A sustainability plan is put in place to make a change and to do something good for the company and for the earth. With proper foresight and care, that positive momentum can continue within all aspects of the business.
By Matthew S. Hollis
The statistics we hear on a daily basis in the waste industry are staggering. More than 40 percent of food is thrown away, according to the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). Microplastics from pollution have seeped into 90 percent of table salt, according to researchers from Greenpeace East Asia. There is a garbage patch twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, reports NOAA. All of these figures are brought to our attention throughout the day, whether we are at work or at home watching the news. As waste professionals, we are the front line of defense when it comes to moving towards a more sustainable future. That is why sustainability planning is so important, whether you are implementing it in your own business or helping a client implement it at their organization.
Because we depend on the environment to survive, sustainability “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations,” as defined by the EPA. Simply put, our actions affect the environment in ways that can taint or ruin it for future generations. When we reduce our impact, we become more sustainable in the process. Sustainability planning is the act of creating, measuring and evaluating a plan to reduce that impact with thought, intent and actions. In essence, a good sustainability plan will help an organization lessen its negative impact on the world around it.
Step One: Audit
It is hard to reduce waste when a company does not know how much it is producing in the first place. In addition to volume of waste, it is important to take a look at what kind of waste is being generated as well. Perhaps there is a large volume of cardboard, or an excess of plastic packaging waste. Knowing these details is the first step in sustainability planning.
For example, what if a company thinks their employees are using tons of paper to print documents, when in reality the employees are actually sending files digitally? Without an audit, it is impossible to have clear details on what resources are being used in order to get to the root of the waste issue.
To perform the audit, select a set period of time and measure all inputs and outputs of the waste the company generates. Keep tabs on what is going in the garbage pail, what types of items (if any) are being recycled and what types of items are being reused or reallocated. It is also beneficial to speak with staff, employees, managers and maintenance crew to get a better idea of how certain resources are being used or resources being used that you might not be able to measure.
To complete the audit, a company might consider bringing on an outside firm to help analyze the waste stream. This is especially useful for larger organizations that create a diverse waste steam. These companies can also assist in other aspects of sustainability planning. If you are a waste hauler, it could be beneficial to offer these types of services to your customers as a way to differentiate your business.
No matter how environmentally damaging they seem, or how overwhelming the numbers look on paper, the results of an audit should be considered an amazing opportunity. Part of sustainability planning is forming a new, positive mindset around the organization’s relationship with the environment. By identifying the areas that need improvement, a company already is taking a step in the right direction. Let the past be in the past and focus on a fresh start to a more sustainable future.
Step Two: Recommendation for Process Change
The next step to a more sustainable future is to make recommendations for process changes to the organization. These are tactics the company can implement in order to achieve their sustainability goals, as corporate social responsibility only works when a business puts true action behind its words. To decide the best route to take, it is important to understand whether the goals fall into a long-term or short-term category.
To make sure long-term goals, such as “moving to 100 percent plastic-free packaging by 2025”, actually get accomplished, they will need to be broken down into more attainable, actionable steps. Decide what smaller changes the company can make each month, quarter or year leading up to the main goal. Delegate tasks such as research or equipment sourcing to the correct departments and give each task a deadline. Breaking it down into simple, easy steps means that each person in the organization can not only be held accountable for their own input, but can also be proud of their contribution once the goal is met.
An organization can approach short-term goals or broader, unspecific goals—such as “reducing single-plastic use” or “using less paper”—in a variety of ways. For example, if a restaurant wants to reduce plastic waste, they can switch out single-use cutlery for reusable forks and knives. On the other hand, they could also introduce a recycling bin and educate staff on how to recycle correctly. If an office building wants to use less paper, printers can be set to print double-sided or files can be shared digitally. Decide which processes the company should prioritize, based on time, money and resources, and make a recommendation accordingly.
If you have completed your audit but still do not have a strong sense of what a company needs to do in order to become more sustainable, try incorporating these common themes into your sustainability plan:
• Plastic reduction—Using less plastic as individuals and as an organization as a whole
• Recycling—Implementing a program to divert trash away from landfills, or expand your current program to be more effective
• Food waste—Reducing food waste where applicable
Regardless of what an organization decides to focus on for sustainability, the important thing is that the ball is in motion. The great part about becoming more sustainable is that once a business reaches its current goals, there is always room for new ones. Sustainability is an ongoing solution, which can continually be modified until all processes are refined to lessen their environmental impact.
Step Three: Identify Available Services to Assist
Once you understand the current waste stream and create a list of changes to be made, as a hauler, it is time to identify which services you can provide for the company. For example, if a company wants to waste less paper, you can suggest a plan to install recycling bins in the facility, establish the frequency of pickup and eventually take them to the proper recycling facility.
When establishing these services, it is also imperative to note what, if any, employee education will need to be enacted in order to make sure the sustainability plan is executed correctly. Some business owners may not be aware of issues like recycling contamination or laws around food waste donations, so be sure to provide information and instructions on anything related to the services that you will be performing.
Step Four: Timeline
The timeline portion of a sustainability plan is incredibly important, as it needs to be put together thoughtfully and realistically. Try staggering the sustainability goals, according to importance, difficulty or bandwidth for best results. Consider feedback from other members of the organization on their current workload and business goals to make sure that you are assigning tasks efficiently. Working towards a more sustainable organization should be an exciting, positive experience; it is okay to reevaluate timelines in the future if some tactics are taking longer than others.
Step Five: Decide Metrics
Once your general plan is outlined, it is time to decide on exactly how you will be evaluating its success. For example, in some organizations, it might be more important to complete a goal on time, but for others, general awareness and education might be most important. Judging a project’s success by its completion date is a very straightforward metric, whereas judging general awareness could be more difficult. For those types of goals, perhaps a before-and-after employee survey would be the best metric. The most important thing is to decide what is best for your organization and its overall sustainability goals.
Step Six: Implementation
It is now time to put your plan in motion. With clear goals, tactics, timelines and metrics, the only thing left to finalize is how you will implement the plan and how you will report on the plan once implemented. Will the company host a town hall meeting next year to share an update on results? Will a team be put together to continually be monitoring the campaign? Is the company going to engage with any press or paid media to share the results? All of these final questions are important to consider before officially launching the start of your new environmental goals.
Once finalized, it is time to take the leap of commitment and begin implementing the sustainability plan. Ultimately, a sustainability plan is put in place to make a change and to do something good for the company and for the earth. This should be an exciting time for the organization, and with proper foresight and care, that positive momentum can continue within all aspects of the business.
Matthew S. Hollis is the co-founder and president of Elytus (Columbus, OH), an innovative waste management company that uses technology to connect organizations to the best waste hauler in their area, and helps them become more sustainable and eco-friendly in the process. Matthew and Elytus’ employees practice sustainability every day in their zero-waste office—their motto is “Waste Nothing.” For more information, visit www.elytus.com or visit them on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/company/elytus-ltd-.