How Can Manufacturers Achieve Zero Waste? Does It Even Make Sense?

Have you heard about manufacturers that have achieved Zero Waste? That means they have absolutely zero garbage leaving their plants.

For instance, the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana is certified Zero Waste. They recycle everything they can, and they reuse many of their packing materials by sending them back to their Japanese suppliers for refills. Anything they can’t recycle gets sent to an incinerator in Indianapolis that burns garbage to create energy.

As of July 2018, 15 years after they adopted the initiative, Subaru saved $13 million in waste management costs.

BMW is doing something similar.: They’re turning its scrap aluminum into pressed cubes that a partner is melting and reshaping into new aluminum sheets.

It’s sort of like when you make cookies with a cookie cutter. You cut out the shapes, re-roll the dough, and then cut more cookies. You start to wonder why no one has thought of this for the past 50 years, even when our moms knew it!

Is there a point of diminishing return in Zero Waste?

Photo of an empty dumpster. You get a lot of these when you achieve Zero Waste.A lot of this will depend on your starting point, but for the most part, there’s a lot of value to go down the Zero Waste path. By the time you reach a point of diminishing return, you will have accomplished a hell of a lot and made it worth your while.

For example, years ago, before we rebuilt the Duoline factory, we were spending $2.5 million on environmental remediation because we used a hot oil curing process and that carried its own problems.

We had seven machines and seven boilers and all these pipes running to and from the machines. All that oil created a carbon buildup, so you start with a 4-inch pipe and three months later you end up with a one-inch pipe, so you have to pull everything out and clean out the piping, disposing of the waste, and fixing any leaks which will go into the soil. (Curing times also became longer and longer, so process time became longer.)

When we switched from the hot oil curing process to a steam-based one, we eliminated the need for any remediation. Basically, we eliminated a $2.5 million cost with that one change. It was a drastic improvement that changed our profitability.

By doing this, we were not only able to save that much money, but it did something even more money: We created a cultural discipline where sustainability became a reflex action as opposed to a project.

In short, it became a foundational part of what we did.

This is what Subaru has done with its Zero Waste philosophy. It’s baked into everything they do, and it guides their decision making and the creation of new procedures. If something could hurt their Zero Waste efforts, they don’t do it. If a new technology will distract from their Zero Waste philosophy, they don’t take it on.

Bottom line, there are plenty of savings to being environmentally friendly. Despite what many nay-sayers believe, this can not only help the environment, it might save your company.

For one thing, it can eliminate the possibility of civil fines levied against you by the EPA or OSHA. It can eliminate remediation and waste management charges. It could even prevent criminal charges from being filed against executives who have chosen to ignore environmental regulations.

You can find other savings as well. For argument’s sake, you could negotiate with your vendors and get bulk supplies of materials sent in packing materials that you return to the manufacturer. Set it up so your vendor is responsible for looking for any residues or leftovers, and then let them reuse the container to send you more materials. Now you don’t even need to pay for the waste disposal. (This is one thing Subaru does.)

For example, in Duoline’s filament winding area, there are resins and catalysts which are used in the filament winding process. The suppliers of the resin usually ship them in 5,000-gallon trucks that were loaded into 5,000-gallon storage containers; the catalyst was shipped in 200 gallon totes that, once they delivered the new shipment, they took the old totes back. They continually recycled the catalyst totes.

Start thinking about what you can do with your waste. For instance, what do you do with all the office paper you shred? Throw it in the garbage? Put it in the landfill? Could you sell it to someone who processes shredded paper into another product instead? Now you’re not only not paying for waste disposal, you’re literally making money from your garbage.

If you think of sustainability as company philosophy and not a project, you’ll be amazed at how many great ideas come from your associates.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Kotivalo (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.