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Five for five: Experts weigh in on why Kiwi businesses need to tackle waste management now

Businesses in our ‘clean green Aotearoa’ are becoming more responsible for the waste they emit as much as consumers are. From the new movement of the conscious individual came a need for our businesses to cater to that. Yet reducing waste and becoming more environmentally conscious is not an easy task for already solid businesses. Here, five industry experts give their insights and advice on how businesses can pivot towards a more sustainable outlook. 

Andrew Eagles, chief executive of the New Zealand Green Building Council (NZGBC);

What are some of the biggest challenges do you think business face of their journey to reduce waste?

Building and construction waste is a huge issue. In Auckland, 600,000 tonnes of building and demolition waste gets dumped in landfill every year. Around half of all waste that ends up in New Zealand landfills is from construction and, as the building boom continues, this problem could get even worse. Given the significant scale, this is a big challenge. But, thankfully, there are existing solutions and it’s a problem that could, relatively easily, be solved.

What is the best advice you could give businesses starting on their journey to reduce waste?

Start at the start. Reducing waste isn’t an add-on at the end. Look at your procurement and see what could be improved at this stage. For instance, recent research suggested that about $30,000 of material is wasted and dumped for every single house that is built in New Zealand.

Take a lifecycle approach and be sure to bring your employees with you on that journey.  Try to design out waste when designing the building.

And, if you’re in the constructing a home or building, have a look at using the independent checks called Homestar and Green Star, which provide solutions and incentives to reducing construction waste. Some projects have managed to divert 90 percent from landfill. 

What are some of the top innovative practices you’ve seen or heard of helping to curb waste in a business setting?

Some businesses are moving to prefabricated building systems.  This is positive.  It is designing out waste right at the start. Another thing I saw a bit of overseas was building in a way that works for the deconstruction and use of materials at the end of the use of the building. 

What Green Gorilla is doing with recycling building waste, and making sure it doesn’t go to landfill, is great. They’re diverting tens of thousands of tonnes away from landfill every year. One way they’re doing this is by recycling plasterboard and turning it into fertilizer.

Why do you think it’s important that business do their role in lessening their environmental strain?

The environment isn’t someplace that exists elsewhere, or something to improve your brand positioning. It’s the air our children breathe, the ground under our feet, on which the literal foundations of your business sits. And when it comes to climate change, if we don’t tackle it, it’s going to wipe trillions and trillions of dollars off the world economy. All too often we’re subjected to whingeing bores droning on about the cost to business of tackling climate change but the cost of not tackling climate change is astronomical in comparison. There is no comparison.

And important isn’t a strong enough word.

Right now, the world is looking for Aotearoa to lead the way, and the government, and our businesses, must step up and do just that.

Where do you think New Zealand sits on the world stage for their efforts to become more environmentally conscious?

Not quite high enough. I think sometimes in Aotearoa we can understate the role we play on the world stage – and our role becomes more elevated, more important when global politics becomes less progressive. When some of our traditionally important international allies are led by politicians without the wit or courage to tackle climate change, people around the world look for hope, and they look for beacons, and examples of those countries doing the right thing. And that’s when they look to us. 

Dorte Wray, executive officer at ZeroWaste;

What are some of the biggest challenges do you think business face of their journey to reduce waste?

Waste is seen as a necessary evil (and cost) of doing business instead of waste being understood as a possible resource, either for the business or for another business/community group. Thinking differently about the materials that remain after the creation of your product or delivery of your service requires innovation.

Coming to terms with the fact that doing the right thing can impose extra costs, at least initially, can be a challenge for some businesses. And finally, resource recovery is a complex business - with so many different material types and rules for how to sort them, it can be confusing for a business to find out exactly what the best practice is.

What is the best advice you could give businesses starting on their journey to reduce waste?

Start with good data – doing a waste audit is a good place to start to understand where change is needed. Find a champion within your business – waste is a social problem and it’s also something that’s easy to get passionate about, so find someone who wants to drive change and support them to do it. Consider Business Process Re-engineering with a focus on zero waste and other impact indicators.

Why do you think it’s important that business do their role in lessening their environmental strain?

The stakes are too high for businesses not to do their bit: climate change and ecological degradation affect everyone and everything. They represent existential threats to human society. If we want to be able to have a thriving, prosperous planet, we need to take care of it. 

Businesses are influential; they can set the stage for change that urgently needs to happen, by embracing ideas like the circular economy. Good cAt the end of the day, we’re all in this together and there is no Planet B. Businesses that fail to appreciate that there is a real appetite from consumers to see change will find they are unable to compete with businesses that seize the challenges of operating in a genuinely sustainable way.

The ‘clean, green’ image of New Zealand is not really deserved.

Where do you think New Zealand sits on the world stage for their efforts to become more environmentally conscious?

From a waste perspective we could do a lot better in our efforts to become more environmentally conscious. For example, in 2017 a United Nations report identified New Zealand as one of the world’s largest generators of electronic waste and as the only OECD country without any national regulations. 

We’ve had the luxury of lots of land and resources, paired with a small population and this has cloaked many wasteful and polluting practices we now see across the country. That is beginning to change. We love that our biggest local authority, Auckland Council, has committed the city to zero waste by 2040, and is prepared to fund and resource opportunities to make that happen. 

We’ve relied on voluntary product stewardship schemes for far too long. The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 contains provisions for the mandatory product stewardship of harmful products like tyres, plastic packaging and electronic waste. There is some movement by Central Government towards this now, but it has taken far too long. The ‘clean, green’ image of New Zealand is not really deserved, and will definitely disappear if we don’t do much more to take care of the land, water and resources, and we’re excited that the people of Aotearoa seem to be keen to get stuck in to working towards zero waste.  

Louise Nash, founder, and Nic Bishop, chief sustainability officer of Circularity;

What are some of the biggest challenges do you think business face of their journey to reduce waste?

Put really, simply, many businesses don’t know what to do with their waste, other than send it to the existing broken systems. It is not that some haven’t tried - it’s just that the last two years have been a real struggle for companies to stay up to date with what recyclers can accept due to the China National Sword Policy came into effect, and what alternative viable options are.

Finding new partners and solutions for waste streams takes time, testing and any changes need to consider the full lifecycle of products and the environmental impacts otherwise we might just be making something a little less bad. This transition takes significant resource and is a real challenge for one business to tackle on their own.

What is the best advice you could give businesses starting on their journey to reduce waste?

Fall in love with the problem! Invite your staff to be part of the journey and start with a waste audit, weigh everything and take photos, they don’t lie.

We work with businesses to divide their waste into three potential groups: Innovate, Circulate, Eliminate. These are the three guidelines from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation specifically for The New Plastic Economy but can be applied to just about all waste.

Eliminate: remove problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, chemicals and move from single-use to reuse packaging models.

Innovate: radically redesign your waste to ensure it can easily and safely be reused, recycled, or composted.

Circulate: Create collaborative opportunities where your waste can be a resource in a closed loop system. Where a biological waste can become a regenerative food source for people and planet. Where food waste can actually retain and grow value such as the infamous Rubies in the Rubble. Where technical materials like packaging, plastic and e-waste can be collected and reused, recycled (effectively) and made into new products. Buying other companies waste and using it in your products closes the loop and creates new market opportunities.

What are some of the top innovative practices you’ve seen or heard of helping to curb waste in a business setting?

At Circularity, we are focused on how we can leverage science and technology to unlock this advantage. Our inspiration comes from both local and global examples:

Ikea is using digital scales beneath their bins to measure food waste. After throwing away items, like old salmon or surplus cinnamon buns, employees use the touchscreen above the bin to document exactly what went into it. The screen responds with statistics about the food’s cost and its contribution to IKEA’s carbon footprint.

To address clothing waste, re-commerce platforms are disrupting retail by enabling brands to be involved in the resale or sharing of their goods rather than them become a household or industrial waste stream. Consumer demand is driving the success of brands like Thredup, TheRealReal and Patagonia’s brand Worn Wear to reap the benefits of a market worth $24 billion in 2018.

NZ Box provides an elegantly simple innovation for communities and businesses to have a hot composter on site to process everything from meat, compostable packaging, food scraps and garden waste. 1 bin has the capacity to receive the weekly food waste of a minimum of 120 households including compostable packaging. Grid Auckland has their very own, providing compost to the area for City Food Gardens.

Recently Eugenie Sage announced funding for Scion to create a solution to divert 200 tonnes of horticultural plastic labelling waste, from apple stickers for example, away from landfill. From a recycling perspective, TerraCycle is leading the planet for recycling hard to recycle items, they even recycle nitrile gloves and hair nets from manufacturing companies.

Why do you think it’s important that businesses do their role in lessening their environmental strain?

It has become abundantly clear that investors, customers and stakeholders will not tolerate businesses who are not actively developing pathways towards a circular, low carbon future. Businesses without an environmental conscious will become the markets next Kodak moment.

“I am the river and the river is me” Ko au te awa, Ko te awa ko au

Where do you think New Zealand sits on the world stage for their efforts to become more environmentally conscious?

We have the right intent, but New Zealand still has a lot of catching up to do. There’s no reason we can’t be world leaders, and we should be. We currently lack recycling infrastructure and have to export most of our recycling to a world that is less able to take others’ waste streams. By implementing a circular economy in Aotearoa, we can responsibly and creatively unlock the value in our waste streams to ensure we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the massive environmental and resource challenges we face.

Adele Rose, group chief executive of 3R Group;

What are some of the biggest challenges do you think business face of their journey to reduce waste?

3R are often approached by companies who want to reuse, repurpose or recycle products from their operations or the products they sell when they reach their end-of-life, however a lack of infrastructure whether that be collection or processing here in New Zealand means it is not a simple process to ‘do the right thing’.

It can also be challenging for a business to start the journey if it is not part of the overall strategy or it hasn’t got buy in from the whole business. There is often a misconception that trying to reduce waste will lead to increased costs for their business, when in fact the opposite if often true.

What is the best advice you could give businesses starting on their journey to reduce waste?

Measure it before you start trying to reduce it. Management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.  

Sustainability is rapidly becoming an integral part of any organisation’s operations and whether you have just started your sustainability journey or are well on the way, getting an accurate picture of the waste you generate is vital. It helps to direct your efforts to have the most impact, helps you identify easy wins and those which require a little more work, and also it helps you measure the impact your initiatives are having which is critical in sustaining change.

What are some of the top innovative practices you’ve seen or heard of helping to curb waste in a business setting?

There is a plethora of exciting things happening across New Zealand. 

At an industry level, 3R have been working with the lubricant industry which is putting aside its competitive differences to create a product stewardship scheme for the more than 4.5 million lubricant containers that end up in landfill each year.  This is a highly contaminated product that requires specialist collection and processing to allow the materials to be recycled.  The group is committed to a circular economy approach.

Resene Paints, Allied Concrete and 3R Group have worked together to commercialise a product called PaintCrete™ which uses recycled paint as an additive in concrete.  It helps make the concrete more workable and the paint pigments help colour additives in the concrete hold longer and better, plus it provides an excellent outlet for unwanted paint, diverting it from landfill.

Why do you think it’s important that business do their role in lessening their environmental strain?

The positive cumulative effect of all of us - consumers, government and businesses of all sizes working towards the same goal cannot be underestimated. This is particularly true when we work under the collective banner of groups like the Climate Leaders Coalition, where we are able to use our combined position to influence positive change.

Just like an individual may think their contribution is inconsequential, so a small business may believe its actions would have little impact. While it’s hugely encouraging to see some of the biggest organisations in New Zealand join together to fight the climate crisis by becoming signatories to the Climate Leaders Coalition and taking real action, it’s vital the smaller ones do the same.

The majority of New Zealand’s businesses are SMEs. It’s critically for these businesses not to get left behind. Most SMEs don’t have the luxury of a sustainability manager, but this is where the collective efforts of initiatives like the CLC can help – small businesses can benefit from the case studies and work done by larger organisations or from the ideas contributed by other small businesses.

Where do you think New Zealand sits on the world stage for their efforts to become more environmentally conscious?

While we are doing more than we ever have, to address our environmental performance, New Zealand is woefully behind the eight ball.

Recent reports show that New Zealand households are bucking worldwide trends by steadily increasing their impact on the climate. The annual Greenhouse Gas Inventory released in April 2019 shows gross emissions increased in 2017 – up 2.2 percent from the year prior.

We have a poor record on product stewardship even though we have the legislation in place to encourage more businesses to provide stewardship schemes for their products. We have poor waste data and a low cost of waste to landfill which does not encourage change.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom – we are seeing a growing focus on climate and the environment, and finally that critical synergy of consumers, businesses and government working to improve our performance and deliver on the promise of a ‘clean green’ New Zealand.

Rachel Brown, CEO and Founder of the Sustainable Business Network

What are some of the biggest challenges do you think business face of their journey to reduce waste?

Our economy is largely built on a linear basis: ‘take raw materials from the planet – make them into something – and they become waste’. We need to shift our entire system so that waste and pollution are designed out and materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible. It’s referred to as a circular economy and done well it’s also a climate strategy. That’s a big challenge, and we need a coordinated approach to tackle it as it’s difficult for companies to do on their own.

There is often a lack of understanding of the cost of waste to businesses. In fact once they fully appreciate it, businesses tend to be more motivated to change – waste is often costing them a ‘bomb’. The challenge for many businesses is that solving waste requires time to find good solutions that genuinely reduce waste and increase value back to the organisation.

What is the best advice you could give businesses starting on their journey to reduce waste?

First, businesses need to understand where in the value chain waste is occurring. They need to measure it and establish priorities to address, and ideally eliminate, it. They could use an online value mapping tool or get an advisor to help them understand and map out where and why waste is generated in their business.

Business leaders should work with their staff, suppliers and other stakeholders across the entire value chain to find solutions. Often these can be generated in partnership with others. Finally, don’t forget to ensure any solutions are workable here in Aotearoa.

What are some of the top innovative practices you’ve seen or heard of helping to curb waste in a business setting?

Most of the best practices come from businesses taking a holistic circular economy approach or providing solutions that facilitate a circular economy. Some great examples are Wishbone Design Studio children’s bikes, which are designed for long life and second hand market value. They’re also made from recyclable materials.

Ethique makes solid beauty bars, eliminating the need for plastic packaging and water. Interface makes some of its carpet tiles out of discarded fishing nets, and has a take-back scheme to remanufacture old tiles into new ones.

Why do you think it’s important that business do their role in lessening their environmental strain?

We’re using resources more quickly than they are being replenished – we simply cannot continue like this. Waste in our environment is now a major concern, representing a linear flow of resources from extraction into landfills and the about one third of all plastic packaging globally is ending up in the environment. We’re seeing increasing quantities of plastics in the ocean, impacting the food chain – we are literally eating plastics now!

The costs and inefficiencies of waste are increasing, and there’s growing pressure for local solutions. It’s no longer ethical to push our waste problem onto poorer, less regulated nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. Public awareness of the problem is at an all time high and people want change.

Where do you think New Zealand sits on the world stage for their efforts to become more environmentally conscious?

We’re leading in some areas, such as banning plastic bags. Elsewhere controls on plastic bags tend to be voluntary. Yet we’re behind in other areas, particularly investment in, or R&D funds, for new solutions as well as for wider and broader government intervention. But this, thankfully, is starting to change.

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