Is achieving “Zero Waste” possible?

Recently I lectured in my hometown about the top 10 ways to take your office to zero waste. Based on feedback from that blog I was invited by Barbara Weigand, of Copper River Salon in Princeton, NJ, to audit her salon and advise her on how to become a zero waste business.

I was pleased to see, as I waked in, that Copper River had already started on the path to Zero Waste. They were recycling everything that they can recycle municipally and were running the Garnier Beauty Brigade for their cosmetic waste, a free way to turn cosmetic and beauty packaging into donations for non-profits!

Local recycling: when implementing local recycling at your business or your home, it is critical to read up on what is recyclable and what is not, as it varies city by city. For example, in some cities you can recycle HDPE (#2) plastic and in some you can’t. The same goes for PP (#5) plastic and juice cartons. A fantastic resource to discover what is recyclable and what is not in your local community is www.earth911.org. You can also call your local recycling center to ask them directly.

As background, even though plastics emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, the first North American plastic recycling programs started only when a number of US states instituted bottle deposit return programs in the 1980s. These programs gained popularity in the 1990s, and today approximately
 25 percent of rigid #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastics are recycled (still rather disappointing). All other forms of plastic—#3 (PVC) to #7 (other)—and all flexible films are not recycled in any meaningful way anywhere in the world. That being the case, only about 5 percent of all plastics in the United States are actually recycled.

Hans Braxmeier/CC BY 1.0

What do these numbers actually mean? When you look at any plastic product, you may notice a symbol that looks like a recycling logo with a number in the middle. Though somewhat misleading, these symbols do not mean that the product is recyclable (a blunder of the plastics industry). These plastic identification codes (PICs) were introduced by the Society of the Plastics Industry to provide a uniform system for the identification of different plastic polymer types. PICs help recycling companies separate different plastics for reprocessing, and in most countries all plastic products are required to use them. So don’t be confused – a PIC does not mean that object is recyclable, and typically no matter the PIC code if the plastic is flexible (like a chip bag) it is typically not recyclable in your municipal recycling system.

As I mentioned above, Copper River Salons were already running a TerraCycle program to collect and recycle their personal care and beauty waste. At TerraCycle we provide free recycling programs (sponsored by various brands, like in this case Garnier) where we provide free shipping (via UPS) for your waste and will then reuse, upcycle or recycle the collected waste into something new. Copper River, like many of our collectors, receives a $0.02 donation per piece of waste collected to a school or charity of their choice. Barb told me that her program, which she has been running for over a year, has not only helped her raise money for her local school, but also helped bring customers into her salon. People who wanted to recycle their waste later decided switch where they get their hair cut from their old shop to Copper River. This was accomplished by Copper River advertising on their website that they are a place where you can recycle your personal care and cosmetic waste.

What about everything else? It’s great that Copper River was already doing local recycling and TerraCycle, but this on it’s own doesn’t make them zero waste. So what about everything else?

I noticed Barb had a coffee station with a machine that uses coffee capsules. Unfortunately she had chosen perhaps the one brand that doesn’t offer a free recycling program for its capsules. It’s important to note that today most coffee capsule brands do run free recycling programs for their capsules. In the US, this includes but is not limited to: Tassmio, Illy, Nespresso, and Flavia. My suggestion to Barb is to support a company that is taking responsibility over it’s waste vs. one that is not.

Andres Nieto Porras/CC BY 2.0

Then I noticed that she had tremendous amounts of hair clippings, being a salon and all. Turns out that those hair clippings make for a fantastic ingredient to compost. So if your town has green waste pick up, then put it there. If not then consider composting at home or at your office. And if that’s too much trouble then consider taking it to your local composting facility to be composted professionally.

Finally, Copper River Salon also had some e-waste, like hair dryers, and various plastics, like combs, both of which you can’t put into your local recycling. This is perhaps the hardest stuff to deal with. One idea is to commission an artist to make a beautiful piece of upcycled art from this waste. If that’s not appropriate then perhaps look up companies that you can send this material to. But I told her not to worry as my company, TerraCycle, will be launching a program for all categories of waste in two months from now. Although she will have to pay a fee to access these non-sponsored programs, she can boast that her salon is perhaps the first salon in America to become completely zero waste.

The journey to Zero Waste is not an easy one, but when you break apart the waste streams that your small business produces you’ll find that it’s easier than you think. In the coming months I’ll visit a few more businesses that share with you my advice to them on how they can become Zero Waste.

Tags: Composting | Eco-Friendly Office | Zero Waste

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