Less waste, less toxic, less bad OR fully good?


Approx. time to read: 13 minutes

The design paradigm of 20th century industrial systems is pretty much “1-way”:

 mine/make/use/dump [repeat]

Waste has been a standard part of making products and delivering services – and we’ve built a whole safety industry around managing hazardous substances.

When business looks at how to fix the problems of waste and toxins, the traditional approaches have been “waste reduction” and “more safety controls”.  We’ve tried to make our products and services “less bad”.

However, the 20th century design “improve efficiency” approach is NOT  necessarily a useful way to uncover business opportunity and innovation:

1. Waste matters because waste multiplies. 1-way systems are 1-2% resource efficient from mine to consumer.
Just 1% waste propagated down a 9-stage global supply chain is a significant issue – particularly when you count the ancillary transport, energy and storage costs.
So your “standard scrap allowance” could be standardising a whole lot more than your realise.

2. Toxins stay toxic.
We’ve come up with some amazingly long-life nasties in the last few centuries. We’re learning the hard way that there is NO “away”.
Entropy (otherwise knowns as the second law of thermodynamics) applies.  That means that all the toxins generated by human industry will eventually disperse throughout nature (and in to us).
There is no AWAY where it’s safe to throw things.

3. Extended producer liability and regulation is increasing.
Authorities are increasingly holding businesses and industries accountable for their waste, with extended producer responsibility regulation pushing back through the supply chain.  Designing for safety today is good insurance against future cots.

4. The goal of zero is insufficient.
Over-focussing on “the goal of zero” risks running yourself into the wall of diminishing returns. The closer you get to zero, the harder (and more expensive) it gets to gain that last bit. And if you have to redesign eventually – why not start today?

5. Efficiency myopia can embed the status quo.
Reduction programs mostly still assume making today’s process “more efficient” – and that we have a “license to do harm” (just less of it). They don’t necessarily change the design mindset or inspire creativity.

6. Reduction is a low-power motivator.
“Less bad” isn’t a powerful motivator – because the human brain doesn’t process negatives well. Being less bad means that you’re still driving towards a cliff edige – just slowing down a bit.

What does stimulate innovation, increase engagement and add to bottom line benefits? A nice Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG).

Back in 1995, carpet manufacturer Interface set a big goal:

To be the world’s first regenerative business – a business that improves the world through its operations.

What would your business look like if it was regenerative?  What would it take for your business to emit no toxins and produce only value?   Imagine if your business was designed for good?

Making things “all good”  – from the beginning

The engineers and designers and innovators of the world are increasingly turning on to “doing more good” instead of “doing less harm. This movement has resulted in a wealth of new design approaches, from Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation to Biomimicry.

And it turns out that this new business strategy – applied strategically and consistently over time – delivers real bottom line benefits.

Beginning with the end in mind – the goal of regeneration instead of reduction – opens up creativity.

We’re gonna make a world less less unsafe, less unhealthy, less unjust, less polluted air less polluted soil, water and power, and economically driven

How are we doing? Is this it? Get up in the morning, go get it done?

[What about] a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, soil, water and power – economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed”

William McDonough, Design as Optimism

Ecosystems are not infinite

There’s been an unspoken Industrial Era assumption that ecosystems are infinite – that they have endless capacity to provide fresh resources while also absorbing and processing our waste.

This might have been fine when prehistoric hunters dumped organic waste into the middens outside their caves. It no longer works – because today we have a global population approaching 8 billion and we are producing a growing range of noxious, hard to process chemical hybrids.

There’s a new game in town – and it’s proving great for bottom lines. It’s about making products and delivering services that are totally safe – totally safe to manufacture, totally safe to use AND totally safe to dispose of.

Solving worthwhile problems is a massive motivator

When carpet company Interface started their journey to “climb Mount Sustainablilty” they targeted ALL their environmental impacts, including emissions.

It paid off – big time. In the first 12 years of their program, they put $393,000,000 on their bottom line”.

Founding CEO Ray Anderson told that story in 2013 (in brief)  – and now there’s a full length movie on the way that tells the updated story.

Interface are still aiming high today:

In 2019, the company officially announces the completion of Mission Zero and introduces the next mission, called Climate Take Back; an aggressive new strategy to sequester carbon in their products and make their factories perform the same functions as forests, sustaining and replenishing the ecosystem

Beyond Zero Film Press Kit

Wastes and toxins create bottom line leakages

Under this mindset – when the reality is that there is no “AWAY” – waste and toxic materials both end up as a leakage from your business bottom line. Disposal costs, effluent costs, storage costs, safety costs…

In an early Cradle to Cradle example, a partnership between Designtex, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, and the Swiss textile mill Rohner set out to develop an upholstery fabric with remnants that would not be considered hazardous waste.

Braungart analyzed more than 8,000 chemical formulations commonly used in textile production, and found just 38 that were deemed safe for human and environmental health. These were the only dyes and process chemicals allowed to be used in the production of Climatex upholstery.

Optimizing this chemistry changed the mill’s water release, which became cleaner than the incoming water. With no hazardous chemicals in the factory, storage and compliance costs substantially reduced.

By producing fabrics that decomposed safely, the mill could save fabric scraps and turn them into felt, avoiding costly disposal fees. Local strawberry farmers used this felt as ground cover for their crops.

Taking a Natural Step forward

The Natural Step program started when Swedish cancer scientist Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt got tired of just treating avoidable diseases. In 1989 he wrote a paper describing the system conditions for sustainability, given the known laws of physics and natural systems.

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

  • concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2, heavy metals and minerals)
  • concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
  • degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables).

And in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.

The Natural Step

With this new thinking, materials are no longer anonymous and neutral – they’re either nutrients or they’re toxins. Nutrients can be either:

  • TECHNICAL nutrients that can be safely and economically upcycled to maintain their value;
  • BIOLOGICAL nutrients that can be safely composted.

So where you’ve traditionally accepted waste as a given, you could well be missing an innovation opportunity.

All sorts of businesses can win

Zero waste is becoming a competitive business strategy for restaurants, service providers and car repairers.

One review of 114 restaurants across 12 countries engaged in zero waste goals found that nearly every site achieved a positive return, with the average restaurant saving $7 for every $1 invested in reducing kitchen food waste.

Cairns banana farmers Krista Watkins and her husband Rob discovered why feral pigs were knocking down their fences – to get to the dried bananas in their waste piles.  It turns out that the powder they formed was delicious.  Today they produce nutritionally dense, gluten-free flour from their “waste”.

The design principles for problem solving

There’s a growing body of knowledge around reducing waste and toxins – in time and energy and process design as well as in materials.  Some go back decades, such as Lean Solutions.  Others are a bit more recent (though still decades old).

Starting points include:

  • Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation:   Designing products that are totally safe to make, totally safe to use AND totally safe to dispose of.  Explore The C2C Products Innovation Institute online – or the book The Upcycle by Bill McDonough.
  • Tools for safe design are available as part of The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Circular Economy resources (more about circularity in the next Insight).
  • The Natural Step: Resources can be found at The Natural Step, and in the book The Natural Step for Business.
  • Lean Solutions:  the Lean movement has a long history in business improvement, and for services businesses the book Lean Solutions has excellent insights.

How big are the hidden costs?

Back in 1994 – at the start of their sustainability adventure – carpet company Interface took on the Kaizen definition of waste as “anything that doesn’t add value to our customers”.

When they added up the costs of everything from imperfect carpet and wrong shipments to clerical errors, they identified $70 million in waste – which was making a fair-sized a hole in their $700 million sales revenue. (Read more in the book Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist)

If you can’t find a value in your by-products, then step back and check whether you’re accurately observing the systems you’re part of.

If you still can’t find a value in your by-products – if you have to pay for someone to take them away – then it could be that what you have is a poison – not a waste. Which makes it likely that the best, most profitable solution is to design it out of existence.

This is the 21st century. It’s delivered everything from printable flexible solar cells to dirt-repelling windows. The chances of there being a valuable use for your waste – or an alternative to your toxins – are a lot better than they used to be.

And if you can’t find it, make sure you quantify the long term operational and reputational risks of your ongoing toxicity.

Valuable, beneficial nutrients; finite resources; infinite ingenuity

What happens when we update our assumptions? What new opportunities open up when we start to operate within the current reality of our closed, finite ecosystems, where our only true input is solar energy and the occasional meteor?

How can we use our own ingenuity and nature’s massive library of design know-how? How can we design differently – taking a global, whole-of-life perspective in supply chain design, product development, business costing and service delivery?

Play some “what if”. What if unusable waste:

  • Was never created?
  • Couldn’t be toxic?
  • Was always designed to be valuable as “food” for another process?

What if we only designed products that:

  • Create valuable by-products that return an income to our business?
  • Are totally safe to make, totally safe to use and totally safe to dispose of? So that we can save on OHS and EHS?
  • Are endlessly recyclable into more quality product?

Explored for opportunity, “wastes” can become valuable by-products which deliver business, ecosystem and community value.

  • What do we make / use and what is its impact?   What don’t we know?
  • What inputs do we use that are harmful?  Chemicals and packaging are a starting point – but what else?
  • What wastes are we producing?   Where do we accept and allow waste?
  • What are we using that’s toxic?  Do we REALLY need to use it – or is it just a habit?
  • How can we design wastes and toxins OUT?  So that our products are totally safe to make, totally safe to use, and totally safe to dispose of at end-of-life.
  • How can we design new opportunities around waste and safety?

So over the next few days, see what shows up for you as you start to question Business-As-Usual.

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About the Author

Leigh is a supply chain analyst turned sustainable business writer, with over 30 years of business experience. Leigh blogs and podcasts on the commercial climate solutions scaling in the marketplace and the business opportunities they offer – particularly to SMEs.  

Climate solutions have been called “the biggest business opportunity in human history” – and SME businesses need to know how to find their opportunities.

Leigh is the leader of the Better Business for Good Company Regenerative Business Expert Panel.

Leigh Baker

Business and Systems Analyst, Balance3