Talking Trash: Building a Sustainable Waste Diversion Program
They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It sounds cliché, but landfill and waste diversion programs are based on precisely this philosophy; manufacturing waste and products at the end of their useful life can be recycled and reincorporated into the supply chain to create new products that use fewer new materials.
For organizations looking to manage waste sustainably, Zero Waste to Landfill accreditation is the gold standard. This certification goes a step further than a company self-declaring itself low- or zero-waste and requires third-party verification that a designated percentage (typically 100%, but occasionally 90–99% depending on the certification level the company is pursuing) of a company’s waste is being diverted from landfills, incineration and the environment through methods like reuse, recycling, compost and biodegradation.
Simply keeping products out of the landfill and the environment is a start, but it isn’t enough. According to NPR, landfills are one of the top three human sources of methane. The immediate reduction of this potent greenhouse gas is the planet’s best chance of slowing the effects of climate change, even more than carbon dioxide, the United Nations found.
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their manufacturing partners must have a plan for the collection, recovery and reuse of their diverted components and materials to make a significant dent in their own Scope 3 emissions.
3 Sustainability and Business Goals Accelerated by a Structured Landfill Diversion Program
Until roughly mid-2020, essentially all OEMs had three main criteria for product design: form, fit and function. As long as the materials in a product design helped meet those aims, they were generally fair game. Since then, we have seen a rapid shift in priority toward sustainable design, including the development of a sustainable end-of-life strategy for products. Companies are thinking beyond the initial consumer purchase to ensure products are kept in use for longer, out of landfills for longer, or both.
Keeping products out of landfills is critical for manufacturers seeking post-use materials to meet consumer demand for sustainable products. Plastics manufacturers in regulated industries, like healthcare, are beginning to recycle products that make little or no direct contact with patients (generally considered class I devices by the FDA), as industries like packaging have done since recycling was introduced in the 1970s.
In a May 2022 report, the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors found that hospitals in the U.S., which reprocess more medical devices than any other region, saved $372 million by reprocessing devices — primarily class I or II devices that can be cleaned and reused, like blood pressure cuffs, ultrasound probes and laparoscopic tools. Still, the report found that an additional 186 million medical devices could have been reprocessed but were not that same year. Reprocessed devices are less expensive for hospitals to use, and reprocessing helps cut waste management costs.
This was rare prior to 2020, mostly due to the strict regulations of the medical device and food industries, which largely forbade the use of recycled plastics in products. To ensure there is no cross-contamination of pharmaceuticals or exposure to hazardous material, the FDA requires medical device OEMs prove that products they intend to reuse can in fact be safely reused during their pre-market submission, an extra step in an already lengthy process. In Europe, reprocessed devices must be shown not to cause infections or reactions, must be made of few materials, and must be easily disassembled — difficult barriers to clear if those features were not built in by manufacturers. Similarly, the FDA's guidance for manufacturers considering the use of recycled plastics in food packaging focuses on the potential for chemical contamination.
Attitudes toward the use of recycled plastics have begun shifting, as the overall composition of food packaging can now contain up to 3% post-consumer resin (PCR). While the global medical device industry has not yet made a similar change, manufacturers, primarily in Europe, are beginning to investigate how to optimize medical device packaging for safe, effective recycling, which will eventually lead contribute high-quality, medical-grade plastics for use in new devices.
One of the most dependable ways for a company to create this consistent stream of quality post-consumer material is to set up their own landfill diversion program, which includes a recycling component. With structure and strategy, this type of program can help an organization reach its sustainability goals and business objectives through the creation of a stronger reverse supply chain and more effective risk management. Here are a few ways landfill diversion can help meet organizational aims.
1. Diverting Material from Landfills Helps Cut Scope 3 Emissions from the Value Chain
Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions generated throughout a company's value chain, accounting for somewhere between 70% and 90% of total greenhouse gas emissions. A major source of Scope 3 emissions is the harvesting or extraction of raw materials, including oil for plastics and precious metals. There are also environmental impacts tied to the erosion of the land caused by these extractions, including the loss of fertile land, increased pollution of waterways and the potential for worse flooding.
After extraction, there are emissions generated at each step of the way as raw materials are transported, transformed into commodities like resins and metal bar stock, converted into fully formed products (through processes like molding, fabrication and assembly), product use and disposal.
The first goal of sustainable product design should always be creating a reusable, or at least longer-lasting, product. Extending the useful life of a product is always a net positive from an emissions standpoint. The next best option is the landfill avoidance route. Even if a product can only be used once, if it can reliably be recycled into the circular economy, emissions from early product lifecycle stages like material extraction are avoided.
Recycling and reusing raw materials, and especially components, to circumvent the early lifecycle stages can have a serious impact on the reduction of a product's Scope 3 emissions factors. Though gaining visibility into Scope 3 emissions is a newer area of focus for many companies, including Jabil, it has already become clear that a significant amount of emissions as a percentage are tied to extraction, material production and the transportation needed to move materials.
It isn't just manufacturers who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint. Consumer demand for sustainable products is pushing brands to include a carbon label on their packaging. Think of it as the environmental nutrition facts — only instead of calories, the label shows how much carbon the product will generate throughout its entire lifecycle. If the product is designed to be recycled, and it's supported by a structured waste diversion program, the number a consumer sees on the label will very likely be lower than a comparable product headed for the landfill.
France has already mandated a similar label for high-polluting goods and services like clothing and textiles that will go into effect in 2023. In the next 24 to 36 months, it's very likely that we will see more mandates for carbon labels across consumer product goods industries and regions. This will help create more transparency for environmentally conscious consumers looking to reduce their individual impacts as well as potentially drive more localized supply chain and manufacturing processes. Having a product that has been produced closer to its end consumers and with a lower footprint could become more economically and socially viable as those features are marketed.
2. Developing a More Controlled Reverse Supply Chain
By working with a manufacturing solutions provider like Jabil to both design and build a product and then collect and disassemble it at the end of its useful life, an OEM gains full visibility into the product's life cycle. From a purely logistical perspective, this type of partnership also provides the manufacturer with full control over the product's components and materials upstream and downstream.
Instead of mixing with a variety of other products and materials in a municipal recycling facility, this direct collection strategy creates an uncontaminated material stream that can be recovered, reground, reformulated and redesigned into post-consumer resins, steel and other materials. OEMs and their manufacturing partners know exactly which materials are entering the recycling streams and which will be exiting, removing the variables that are introduced during the curbside recycling process.
Jabil is piloting this type of controlled reverse supply chain to help our customers keep post-use components, particularly plastics, from their electronic devices out of landfills. The devices are sent back to Jabil, shredded, separated by plastic type, mechanically recycled and compounded by our Jabil Additive Team for use in additive manufacturing applications for our customers or in the additive materials that we sell. In another, similar reverse supply chain Jabil has established, all of a particular device's components are recycled and reused in new electronic devices.
The key is controlling the reverse supply chain by putting systems in place to bring as much of the process in house as possible — steps like collection, disassembly, separating the commodities and components for recovery, and mechanical recycling. Different plastics, steel and metals, and circuit boards all have different downstream recovery paths. It's up to manufacturing solutions providers to make the reverse logistics and recovery process efficient and choose the best pathway to recycle and regenerate that material into an effectively new product.
3. Navigating Legislative and Compliance Barriers
Feeling the pressure from their constituents who are seeing the effects of climate change in brutal heatwaves and more frequent natural disasters, lawmakers across the world are constantly proposing new legislation in an attempt to slow down the crisis. The European Union is targeting a ban of recyclable waste in landfills by 2025 and has offered regulatory frameworks for strengthening recycling and waste management policies within member countries.
As these types of policies are implemented globally, including financial consequences for non-compliance, the potential risks involved in the reverse supply chain must be evaluated and addressed. Because it can involve so many touchpoints if each step is outsourced to a separate vendor, there is some risk of error by an immature system or organization. It's not impossible that a mistake somewhere in the process could cause the wrong material to end up in a landfill or a product with your brand's logo to be found floating in a river — worst-case scenarios from a public relations and compliance perspective.
For OEMs, the key is maintaining a tight control over the reverse supply chain and having visibility into each step. By working closely with a mature manufacturing solutions provider who can handle all, or at least most, of the process, you gain a partner who not only understands the downstreams involved in the landfill diversion process but also prioritizes risk management and can help avoid potential complications from non-compliance.
Challenges to Reducing Waste Sent to Landfill
Governments also play a critical role in unlocking one of the greatest challenges to landfill diversion. Municipal, or curbside, recycling is an important piece of getting materials back into the circular economy. While waste and recycling infrastructures in some regions are mature and well equipped, others are too under resourced to support circular economy systems.
For example, it may be possible for a manufacturer in the EU to collect and reprocess lithium batteries efficiently, a manufacturer in the US or Asia might have to send them overseas to do the same — essentially negating any emissions offsets or even creating new ones. Creating waste recovery infrastructures that can support a circular economy will require collaboration between industry and governments and municipalities that can accelerate the shift toward recovery through tax breaks or other incentives, like the European Union's Waste Directive Framework. As part of its larger circular economy initiative, the framework lays out specific waste management regulations, including cradle-to-grave monitoring obligations for hazardous materials, as well as recycling targets. The directive also outlines economic measures to be put in place in order to ensure compliance, including landfill and incineration charges and "pay-as-you-throw" fees that charge waste producers on the basis of the actual amount of waste generated and provide incentives for separation at source of recyclable waste and for reduction of mixed waste.
Adding to the complications municipal recycling adds to landfill diversion programs is the variations in recycled products and their conditions. In the upstream supply chain, processes are generally straightforward. If you're building a product — say, a TV — you know exactly what materials will go inside of it, including their specifications and the conditions of those materials. Surprises are few and far between.
Managing the downstream supply chain, where you are collecting products for recycling and reuse, involves much greater variety. Imagine, again, the TV. You could be receiving TVs from multiple brands, built from different materials and components. Some could have salvageable parts, while others might be dirty or broken, so sorting must be done carefully.
Just to recover circuit boards, batteries or materials within those components (like gold or cobalt) involves layers of processes; backward logistics, disassembly, sortation, aggregators, recycling and smelting can all play a role. Through all of this, it must be evaluated whether these processes result in fewer emissions than landfilling or incinerating a product would.
Finally, even when materials can be captured and sorted effectively, their properties may have been altered from their original state during recycling. For example, plastics change after they've been exposed to UV light, making it more difficult to reuse them in new products when they're not identical to the original material.
With 146 million tons of waste going to landfills in the U.S. alone each year, the planet can't really afford to send any extra material that doesn't make it through the recycling process. So how can a company get to the point where they're not sending any waste to landfills?
How Can an OEM Send Zero Waste to Landfills?
An organization-wide goal of recycling or reusing all waste can feel like an enormous undertaking, but every individual in the company can make their own impact toward accomplishing it. It can also contribute to cost savings for the company, as landfill prices have rapidly increased in the past decade as they run out of space for new waste. First, after gaining an understanding of reverse supply chain and landfill diversion best practices, learn what options are available at your manufacturing site to reduce the amount of waste it sends to landfills. Then, match the practices with reality.
Dig into what happens once your waste management provider hauls away material from your site. Are they recycling everything they can? Or does most waste end up buried in a landfill? If necessary, consider finding a new partner who will work with you to build a more robust recycling and recovery infrastructure.
But this education of external partners can't happen without first teaching internal environmental health and safety (EHS) and facilities teams to both reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place and identify the different types of waste streams produced within a manufacturing site. For both internal teams and external partners, establishing a sustainable waste stewardship program, with the goal of Zero Waste to Landfill, takes some shifts in traditional mindsets. The fastest and lowest cost ways of processing and eliminating waste may no longer be the preferred methods if they don't further the goal of sending less material to landfills or incineration.
Before waste management partners are even involved, manufacturers must understand how they can enable the recyclability or the reusability of the waste streams they produce on site, either themselves or by outsourcing the material to a specialized partners that can use the recovered materials to create new commodities. One way to reduce the amount of waste generated on site and collected by end consumers is by approaching all products from a sustainable design perspective, including Design for Disassembly. A key component of a strategic landfill diversion program, this is a systematic approach to product design that ensures the final product can be disassembled into its components as simply as possible. For example:
- Plastic parts are made of the same resins throughout.
- Components are made of resins that can be recycled together.
- Bonds between parts can be easily separated during recycling. Mechanical joints are simple to unscrew, while adhesives require a much more intensive separation process.
To then reach Zero Waste to Landfill, all manufacturing waste has a destination for recycling and reuse, either within a site itself or with a vendor who can handle part of the recycling and recovery process.
Another factor to consider in moving toward Zero Waste to Landfill is data. This is an important piece of Jabil's journey toward 20% of our sites globally achieving 90% or more landfill diversion by the end of the 2026 fiscal year. By using third-party verified waste management data that is available on an intelligent, digital platform across the organization, we have a clearer, more accurate picture of how much waste is going to landfills versus recycling. For product designers, engineers and anyone involved in the early stages of new product introductions, having this information alongside supply chain data provides a more holistic view of a given material's true sustainability.
A final factor to keep in mind is how realistic it will be to create a circular economy through landfill diversion and other circularity strategies. While there are some examples of successful circular economy systems, widespread adoption of circularity will require a larger societal shift to strategies like the use of clean energy. For landfill diversion to make an impact, it must be just one element of an organization's plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and affect climate change.
For these types of major undertakings to stick, buy-in must start in the C-suite and cascade throughout the organization. The momentum behind landfill diversion — and its critical elements, including sustainable design and circular economy — is growing like never before. Its impacts will not only be seen in the amount of material recirculated in the value chain and in emissions reductions but also in the level of talent attracted to and retained by companies who prioritize these initiatives. Setting and achieving ambitious sustainability goals like Zero Waste to Landfill will most certainly yield business wins in addition to environmental ones.
By starting with the end in mind, Jabil helps its partners design and build products whose lives extend well beyond their initial function. Less trash in landfills, a more dependable supply chain and a healthier planet — those are wins we can all treasure.
How can Jabil help you meet your sustainability goals? Contact us.
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