Waste is a term commonly used among sustainability, quality control, and continuous improvement experts. The goal in all use cases is to try and eliminate it, but eliminate exactly what? The definition of “waste” differs across the departments. This article outlines the differences and the overlap between them.

Industrial activities pollute the atmosphere and water ecosystems, generate waste, and consume resources (source). And the business leaders are feeling pressure to act from their stakeholders like never before (source). We’re also seeing consumers finally ready to spend more for a sustainable product (source) which creates a strong business initiative to improve the operational processes. 

All of this contributes to growing sustainability departments and reshuffling priorities of projects based on environmental criteria. This is not easy: the area is still in its early stages and suffers from a lack of available data, the complexity of legislation, and a variety of standards. The situation is sometimes so confusing that even departments of the same company are not on the same page in terms of terminology.

We aim to clarify the terms related to waste and inspire you to look at your current processes from a different angle.

The 3 Different Definitions for Waste

We have identified three completely different definitions used for describing “waste”:

  1. Waste to landfill (garbage) a term used by Sustainability or ESG managers.
  2. Waste according to LEAN manufacturing principles.
  3. Waste according to GREEN manufacturing principles (Energy, Water, Materials, Garbage, Transportation, Emissions, and Biodiversity).

How come one simple term has sprung into three different meanings? Simple answer: it depends on who you ask.

Waste to landfill

For sustainability managers, waste is one of the key KPIs that help measure companies’ CSR or ESG policy success. In this case, waste is considered all the materials left over after the production of items. Waste is then further examined to calculate the amount of the garbage that is recycled, repurposed, or sent to landfills (waste to landfill).

This “waste to landfill” metric is fundamental to manufacturers for several reasons:

  1. manufacturing plants often work with many different materials – plastic, wood, paper, fabrics, etc. – in large quantities;
  2. manufacturers have to pay for the waste they produce, and the sum changes based on what kind of waste it is (e.g., sorted recyclables vs. non-recyclable materials);
  3. this metric often has to be reported to the local Environment Protection agency and can impact the company’s taxes.

According to the EU’s waste hierarchy landfilling is the least preferable option and should be limited to the necessary minimum. This correlates to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by each activity.

Waste that ends up in landfill produces methane gas, which is 25x more potent at creating a greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

The amount of waste sent to landfills directly impacts the company’s carbon footprint, so corporate sustainability goals are often built around waste reduction goals. They include activities like recycling programs, reduction of packaging, and elimination of material leftovers.

Waste according to LEAN manufacturing principles

LEAN manufacturing aims to maximize resource utilization through the minimization of waste. The principles of lean continuous improvement have been transformational for manufacturers globally so in case you want to learn more, read our article explaining it in more detail here.

Waste, according to LEAN methodology, is any no-value-adding activity happening in the facility, including:

  • inventory,
  • movement,
  • defects,
  • transportation,
  • overproduction,
  • excess processing
  • waiting.

Although there are environmental benefits from eliminating these wastes in some cases, it’s an indirect correlation that’s rather hard to measure. For example, if a food producer fails to make the necessary quality checks, products are loaded on trucks (movement) and transported to a warehouse (transportation) where the mistake is discovered. The product must be sent back (transportation) and could have already passed the expiration date (defect).

For any company’s sustainability manager, it would be easy to understand that it would be more environmentally friendly to avoid mistakes like these. However, to meaningfully compare and analyze these LEAN metrics (movement, transportation, defect in this example), further calculations would be necessary to get CO2e (carbon footprint equivalent) for each activity.

Each mile driven with a specific type of transport with a particular fuel consumption generates a specific amount of CO2e. Based on where the defected food ends up (landfill, food for feedstock, biodegradable waste, etc.), each kg can be calculated into a specific CO2e number.

Then all of these activities would be compared and analyzed to understand which activity has to be worked on first, to reduce the environmental impact of the operations.

Waste according to GREEN manufacturing principles

GREEN manufacturing is defined as a method of manufacturing that minimizes waste and pollution (source). However, in GREEN, waste means something different than in the two definitions reviewed previously.

Instead of seeing things from the customer’s perspective, the manufacturer views them from the perspective of the environment. The seven GREEN wastes are the following:

  • energy
  • water
  • materials
  • garbage
  • transportation
  • emissions
  • biodiversity.

By checking these wastes against the company’s value stream, it’s possible to identify all the negative impacts on the environment that exist within the value stream. This then serves as a base for the improvement process – a specific waste elimination process that results in reduced costs, increased value, and competitiveness.

The improvement process is similar to any LEAN methodology process as it’s:

  1. a systematic way to achieve an end result;
  2. aiming to establish a measurable baseline;
  3. data-driven in its approach to eliminating waste.

Thus it is concluded that the two strategies (LEAN and GREEN) can be integrated and offered simultaneously in the operation management to reduce both inefficiencies and environmental impact.

To Recap

Waste means different things to different industry experts, so we have to clarify the meaning in the process. For sustainability experts, waste is the garbage sent to landfills. For LEAN manufacturing professionals – it’s all about eliminating non-value-adding activities from customers’ perspective, and for GREEN manufacturing insiders – it’s a way to eliminate any environmental resource waste.

Evocon can help you move towards Green Manufacturing by helping you monitor and visualize data on your electricity consumption, help reduce scrapped products, and reduce the carbon footprint per item.

If you’re interested in learning more about eliminating waste from your manufacturing process, let us know, and we can discuss how to help you reach your goals.

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