Down in the Dumps

Waste Not – Want Not

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) [1], an organization with over 190 large company members from all over the world, has published a remarkable document. Vision 2050 [2] projects “an optimistic, holistic and attractive vision of a sustainable world in 2050 and the role of business in helping us to get there.” Vision 2050 is optimistic but rational; attractive but sober.

Dreamstime - landfillVision 2050
outlines a pathway from “business as usual” in 2010 to a sustainable world in 2050. That pathway consists of nine parallel elements (areas in which significant changes is needed), one of which is materials utilization. The materials element stretches from today’s practices to a condition of zero waste by 2050. The step along that transition that really caught my eye is “must have: landfills phased out by 2020”.

Wow. Businesses globally need phase out landfills over the next eight years. Is that even possible?

Two ways that business might contribute to eliminating landfills come quickly to mind:

1. By reducing waste generation, then recycling or reusing the remainder internally.

Waste, quite obviously, costs money. Businesses already utilize techniques such as Lean Manufacturing to systematically reduce wastes of all kinds, especially materials. They work with suppliers to improve incoming materials quality, reducing manufacturing defects. Process engineers work to create closed loop — waste free — manufacturing processes. Product designers work to make products less materials intensive and to use materials that are more amenable to recycling or reuse.

There is some evidence that all of this can actually eliminate waste to landfill. General Motors, for example, says that 50% — 81! — of GM’s manufacturing facilities worldwide are already landfill-free. GM further states that, on average, 96% of everyday manufacturing wastes are recycled or reused, while less than 4% are utilized as fuel. Moreover, an additional 19 non-manufacturing facilities send no waste to landfill, resulting in a total of 100 zero waste to landfill facilities globally. Taken all together, GM claims that they divert 2.6 million tons — equivalent to 38 million trash bags full — of wastes from landfill to productive use. [3]

2. By providing or promoting services that abet gathering and recycling or reusing wastes externally to the facility that created it.

I have found Waste Management Corporation’s 2012 Sustainability Report to be interesting and encouraging. In WM’s report, titled “Embracing the Zero Waste Challenge”, David Steiner, WM’s CEO, states that “Sustainability is a central motivation for our transformation from a waste collection and disposal company to one that views and uses wastes as a resource.” [4] So, WM proposes to transition their business model from one where revenues rely on the movement and disposal of wastes to one where revenues come from value attained from utilizing that waste.

Their report offers evidence of progress toward that end. In 2011, “Green Services” contributed 57% of WM’s revenues. “Green Services” includes revenues from collection of recyclable wastes, from sale of recycled materials, and from renewable energy generated by combustion of waste material. In addition, WM enjoys revenues from newer businesses, including electronics wastes collection, reclaim and recycling; hazardous wastes management; organic matter collection and composting; along with waste recovery and utilization consulting services. WM also reports a small group of recent acquisitions in specialized waste recovery arenas.

So What?

The fact that General Motors classifies 81 of its manufacturing plants as zero waste to landfill suggests that the remainder of their manufacturing facilities might do likewise within a few years time. It also suggests that other manufacturing plants, perhaps in other industries, might also become zero waste to landfill. In fact, GM is far from alone in claiming zero waste to landfill facilities.

The availability of support services from firms like Waste Management should help manufacturers of all kinds achieve zero waste to landfill. Other factors can be expected to add pressure to attain zero waste to landfill. For example, end of product life regulation, as we in the U.S. see now with tires and batteries, can be expected to be expanded, perhaps to electronics and paint, in the near future. Further, landfill capacity is already limited. Prospects for opening additional capacity aren’t real positive, due to environmental and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) concerns.

It appears to me that zero waste to landfill is feasible for many, if not all manufacturing facilities. Vision 2050’s call for phasing out landfills by 2020 is not unattainable, given sufficient motivation to do so.

Check your dumpster. Your firm paid for what is inside. Somebody else will profit from carrying it away and, likely, putting it to constructive use.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

Chuck - Blue Sweater
…  Chuck Harrington

: This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

: I have used Waste Management and General Motors as examples because I have recent and relevant information on them. While I hold both of them as valid examples, there may be other firms that are making even more or better progress toward zero waste to landfill.

Landfill Photo: Dreamstime |

[1] Learn more about WBCSD at:


[2] For more on Vision 2050, see:


[3] The information on General Motors is from:


[4] Waste Management’s 2012 Sustainability Report is available at: Quotations from Mr. Steiner are on pages 2 and 3.