A big zero: setting targets to eliminate waste

by Michelle Dunner
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With sustainability high on the agenda for a lot of Australian businesses, the penny is dropping that it’s not just part of their corporate social responsibility plans, but has appreciable bottom line benefits.

As a result, there’s a lot of buzz about the desirability of moving to zero waste. But what does that actually mean in practice? William Payne, executive general manager of strategy and performance at Veolia, says zero waste is a very widely used term.

“I spent eight years for Veolia in Europe and saw zero waste achieved while I was there,” Payne says.

“Zero waste means elimination of waste that’s not able to create further resources down the value chain. Landfill can turn waste into a resource by creating a significant amount of energy that can go on and be used to power homes and other sustainable projects. Indeed, we’re already involved in programs where energy generated from landfill in the form of heat and power is being used to support commercial fish farming. A further project is in the wings to develop a full-blown commercial Aquaponics facility powered by landfill alone.

“We need to think of zero waste as the journey of eliminating everything out of the waste stream that cannot be used for other purposes down the track. Taken in that context, it’s a very possible aim and a lot of Australian businesses are setting targets,” says Payne.

Several companies have already demonstrated it is possible to achieve zero waste to landfill with appreciable benefits to the company. Unilever Australia’s target of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill won the waste and recycling award at last year’s NSW Office of the Environment and Heritage Green Globe Awards.

[quote style=’1′ cite=”]The attitude that waste is an annoyance has moved to the realisation that it’s a value-creation opportunity.[/quote]

Overall, Payne says Australia can look to Europe for examples of how to achieve waste goals and realise the benefits. “Europe has seen a lot of investment in technology to drive maximum resource recovery from the waste stream. That investment is starting to occur here and that will be the driver to achieve zero waste in Australia,” he says.

“The situation here at the moment is that, on the one hand, big organisations are setting zero waste targets while, on the other, companies like ours are investing in the technology and infrastructure to support that goal.

“It’s also important that the technology also drives efficiency. Why would an organisation go down the path of waste reduction if they couldn’t see it would improve sustainability, performance and reduce cost?

“Technology’s role is to enable recycling, reuse and repurposing of waste in the most efficient manner. That requires investment, but also for organisations to work together in a different way.”

Payne says businesses looking to reduce their footprint need to ask themselves what they need to do to get there.

“They need to think differently in their approach to waste, in a couple of areas. Most of them understand it’s not an area of expertise for them and not one they want to exert vast amounts of management time towards. Think about a food manufacturer – they want to spend their management time on what they know best, creating great products, rather than figuring the best waste suppliers to engage for each stream produced. Navigating the sustainability journey really requires expert suppliers to work hand in hand with businesses to change behaviour and integrate technology into the value chain.”

This requires an attitudinal shift, Payne believes. “What’s currently happening and needs to change is companies having numerous waste contractors on short-term arrangements. As a result, they’re constantly going through procurement cycles and that’s not going to be conducive to the waste suppliers investing in long-term technology, building partnerships or working on a shift in organisational thinking.

“We encourage our customers to look at waste as a whole and also expand this thinking to include water and energy. Every organisation is different, so we have developed a series of capabilities in a toolkit that look at technology, knowhow and process so that an integrated solution can be devised, specific to the particular customer’s business activity.

“Too often businesses look at waste streams in isolation and drive deals with suppliers that seek the cheapest possible outcome. There’s a growing recognition that this is not an area that is going to add long-term value to their business.”

[quote style=’1′ cite=”]Short-term arrangements mean constant procurement cycles and that’s not going to be conducive to investing in sustainable solutions.[/quote]

A number of major Australian companies already “get it”, Payne says. “They’ve made the cultural shift, within their board and executive teams and they’re engaging with us to move to an approach where we can work together so they can see the benefits flow.

“There’s a growing change of mindset in corporate Australia. The attitude that waste is an annoyance is moving to the realisation that it’s a value-creation opportunity – both tangible and intangible”

Carrot and stick`
While governments at all levels wield regulatory power, Payne considers the ‘carrot’ is the growing recognition of improvements to a business’ bottom line as a result of more sustainable operations.

“The regulatory environment is interesting because it varies from state to state and that can make investing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure a bit challenging.

“Organisations like ours, as well as some entrepreneurs, are definitely migrating in the right direction. There are positive examples of local government understanding what’s needed, supporting us, which in turn allows investment in infrastructure. Veolia currently has infrastructure projects exceeding $100 million underway that directly support the journey of zero value-added waste being lost. All components are working together – landfill to energy assets, recycling assets and so on to recover the value from the waste streams.

“But regulation is something that will continue to be worked on and evolve. There’s a lot of time and money at stake. It’s really up to government at all levels and the waste industry to work hand in hand to understand what can be achieved.”

This article also appears in Issue 1 of Corporate Waste Solutions

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