September 27, 2021

Not So Sustainable: The Problem with Zero Waste to Landfill and Waste-to-Energy

Corporations of all sizes are making commitments to reduce emissions and create a zero-waste culture in response to climate change, as well as to consumers’ increased demand for working with sustainable companies. More than 100 major companies have signed The Climate Pledge, a commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, while companies of all sizes are making environmental promises to their consumers. 

Yet, as a team from Deloitte wrote in their article “Building Credible Climate Commitments,” many businesses promoting such sustainability promises face a trust gap. As the experts note, consumers and business leaders themselves often struggle to identify what practices truly meet higher environmental standards. It’s a critical matter to understand, as identifying these standards is key to earning consumer trust.

Part of the challenge with this, however, is that there remains confusion among many companies about which of the countless strategies to reduce carbon footprint really is the most effective. This becomes even more challenging in the area of waste. Once organic and solid waste is transported offsite, it’s all too easy to shift responsibility for reducing emissions to the landfill or waste management company. 

A clear case in point is in the discrepancy between zero waste to landfill, waste-to-energy and zero waste commitments. Each of these options seems to be working toward the same waste reduction goal, but with wildly varying environmental results. 

Understanding zero waste promises

First, it’s important to understand the concepts, and risks, behind these three different waste reduction strategies:

  • Zero waste to landfill: On the surface, zero waste to landfill seems a laudable move toward creating a zero-waste corporate culture. Municipal solid waste landfills are a leading source of methane emissions, which drives approximately 25% of today’s global warming. However, this commitment is not about reducing waste but diverting it. While this can mean diverting waste to composting, it most often includes incendiaries as part of the diversion plan. This is a significant drawback of the zero waste to landfill concept. 

Numerous studies have documented the dangers of incendiaries, even when following established practices. Incinerators generate pollutants including dioxin, lead, and mercury; greenhouse gas emissions; and hazardous ash that prove damaging to community health. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) counts this claim as a misuse of the term zero waste.

  • Waste-to-energy: Waste-to-energy plants typically burn garbage to produce steam in a boiler that is then used to generate electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that the fuel for these plants might use “energy-rich materials” including paper, plastics, yard waste, and wood-based products. It claims that of every 100 pounds of municipal solid waste generated in the United States, about 85 pounds can be burned as fuel. While it’s true that waste-to-energy plants reduce the volume of waste by as much as 87%, this strategy does not account for the pollutants released through this process. As noted above, this waste-to-energy process presents a significant risk to human and environmental health. 

Alternative options for waste-to-energy include anaerobic digestion. A small percentage of landfills and wastewater treatment plants use an anaerobic digester to make energy from organic waste. While less harmful than incineration of plastics and other solid waste, anaerobic digesters are far from environmentally friendly

  • Zero waste: ZWIA defines zero waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” A true zero-waste culture begins by reducing production and consumption of materials before identifying more sustainable strategies for disposal. 

Creating a zero-waste culture

Companies that are truly committed to reducing their environmental footprint must begin with a strategic framework for the most effective strategies, for their company, to reduce their carbon footprint. In the area of waste reduction, the waste hierarchy pyramid presents a strong place to start. This visual is a reminder to begin by targeting those processes that make the greatest environmental impact. Waste reduction is the first critical step. 

Today, Big Data makes it easier than ever to get an accurate handle on the amount of product that will be consumed. For example, data about the amount of food that is thrown away can be used to better gauge the amount a commercial food operation actually needs to cook and, further upstream, purchase. 

Companies also need to think about their waste once it moves off-site. To continue with the example of food, the reuse of food that might otherwise be discarded—that is, food donations—are more sustainable than recycling food into compost or gray water. However, onsite food composting or use of an onsite aerobic biodigester has the potential to reduce environmental emissions that come with transporting organic waste off-site. In the case of aerobic biodigesters, which uses microorganisms in an oxygen-based process to decompose waste, this is a process that meets ZWIA’s definition of zero waste as it emits gray water that can be disposed of safely down the drain or used for irrigation, without threat to the environment or human health.

A more strategic approach waste reduction

Sustainability commitments without clear, strategic follow-through can set a company up for failure. Companies build consumer trust based on honesty and consistency, using transparent messaging and by authentically caring about their customers. Pushing the waste problem downstream by looking for offsite disposal opportunities that may or may not have a more damaging environmental impact is no way to earn that trust. 

Power Knot is committed to earning its clients’ trust. Our biodigesters build on a decade of experience, and installations around the world are capturing data that help commercial food operations better manage their overall food waste. 

If you’re ready to take a more strategic approach to your zero-waste commitment, contact Power Knot today. 

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