Where we once read in textbooks about how a concept called ‘globalisation’ would change the way business was conducted around the world, we now find ourselves taking for granted the conveniences and opportunities afforded by the global economy.
Large and small businesses alike have the ability to tap into global consumer and labour markets, serving to dilute the regional barriers that once separated us and provide businesses with easy access to the most competitive material and labour resources available.
The outcomes of this contemporary business environment are many – some are positive, while others are not. As far as it is possible within the limitations of this article, we will attempt to unpack some of the outcomes of the global economy as they relate to waste management broadly and, more specifically, how they relate to the waste management considerations facing the property sector.
In the same way that corporations have taken advantage of the cheap material and labour resources of developing economies to produce products destined to be consumed on the other side of the world, the consumer-driven markets of the developed world are now looking at the other side of the equation.
They’re increasingly seeking cheaper, ‘more efficient’ solutions to dispose of and recycle the waste generated from their societies – much of which ends up in the same developing economies from which the products originated in the first place.
This practice has been prevalent in the e-waste (electronic waste) sector for some time whereby broken or obsolete electronics are shipped to developing countries where cheap labour allows these products
to be dematerialised into their base components at a fraction of the cost associated with conducting this service in a developed country.
At its best, and when conducted with integrity, this practice would create new revenue streams
and give rise to potential foreign investment into economies in need of growth. At its worst, a lack of transparency and accountability throughout the chain of custody has resulted in severe environmental and social abuses.
While the e-waste example possibly exhibits the most extreme and severely negative outcomes, the factors that created these outcomes are still relevant when considering the broader implications for the increased reliance on offshore disposal and recycling in the name of ‘efficiency’.
As a starting point, we offer some points worthy of consideration for any company or organisation
that should at the very least understand where and how their waste and recyclables are being disposed of processed:
- taking advantage of a cheap labour force where work health and safety, and environmental regulations may not be as stringent as the host country and indeed may not align with the stated CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies of the company
- lack of transparency in determining final disposal point or recycling outcome
- unregulated disposal of materials into landfills
- direct environmental and health issues for the local communities that manage the waste
- loss of valuable environmental resources from our local economy, and
- substantial increase in waste miles for final disposal.
As organisations grow their sphere of influence, they are increasingly held to a higher level of responsibility and accountability for their actions (or inactions). In this contemporary context greater transparency is being demanded by consumers, business stakeholders and governments to ensure accountability.
The ethos of sustainability, while still relatively young in the corporate world, is now becoming openly adopted by organisations, as the reliance solely on economic performance is no longer enough to compete in the global marketplace. In a saturated marketplace where businesses are selling similar products and services, the public perception of a business is vitally important.
That is why the adoption of social and environmental responsibility now carries weight and can prove to be the tipping point of consumer/investor buy-in and, as a consequence, a contributor to business success.
As a result, in the interests of responding to the contemporary business concept of the triple bottom line, publicly reported recycling targets and commitments to achieve ‘zero waste’ can be made without considering the implications involved in actually delivering on these goals with a satisfactory level of integrity, accountability and accuracy.
Certainly, we should welcome any and all drivers that may motivate corporations to take steps to improve recycling performance and increase diversion from landfill; however, to be clear, the impetus to deliver improved sustainability figures, does not necessarily equate to improved environmental outcomes.
Zero waste: what does it really mean?
Let’s consider the concept of zero waste. Increasingly, within the property sector, we are starting to see the corporate adoption of zero waste strategies. Many of these are targeted solely towards zero-waste-to-landfill and thus provide a linear progression of achievement: achieving a 100 percent recycling rate will equate to zero waste, which must translate to positive environmental, social and corporate governance outcomes.
With the current technology and waste management systems available to the property sector within our society, it is hard to imagine this goal is actually possible – does this mean we have set the bar too high?
A true zero waste commitment is defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance as follows: “… a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.”
The resonating point in the above definition is that zero waste extends much further than simply ensuring no waste goes to landfill. It demonstrates a need to rethink how we operate our current systems and understand our sphere of influence to plug the holes in the resource pipeline and improve efficiency in a responsible way.
Organisations are required to think about how they are able to work with the entire supply chain to achieve extended producer responsibility and accountability to ensure that a commitment like zero waste (as per the true definition) is actually achieved.
Property groups find themselves in a unique position of influence over a broad number of stakeholders both up (tenants) and down (waste contractors) the supply chain. Influence may vary between each asset or property group, so it is up to the organisation to define how their zero waste commitment will take shape in practice.
It should now be clear that purely diverting all materials away from landfill without regard for the various implications of that decision does not constitute a responsible strategy to achieve a true zero waste commitment.
The pathways an organisation takes to achieve its outcomes and not the outcome itself is critical for corporate organisations.
When an organisation elevates itself to a position of leadership within the industry by committing to lofty goals, it is only natural for other organisations to want to follow suit.
If it is later discovered that the methods taken to achieve a given outcome are unethical or undesirable, then the value of the achievement will be questioned, as will the reputation of the organisation. Striving towards greater responsibility and accountability to achieve truly beneficial outcomes should be the key to industry leadership.
Ethical waste management
So how can we do things better? As stated earlier, at the very least we must understand and consider the various implications associated with our waste management decisions. Again, we offer some points for consideration:
- You get what you pay for. Beware of waste management ‘solutions’ that claim to deliver on your corporate sustainability goals at a fraction of the cost of previous services and/or accepted market value. Transparency and meaningful outcomes rarely come without a cost.
- Duty of care. A business should know where its waste and recycling is going. Understanding the destination and processing facility is a powerful tool in driving a recycling program, as this enables us to understand the actual downstream outcomes to better inform our upstream decisions.
- Extended producer responsibility. This is a strategy to make producers financially and environmentally accountable to product end-of-life. This is becoming more commonplace in the e-waste sector; however, the same principles can apply for the property sector. Most properties are multi-tenanted and generally share waste costs evenly. Some tenants produce significantly more waste than other tenants. Any strategy or system that is able to pass these costs on directly in an accurate manner shifts accountability to the true waste producer.
- Creating frameworks. Organise ways within your property environment that enables other organisations (tenants) to do things better. Something as simple as providing a recycling bin service and making sure this is available in their tenancy goes a long way.
- Utilising consultation. Consult industry best practice such as the Better Buildings Partnership ‘Operational Waste Guidelines’ (the Better Buildings Partnership is a leading collaboration of 14 of Australia’s largest property owners, managers and key influencers, which plays a key role in improving the performance and sustainability of existing buildings in the City of Sydney area and across Australia).
In summary, there is a need to look deeper to evaluate the impacts of our waste goals. Are we accountable enough? When we take a local view, are we losing valuable resources that could be reused? Or, are we merely exporting the problem or creating a set of unintended consequences for other communities along the way?
Our decisions have implications not only for today, but potentially for the long-term. We need to ensure we’re on the right path.
Written by Patrick Arnold and Scott Ebsary, Foresight Environmental.