Waste characterization is a general term for the systematic identification and categorization of materials within a particular waste stream. In Europe, waste characterization is done by waste management companies through coding systems classified by both the European Waste Catalog, and the List of Waste. By highly classifying waste as it is transferred and transported, materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are better able to process waste streams and get recovered material back to market quickly and efficiently. It is an essential component of materials disposal and recovery processes, and something every manufacturer should be using to reduce costs and increase their own supply line sustainability.
If waste starts being itemized and categorized, manufacturers can get a better sense of where waste reduction practices could be most beneficial. My company, TerraCycle, encounters many product and packaging manufacturers who generate significant volumes of packaging byproduct waste. In that case, we might ask if the leftover packaging, or scrap plastic like plastic trim, can be reintegrated into the packaging production cycle. As an example, TerraCycle has a variety of partnerships with manufacturers that accept collected packaging waste from their products, and then use the waste to make new products or packaging. Instead of having a hauler collect the plastic “waste” and ship it to a landfill, it is alternatively used as a raw material.
There are relatively untapped markets for material made from what is often considered non-recyclable waste. Drink pouches, for example, are not accepted in municipal systems, but can be processed by third party recyclers. The recycled aluminized plastic can then be sold to a manufacturer. In this case, waste is not only being reduced—it’s being monetized.
Understanding generated waste streams can also provide insight into where unsustainable, wasteful materials may be replaced with more recyclable alternatives. Can a package made with a plastic blend be replaced or redesigned with more recyclable resins, like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET)? Or something widely recyclable, such as glass? While overhead and transportation costs must still be considered, alternatives like these can drastically reduce byproduct waste.
Third party organizations are another possible option for manufacturers seeking ways to improve the sustainability of their supply lines and reduce associated waste streams. For example, members of Green Blue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition receive access to many sustainable packaging resources and industry tools, helping manufacturers reduce waste associated with their packaging by improving design, using sustainable raw materials and using supply line life cycle analyses to improve sustainability.
To help reduce waste directly, TerraCycle also offers Zero Waste Boxes, allowing manufacturers, retailers, businesses and individuals to recycle any traditionally non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste. There are a variety of box sizes covering dozens of waste streams (even a No Separation Box for any accepted waste, regardless of the stream), allowing recycling initiatives to be as highly targeted or expansive as necessary.
Even if recycling and waste reduction strategies do not reduce costs, they can provide significant public relations (PR) and marketing opportunities. This type of positive publicity can be invaluable to a company’s brand, especially today where consumers are becoming more conscious of sustainability than ever before.
It is important to note that none of these practices are essential or required steps toward sustainability. Still, when manufacturers understand the composition of the waste streams they generate, they can develop far more targeted and effective waste reduction strategies that improve supply line efficiencies, reduce costs, attract positive PR and develop more sustainable packaging.
Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, has an upcoming book called "Make Garbage Great" and is the star of a new television show on Pivot TV, “Human Resources” airing in August 2015.