—or those belonging to clients—and helped train employees to support the “rethink, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle” model that TRUE advocates.

On the corporate level

“I’ve been playing in the trash for 27 years,” says Sue Beets-Atkinson, director of sustainability for SBM Management Services, a janitorial company that works with commercial-scale clients. All SBM sustainability senior team members are required to become TRUE Advisors, and they promote the certification program as a way to embed zero waste expertise in their services. To date, the company has diverted over 51.6 million pounds of waste from the landfill last year.

Asked about her role, Beets-Atkinson says, “I work with companies who want to do more, and I try to make a business case for them—to explain what zero waste is, how it can save them money, what TRUE is about, and how to get there. The ultimate goal is to do better—to look at what is purchased and all of the packaging. You want there to be integrity behind what you are buying and distributing.”

She cites Microsoft as a client whose commitment to TRUE certification is unyielding. They recently announced a corporate zero waste commitment—with the goal of achieving zero waste for Microsoft’s direct operations, products and packaging by 2030. “They are always analyzing their actions to determine if they will impede or support their TRUE-certified status,” says Beets-Atkinson. Beyond its facilities, Microsoft has also started making its events zero waste, and it is the second company to receive the TRUE for Events certification two years in a row.

One of TRUE’s imperatives is reducing waste by looking “upstream.” The idea is to get companies thinking about what they are bringing into their facilities—putting the focus there rather than on disposal. “It’s great to recycle, but we want to do more up front,” explains Beets-Atkinson, adding that she encourages clients to stop making unnecessary purchases and to start buying products without redundant packaging. She advises them to stop buying plastics, explaining that paper and aluminum are better options in terms of recyclability. “Eliminating plastics is the next step, and businesses need to use their buying power to do it.”

Beets-Atkinson believes that good communication is a cardinal tactic when it comes to implementing a zero waste program. “We need to make the goals and reasoning clear,” she says, “and we have to find [simple] ways for people to get it and buy in.” She is speaking of employees, who play a crucial role in a company’s move toward zero waste. There’s also the matter of communicating directives for modifying individual behavior. “Beyond bringing in the right products, the next step is proper disposal—communicating where the waste goes,” she explains, noting that simple, easy-to-read signage at eye level is critical.

Beets-Atkinson has worked with a number of companies that started out dealing with only nonhazardous waste and ultimately moved to a zero waste program. She has also helped companies increase their recycling rate by up to 47% by implementing simple changes. “How you start is important,” she says. “Find suppliers who offer boots-on-the-ground support and look at alternative solutions to improve your programs. You might not get to zero waste, and that’s okay. It’s a good starting point. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to make a gradual change that supports the end result.”

Microsoft Redmond
Yellowstone Fishing Bridge Store

Left: Microsoft has recently announced its corporate zero waste commitment and plans to have the vast majority of its Redmond, Washington, campus powered by carbon-free fuels. Right: The warehouse supporting Yellowstone General Stores is the first facility inside a national park to be certified zero waste through TRUE.

In our national parks

The warehouse that supplies Yellowstone General Stores is the first facility inside a national park to be certified as zero waste through TRUE. The effort began in 2013 with a campaign that called for waste audits, redesigned receptacles, a composting program, the removal of 25 trash bins from the warehouse, and working with vendors and suppliers to create less waste from the start.

Since 2015, on average, the warehouse team has diverted 255,000 pounds annually from the landfill through reduction, reuse, recycling and composting efforts. They have also eliminated all styrofoam from their vendor stream, a major shift in operations to reduce unnecessary packaging. It was so successful that they began issuing an annual statement to vendors outlining what constitutes acceptable packaging.

“I like the TRUE program because it challenges people to think about waste in its whole life cycle—where it’s coming from and where it will go once we are done with it,” says Ali Chipouras, environmental and risk manager at Delaware North at Yellowstone, a global hospitality provider with 15 TRUE Advisors on staff.

Efforts in the warehouse to meet TRUE certification requirements included the addition of centralized sorting stations meant to discourage occupants from throwing everything into trash cans. The team also added soft plastics to the list of recyclables and took measures to support the use of reusable dinnerware in the employee break room. They adopted a “reuse first” approach to their waste, and implemented a series of “dumpster dive” training sessions to educate staff on proper waste disposal. Combined, these efforts resulted in a 90% diversion rate.

“The success of the zero waste program is because of our team at the warehouse—it’s something everybody is on board with,” Chipouras says. “It’s a big part of what we do—we are always looking to reduce waste from all areas of operation.”

Perhaps the most promising aspect of their work in the warehouse is the fact that it is trickling outward into 12 retail, grocery and food service locations throughout the park. All of the products used in those facilities are now compostable, so visitors can throw the waste items generated from a meal—food scraps, utensils, plates and napkins—into a compost receptacle.

Additionally, Delaware North has a number of TRUE projects in the pipeline, including Kalaloch Lodge at Olympic National Park, NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.

Farm Truck

Measure to Improve speaks to farms about the cost benefits of zero waste.

Application in agriculture

Nikki Cossio, founder of Measure to Improve (MTI), describes TRUE as “the perfect example of a sustainability effort where all the P’s intersect—people, planet and profit.” MTI, a sustainability consulting firm focused on helping the produce industry collect, report, validate and communicate their sustainability initiatives, helps clients engage with environmentally and socially conscious consumers; the primary objectives are resource consumption reduction and cost savings. To date, MTI has certified six facilities to TRUE; they include farms, offices and packing operations.

Like Sue Beets-Atkinson, Cossio begins by making a business case to her clients. “Zero waste is a great starting point for any company to initiate a formal sustainability program,” she says. “It takes time, training and monitoring, but it doesn’t require a huge capital investment—it’s low-hanging fruit with great opportunity.” She talks with clients about the avoided-cost potential that comes with limiting the volume of materials entering a facility. She also stresses the importance of tracking information in order to demonstrate cost savings, and explains how TRUE is a tool for doing that.

Everyone in Cossio’s organization is a TRUE Advisor. “TRUE complements a zero waste initiative,” she says. “It helps us justify the direction our clients want to go in. We recommend they also become TRUE Advisors to give them the foundational understanding of why this is important. About 50 to 60% [of them] go through with it.”

As pleased as she is with TRUE, Cossio envisions its next iteration as being more industry-specific. “TRUE would be more applicable to different sets of requirements or circumstances in different industries and would give more concrete goals,” she notes. Additionally, she’d like to see a clear tie-in with climate change.

“When you talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), most people’s first thought is energy use. But the EPA has estimated that more than 40% of total GHG emissions in the U.S. are associated with materials management,” says Sean McMahon, vice president of product management at USGBC. “Actions taken to better manage materials and reduce waste can significantly decrease the associated GHG emissions up and down a material’s life cycle, including resource extraction, transportation, manufacturing of goods, landfill methane, waste incineration and ocean pollution. Quantifying this impact is crucial in helping businesses understand, track and communicate their impact, and is something GBCI is focused on supporting.”

Cossio believes companies that are adopting zero waste initiatives now will be in a favorable position when regulatory mandates arrive—something she views as inevitable. “By taking a proactive approach for dealing with materials in the waste stream, companies can stay ahead of those mandates,” she concludes.


A new era

The founder of All About Waste, Denise Braun, is responsible for certifying the first commercial high-rise in the world as a TRUE facility. “That project was a challenge,” she says. “What I liked about it was seeing the power of leadership.” Braun has three main objectives when presenting clients with TRUE: (1) demonstrate the potential for cost savings, (2) emphasize carbon emissions reductions in light of their climate action or sustainability plans, and (3) highlight the marketing opportunities. As a result of those efforts, her consultancy has driven TRUE certification for more than 1.5 million square feet of space.

Braun begins each project with a waste audit to determine types and volume of current waste, and delivers an assessment report to give clients a picture of where they stand in relation to the certification mark. She lays out strategies they can adopt to increase their diversion rates and provides cost analyses that demonstrate how operational changes, such as switching from paper coffee cups to reusable mugs, can save money.

Strategies she employs for moving toward zero waste include redesigning the internal and external infrastructure that handles the flow of waste—strategies, she says, that must not interrupt operations. Of course, tenant education and training is key, and Braun makes the point that multitenant buildings are more challenging than those occupied by one tenant, in terms of changing mindsets and behaviors.

Another of Braun’s challenges relates to the coronavirus pandemic. “Pre-COVID-19, it was easier to switch to reusable items; now we are facing more resistance on that front,” she notes, adding that a number of environmentally favorable gains made in the past decade have been lost during the pandemic, as institutions move back to single-use products in the name of hygiene.

Likewise, there’s a substantial increase in cleaning procedures and products, which can result in additional waste. Braun is also seeing new materials, such as personal protective equipment, showing up in her clients’ waste streams, which makes getting companies on board with zero waste management programs imperative. Marialyce Pedersen, TRUE Advisory Council Member, recently wrote about waste prevention and reuse tactics for GBCI.

Notably, All About Waste is the only minority-led zero waste consulting firm in the U.S. “The solid waste management industry is an old industry run by men,” Braun says. “The zero waste management industry and the circular economy are brand-new, so it’s hard to penetrate and have the conversation with people. There is also the issue of being a female-owned company.” But she does have those conversations, and they lead to action, which means Braun is making both environmental and social equity strides with her work.

Currently, there are 987 TRUE Advisors. The takeaway from the work of these professionals and agencies is perhaps best summarized in the words of USGBC president and CEO Mahesh Ramanujan: “Although zero waste is not a new concept, implementing zero waste business practices requires rethinking, retraining, new tools and strong leadership to change current waste systems.” In short, it must become part of corporate culture.

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