Renewable Refuse

Businesses trash wasteful practices to save money, resources.

More than 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid waste are generated annually in the United States. That’s the equivalent of more than 8,500 Golden Gate Bridges, more than 2,000 Empire State Buildings, or 1,200 Hoover Dams.

Industrial solid wastes are nonhazardous wastes generated through routine business operations, and can be categorized as process waste and packaging waste. Process wastes are generated during manufacturing and include textile scrap, foundry sand, metals, plastics, nonhazardous paint, etc. Packaging wastes consist of cardboard, pallets, stretch wrap, drums, spools, cores, polystyrene packaging material, etc. Industrial solid waste does not include household or municipal solid wastes; hazardous wastes; mining and mineral processing wastes; oil and gas production wastes; mixed wastes, (solid wastes mixed with radioactive wastes); and construction debris.

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind
With so much that goes into running a successful business, trash is probably pretty low on the totem pole of priorities. Throwing everything away and relying on a hauler to take the waste to a landfill is a quick and easy means to an end. Interestingly, the low end of a totem pole is actually the most important piece. (Only the most-experienced carvers construct the bottoms, which consist of the most intricate figures.) Like totem poles, the significant of waste may also go unnoticed at first. So, take another look in that container with scrap paper products, metal, glass, plastic, and other industrial refuse, there’s something important in there – money and a better environment.

The unproductive process of sending industrial solid waste off to a landfill wastes money and negatively impacts the environment. As the volume of waste increases, more controversial and expensive waste management facilities will be needed, which squander precious land that could be used for recreational purposes or preserving wildlife habitats. An increase in waste also leads to an increase in human and wildlife exposure and not re-using or recycling industrial solid wastes unnecessarily consumes raw materials and natural resources.

More is gained by engaging in waste reduction measures and decreasing dependency on landfills. Resources, energy, and money are saved while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the demand for virgin products made from energy-intensive manufacturing processes. Reduction activities also provide businesses with financial benefits by profiting from the sale of reusable solid waste. Reusing and recycling industrial materials formerly categorized as wastes decrease disposal costs for businesses and the cost of materials for end users. With landfill waste disposal costing up to $80 per ton, companies are taking a closer look at the expenses associated with waste handling, collection, hauling, and disposal, and discovering that waste reduction and recycling actually help save money and improve profitability.

“In 2004, NEC Electronics America’s manufacturing plant in Roseville, Calif., saved more than $360,000 by reusing test wafers, eliminating the need to purchase approximately 36,000 new wafers and preventing the use of more than 4,000 pounds of virgin material,” said Roxanne Smith, press officer for U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Test wafers are used to produce semiconductors, as the substrate to hold the chips while they are being transferred to various equipment, and checking for contamination after processing in the equipment. Our rejected manufacturing wafers are in high demand by recycling vendors that resell them to companies that manufacture solar panels. We recycle everything that is possible to find someone who will buy it. We have proven that solid waste reduction is not only good for the environment, it is also good for the bottom line,” said Gus Ballis, NEC Electronics America’s Safety and Environmental Department.

An Easy Start
The easiest area to begin reduction activities is with packaging material. Packaging materials account for about one-third of all nonhazardous waste in the United States, with industries and business responsible for most of it. Thus, business and industrial sectors can greatly reduce waste proliferation in landfills.

The first step is to work with suppliers and vendors to improve business efficiency and environmental stewardship. Arrange for suppliers to take back packaging material and reuse it. Work with them to redesign packaging and eliminate cardboard boxes when possible and, instead use returnable containers, such as durable plastic crating and pallets. If cardboard boxes are necessary, select more durable cardboard for extended life and reusability. Use smaller packages when possible because smaller packages use fewer materials and less energy to manufacture and transport.

In-house, examine own product packaging and identify ways of reducing packaging materials. Reuse incoming shipping containers to transport products. Corrugated cardboard that cannot be eliminated should be recycled. Companies with substantial amounts of cardboard should use a baler since the price of baled cardboard is much higher than unbaled.

“One of Limited Brands Inc.’s most successful waste reduction activities is its packaging reduction program. In 2004, Limited Brands established new design standards for cardboard boxes used for apparel merchandise, allowing multiple uses from a single box. The boxes hold more merchandise, stack more efficiently and require less space on transportation vehicles. After the employees receive the cartons, they are reused and filled with the merchandise destined for their stores, reducing the number of new cartons purchased. This effort prevented 87 tons of cardboard from being discarded as waste and saved the company approximately $215,000 in avoided purchasing costs,” said Smith.

Many large companies like Apple, Dell, McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Wal-Mart, have already committed to reducing overall packaging. For example, Dell increased product robustness which resulted in less packaging material required to protect the products. In 2005, Dell implemented slip sheets - three-pound, .03-inch thick plastic sheets - instead of wood pallets for inbound chassis products, reducing wood usage by more than 8,000 tons. In 2006, the program was expanded to include monitors and flat panels, which resulted in over 17,000 tons of wood saved annually.

Environmental e-Bay
Instead of dumping wastes into steadily decreasing landfills – the number of landfills dropped from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005 - many local governments and states have created materials exchange programs to assist businesses to find outlets for unwanted materials. Materials exchange programs put into practice the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” They are an effective and economical way to find new uses for wastes for free or less than the cost of purchasing new materials. For example, Company A manufactures furniture and a by-product is sawdust. Company B needs sawdust for producing compost. Materials exchanges help these companies connect. “Throwing away any type of waste is money lost,” said Stephen Greene, chairman of the board of WasteCap of Massachusetts. His group, a statewide, non-profit organization, works with the business community to develop and implement cost-effective programs that promote recycling and waste reduction. These programs help save landfill space, conserve resources, and help businesses reduce waste disposal costs and even earn money.

In Texas, a hospital supplier paid $182,000 a year to dispose of various plastic wastes. Through RENEW, a materials exchange network, the hospital supplier found a buyer for its plastic wastes. Now, the hospital supplier not only avoids disposal costs, but also generates $21,600 in revenue annually from the sale of the plastics.

Most exchange programs are publicly funded, nonprofit organizations, though some may charge a listing or access fee. Some actively work to promote exchanges, while others publish lists of manufacturers, materials, and buyers. Some waste exchanges also sponsor workshops and conferences to discuss waste-related topics and exchange information. More than 60 materials exchanges operate in the U.S.

The high cost of raw materials is encouraging industries to reuse their industrial solid waste rather than discard it. Most paper mills, corrugated cardboard suppliers, aluminum manufacturers, steel makers, and glass producers reuse their manufacturing wastes. Paper scrap and trimmings are recycled automatically in the pulper; spilled iron is collected to make more steel; and broken glass is remelted and reformed. Automotive industries also send scrap metal back to the steel industry for recycling. For example, Honda crushes and recycles waste into pellets to be used for injection molding by adding materials that provide rigidity. The pellets are then used as resin materials for defroster ducts.

Participating in reduction activities is a win-win solution. It shows customers, employees, and regulatory agencies that the organization is a good corporate citizen, while simultaneously saving money and boosting revenue streams.

Success Story
“Large industrial organizations have seen the value of looking at waste, not as waste but as a commodity,” says Wes Muir, director of corporate communications for Waste Management, a provider of waste and environmental services. Bausch & Lomb, one of the largest manufacturers of optical products, generates high-grade plastic (polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride) as a solid waste. In 1999, the manufacturing plant in Rochester, NY, engaged in wasteful and expensive activities by shipping a full truckload of used plastic frames to a landfill every day. The company contacted its solid waste hauler, a division of Waste Management, in an effort to find a more productive way to dispose of the waste. Waste Management/Recycle America decided to ship the plastic to a grinding plant where it would be ground for resale to used plastics buyers. Some of the plastic was contaminated with HEMA, a clear residual film left over from the contact lens manufacturing process. Waste Management/Recycle America was able to find prospective buyers for this type of material. Part of the income gained from the sale of these plastics are rebated to Bausch & Lomb, thus reducing the manufacturer’s waste disposal costs.

Good to Great
Progression towards the creation of a more sustainable future depends on minimizing wastes. Many industries have already undertaken impressive solid waste reduction activities, but, there is still room for improvement. Because prices of raw materials and resources are expected to rise over the next few years, there will be a greater incentive for industries to use these materials more efficiently - to reuse or recycle many wastes and by-products. In the future, using waste materials to produce new materials and products might become standard operating procedure. Until that day, many opportunities for reduction currently exist for industries to use at their disposal.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Sherleen Mahoney is a Web managing editor at 1105 Media.

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