This article is cross-posted on Triple Pundit.
Zero waste is a movement that aims to minimize the material that goes into landfills by recycling or composting most items. It is the next generation of traditional recycling and a sustainability initiative, which I recently implemented as my company’s Green Committee chair. After months of planning, it was very exciting to launch the program in late spring. Now that we have the summer behind us, I am taking the time to reflect on lessons learned and following up on my promise to share how our zero waste project has been running.
The program was rolled out in the corporate headquarters of an international software company and is the first zero waste implementation to be put in place within a large office building in our state. The transition to a zero waste system in an office building, specifically collecting compost, involves a significant cultural change on behalf of the employees and management. We knew our leadership team was on board when after being pitched the idea last fall, our CEO asked, “Why would we not launch a program like this?” With his endorsement in our hands, the Green Committee began turning our focus to our 200 colleagues.
Six months before we began seriously entertaining the idea of a full-scale zero waste initiative, we had used our Green Leaves educational program to provide employees with information about home composting. We placed paper leaves throughout the office that read, “Reduce trash, save money on garbage and lawn bags, and create great soil by composting organic scraps. For more info go to: www.HowToCompost.org“. Over the weeks that followed, Green Committee members made it a point to discuss the many virtues of composting with anyone who asked us a question, commented on the green leaf, or just happened to be standing next to us in the kitchen. Some people said they remembered their grandparents composting on the family farm fifty years ago and were surprised that the practice is becoming popular once again. Several people expressed concern over the odor and were very surprised when a few Green Committee members began keeping small compost bins at their desks to collect fruit and vegetables waste from themselves and their neighbors to bring home with them at the end of each day. We soon realized that compost can be a touchy subject and would most likely be our biggest challenge moving our zero waste plans forward.
After priming the pump with our suggestion that employees consider composting at home, during the annual Kick Off Meeting in February, I announced to the entire company that a zero waste initiative would be implemented in 2011. I officially unveiled the program several months later at our spring quarterly meeting by defining zero waste and explaining we had contracted a local company that was, at the time, providing zero waste hauling to over thirty area restaurants. I had one of the two customized zero waste stations we had purchased for each kitchen in our office with me in the meeting and used it to help me education people on the types of items that should be placed into each bin. Finally, I our displayed the names of all Green Committee members and asked employees to seek these people out with their questions and comments about the program.
The most complicated part of our implementation is the variety of bins we provide employees. Traditional zero waste programs include three options: Recycling, Compost, and Landfill. We chose to include two additional collections in our zero waste station, Cans and Bottles, and Mixed Paper, because during the past three years, these items have been taken away for free by local companies. The cans and bottles are collected by a local charity that turns them in to collect the deposit and all of our paper is collected by a business that has been recycling scrap metal and mixed paper in our region for twenty years. The Green Committee began working with him four years ago when our company moved offices and encouraged employees to recycle the paper they were getting rid of before the move. The free price tag comes with a request that we sort the paper ourselves so we have set up bins throughout the office to capture the paper in four groups: white copy paper, chipboard, cardboard, and all other paper (colored, glossy, etc.)
Not only would our new zero waste hauler, Eco-Movement, charge us for removing paper, cans, and bottles from our building, we would be asking employees to change a collection system that has worked well for years. By continuing the current process and adding composting to the mix, we chose to partner with three local organizations instead of one, save money, and make the transition to zero waste easier for the employees.
Almost immediately after launching the program, we began making adjustments. Prior to zero waste, we had been told by our facilities department they were unable to secure wooden coffee stirrers. Knowing this, we made sure to point out that the plastic coffee stirrers needed to be placed into the landfill bin. After one week the Green Committee received so many requests for wooden coffee stirrers from employees , including the Vice President of Human Resources, who were concerned about the impact adding plastic coffee stirrers to the landfill has on the environment that we went back to our facilities manager and asked him to widen his search for wooden coffee stirrers. After another week, we had completely discontinued using plastic coffee stirrers are now purchasing wooden coffee stirrers which can be composted.
The lessons I have learned from developing and launching this zero waste program revolve around ease of use and listening to employees. Making the program easy and optional allowed employees to begin fully utilizing the system soon after it was launched and harnessed the power of peer pressure rather than the mandate of the Green Committee to persuade the folks who were reticent of participating to give it a try. Stressing our hope for feedback and then acting on the information we received was key. If you are about to launch a zero waste program, I suggest gathering all changes and clarifications during the first two weeks of the initiative and then communicating them all at once though a zero waste update email. Finally, sending out a survey after the program has been running for several months is an important way to see to what degree employees have internalized the idea of zero waste. We plan to poll our colleagues soon and I will be back to let you know what we learn.