Making Zero Net Waste a Reality for the Plastics Industry

“Zero Waste.” Not too long ago that phrase seemed a lofty and unattainable idea. And yet, today many companies are increasingly finding success in diverting waste from landfills and finding the best and most efficient use for the resources. Companies publicly committing to zero waste are, in fact, becoming quite commonplace.

As companies like Toyota, Unilever, and Hershey reach their goal of sending zero waste to a landfill, it’s very likely they will begin to expect the same from upstream suppliers. In fact, as a brand owner or processor, you might have the same goals and expectations of your supply chain. Recognizing that responsibly managing material in the manufacturing phase is an increasing priority for industry, SPI launched the Zero Net Waste Program after an 18-month development process.

This program is a groundbreaking recognition program and tool that helps members decrease the impact of waste in manufacturing by evaluating waste-reducing opportunities and maximizing diversion from landfill. The ZNW program provides plastics companies a concrete set of resources they can use to pursue, and achieve, zero net waste in their facilities and offices. It also recognizes participants for these achievements once facilities demonstrate their progress.

The idea of the program came from the SPI Recycling Committee’s Emerging Trends Subcommittee, chaired by Kathy Xuan, CEO of PARC Corp, and was developed by a broad stakeholder workgroup of SPI members.

“As chair of the subcommittee and a recycler who provides zero landfill services, we feel this program will be instrumental in providing tools and resources to accelerate the industry’s pursuit of zero waste,” said Xuan.

Why Zero Net Waste?

ZNW-logo-DRAFTPeople will notice that SPI’s program didn’t just adopt the phrase “Zero Waste” to define the program. The phrase “zero waste”, in its purest interpretation, does not allow for diversion through energy recovery. While SPI recognizes energy recovery as a valuable solid waste management tool, we believe that energy recovery should only be used as an end-of-life management strategy for materials that cannot be mechanically recycled. For materials that cannot be mechanically recycled, we believe that responsibly recovering value through energy is the second best end-of-life management option. The SPI workgroup felt that the term “Zero Net Waste” was a better embodiment of the widely accepted “reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover” waste management hierarchy.

Guiding Members to Success

The cornerstone of the Zero Net Waste program is the manual, which includes real world, step-by-step tools and resources for companies throughout the plastics value chain to ensure that plastic materials and other byproducts of manufacturing are put to their highest and best use. From building the business case for pursuing zero net waste, to educating employees and offering practical guidance on finding the right service providers, the ZNW program manual is designed to enable companies of all sizes to take immediate steps to begin pursuing zero waste in their facilities.

Companies who participate in the program, and meet requirements of the two-step qualification and verification process will be recognized for their efforts and are allowed to use the Zero Net Waste logo. For those companies that go on to pursue third-party certification for their landfill reduction achievements, embarking on this program will align them for success in eventual certification.

“The Zero Net Waste Program isn’t just for companies looking for zero waste certification,” said Robert Flores, director of sustainability for Berry Plastics. “The accompanying manual is applicable to a wide variety of companies and provides the basics for how get started, as well as how to enhance existing programs that a company already may have in place.”

The Benefits of Zero Net Waste

There are a host of benefits that companies can enjoy from their zero net waste activities, both environmental and economic. On the environmental side, companies who reduce what they send to landfill are reducing their operational footprint. They are also being good community members by helping to extend the life of the landfill. The process of citing a new landfill once the old one reaches capacity can be an arduous process. Many communities emphasize the importance of recycling as a tool to extend the life of landfills. Through maximum diversion, our members can help communities achieve this.

The economic benefits of zero net waste can also be numerous. Many companies have not only found success dramatically cutting their garbage and landfill costs, but in some cases, are generating revenue from the sale of scrap materials. Other companies are using their landfill diversion success as a green marketing opportunity and market differentiator. This can translate to strengthening customer relationships and generating new business. In addition, companies that make sustainability initiatives a priority report higher, on average, levels of employee satisfaction and retention. People like working for companies that they feel are good stewards of their communities and the environment. This is a particular priority for millennials entering the workforce today.

The Right Direction For the Plastics Industry

Lastly, zero net waste efforts fit in with larger waste management goals nationally and globally. Calls for meaningful change in the way our industry manages our products throughout their life cycle have been building, reaching a crescendo recently at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos earlier this year. During that meeting, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released the report “The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the Future of Plastics”, which contended that by 2050, the world’s oceans will have more plastic than fish, by weight. The report calls for “a shared sense of direction, to spark a wave of innovation and to move the plastics value chain into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and better environmental outcomes.”

This move toward a circular economy and sustainable material management (SMM) thinking is very much in line with SPI values and the reason why SPI has developed the ZNW program.

“These are values being driven by many of the major brand owners in our industry today,” notes Nina Goodrich, Executive Director of GreenBlue. “GreenBlue and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition support SPI’s Zero Net Waste Program. Providing companies the tools and resources to demonstrate leadership in landfill diversion is an important step toward reducing carbon emissions and developing a circular economy.”

While the immediate goal of the program is to drive the plastics industry toward maximizing diversion of resources into the proper recovery channels, it is our larger goal to challenge the supply chain to think more broadly about the disposition of all plastic products, from production all the way through end-of-life. Furthermore, this program seeks to strengthen the link between the makers of plastic products and recyclers, which we believe can lead to more conversations about using recycled plastics, not just recovery of scrap plastics. SPI believes the ZNW program can be a vehicle for further strengthening the role of recycling as a pillar of the plastics industry.

To learn more about the Zero Net Waste program, please visit


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