Lessons Learned on Southface’s Journey to Zero Waste

Southface Institute can advise businesses and organizations about how they can begin or enhance their own zero waste plan.

The 3Rs—reduce, reuse and recycle—have been taught in many classrooms from elementary school. Unfortunately, most people skip steps “reduce” and “reuse” and immediately go to “recycle” or, worse yet, the trash can. But a world groaning under the volume of waste from its growing population needs to find solutions quickly. With changes in the international market for waste, this imperative continues to gain importance. Thankfully, the philosophy of “zero waste” is taking hold and offering real solutions to overflowing landfills.

Zero Waste is a global movement, launched some 20 years ago in New Zealand, which promotes the practice of diverting consumed items from the landfill and, where possible, creating less to recycle too. As part of its commitment to all things sustainable, Southface Institute has taken this practice in-house and shares the results of its experience, learnings from which every organization and household can benefit.

Traditions of waste

In most parts of the world, there is a huge disconnect between what is consumed and where it goes afterward. The U.S. is an unfortunate leader in this area, making up roughly just 5% of the world’s population but contributing to 40% of the world’s waste.1 The lure of low-cost, readily available goods and convenience foods means that we seldom consider how much use we can get from an item before we buy it. Even those who practice sustainability in other parts of their lives may find it hard to break from some consumer habits, because convenience is often king. Says Stephen Ward, Southface Institute’s Facilities Manager, “Waste diversion does not have to be hard, but it does take a change in mindset, especially when it is so easy to throw things away.”

China’s National Sword policy

Adding to the imperative of finding sustainable solutions to waste, there are shrinking options for where to send recyclables for processing. For nearly three decades, China purchased much of the world’s recycled plastics and papers. This worked well until China found itself overwhelmed with contaminated material it couldn’t afford to process—non-recyclable or poorly cleaned items mixed in with recyclable material. So, in 2018, China enacted the “National Sword” policy, banning the import of other countries’ recyclable waste.2

Recyclable materials contaminated with food are often sent to the landfill as the cost is too high to clean and process them before recycling.

The impacts on U.S. recycling

Now that China is out of the picture, recycling processors in the United States are the ones having to create new ways to address contamination. For example, what happens when food residue is left in a recycled container a cap is left on a bottle, or non-recyclable items are mixed in with recyclables. Because American recycling is full of contamination, waste management facilities are finding that the costs of collecting, processing and producing recycled materials is higher than can be recouped.3

Southface’s zero waste initiative

Waste elimination is related to Southface’s vision statement: A regenerative economy, responsible resource use and social equity through a healthy built environment for all. “What better way to use resources responsibly than ensuring everything we no longer need to operate our business can have a useful life somewhere else,” says Ward.

As part of its campus-wide sustainable practices, Southface launched its zero-waste initiative in August 2018 with the goal of diverting 100% of its nonhazardous, solid waste from the landfill. To deal with compostables, Southface partnered with Compost Now, a company committed to diverting food waste. Compost Now picks up Southface’s organic waste and brings back nutrient-rich soil.

In addition to trash, recycling and compost bins, Southface added specific bins for other categories of materials accepted by Live Thrive, Atlanta’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). CHaRM is metro Atlanta’s first and only permanent drop-off facility that accepts recyclables and other items that aren’t collected by waste management companies. Throughout the office space, there are bins labeled “Styrofoam,” “aluminum foil” and “plastic bags,” just to name a few.

At the start of the initiative, Southface was diverting 55% of its waste from the landfill. A year later, Southface is diverting 88% of its overall waste from the landfill. This drastic drop breaks down to a:

  • 59% decrease in landfill waste
  • 84% increase in recyclables
  • 280% increase in compostables

Along the way to becoming a zero-waste facility, Southface has learned a lot. The following are seven lessons Southface has found helpful in making sure its campus stays on track of its goal. See what changes you can integrate into your home or office as well:

  1. Try to only buy items that you know can be recycled, reused or composted. Before purchasing, ask yourself if this item can be properly recycled, reused, or composted. If not, is there an alternative? If not, consider buying a can of peas instead of frozen peas in a non-recyclable plastic bag.
  2. Check your local provider’s website to find out what can be recycled and what needs to go in the trash. It’s vital to only recycle the items you’re sure are acceptable. Non-recyclable material placed in the recycling stream taints the entire batch, requiring cash-strapped collectors to send it all to the landfill, rather than absorb the costs of sorting out offending items.4
  3. Clean every item before placing it in the recycling bin. Packaging and containers, especially with food residue, can contaminate an entire batch of recycling, turning it into trash. For containers that have lids, fill the container with water and vigorously swish the water around inside. If the residue is sticky, like jelly or honey, soak it for a bit and then rinse.
  4. Find out who might take your hard-to-recycle items. Metals, glass, electronic waste, wooden pallets and some forms of plastic have value to someone else. There are companies and individuals who pick up, and even pay for, your recyclables. Do an internet search for collection services near you.
  5. Urge manufacturers to take responsibility for what they produce. If you’re not happy with how your favorite product is being sourced, manufactured, transported and used, let the company know. Corporations want to do the right thing, and sometimes all it takes is a nudge to guide them in the right direction. Environmental groups and consumers have successfully influenced large franchises like Dunkin’, Starbucks and McDonald’s to stop using Styrofoam cups and think twice before giving out plastic straws. 5
  1. Take a moment to think about the life cycle of the products you buy. From the raw materials used to its manufacturing, transportation, use and disposal, what do you need to know about the products you use in your home and office? What’s more, do you really need it now? In your office, check your supply inventories before purchasing more. Your co-worker might be hoarding pens that they never use, or you may find there is a large quantity of binders that could be donated to a school.
  1. Share with your network. Call attention to this nationwide recycling issue by reaching out to those in power who can assist. As you move through your zero-waste journey, feel free to share your experience with others.

What steps will you integrate into your home or office? Southface Institute can help your business achieve its zero-waste goals while saving money, reducing your carbon footprint and supporting a healthy environment. Contact Southface to find out more.

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