Wasting Away to Meet Sustainability Goals

An average distribution center generates or handles anywhere from 100 to 1,000 tons of solid waste each year—or approximately 30 pounds per square foot—that could be reduced, reused, or recycled.

Typical distribution center waste streams include corrugated cardboard, office and breakroom waste, plastic strapping, pallets, paper, batteries, yard waste, accumulated scrap such as defective or returned products, and unique materials such as electronic waste and polystyrene that are not commonly handled by haulers.

Because distribution centers are lower volume waste generators compared to some manufacturing, retail, and construction sites, waste management is not often seen as a priority. Some logistics providers and shippers, however, have implemented programs that dramatically minimize or eliminate waste—creating savings and customer satisfaction in the process.

Following are five key actions that help waste management and other sustainability programs succeed:

  1. Initiate programs from the top down; grow them from the bottom up. The initial spark must come from the top; the site manager’s support is required to launch and lend credibility to the program. Yet it is the floor associates—who understand what goes into the waste stream and must own the process of managing it—who will drive the program. Having a site green team, or even partially dedicating one or more associates to the program, will ensure it has the support needed to succeed.
    Process improvement workshops are a good tool for engaging associates. Green teams can assess waste generation and identify the best solutions for reusing finished goods waste by turning it into a saleable product; composting; and converting waste to energy to achieve zero waste.
  2. Get a handle on your waste picture. You can’t improve what you don’t measure, so it’s imperative to collect data on the types, amounts, and costs of waste the site generates. A waste audit is a good place to start, but can be a stumbling block because it takes time and effort to work with vendors to understand how much and what kind of waste they are hauling away. Software tools, such as the EPA’s WasteWise, can help collect data and track performance as you work to reduce waste.
  3. Create reduction goals with achievable targets and monitor progress. Once you know how much waste your facility generates, set realistic goals and track progress to keep everyone motivated. Challenging but achievable goals include eliminating all waste going to landfills, and increasing recycled materials by a specific percentage. Either way, tracking progress is essential to realizing your goal, so be sure to assign staff resources to monitoring.
  4. Motivate employees through education, and make them part of the solution. Associates are more likely to get involved once they realize they can make a difference, so education is the first step to changing behavior and creating a culture of sustainability. The EPA is a great resource for free videos and other information to create awareness of the problem and the value of reducing, reusing, and recycling.
    Green teams should meet regularly and build events around sustainability initiatives to help associates take pride in their efforts to operate sustainably.
  5. Celebrate success. Bring attention to the program and keep associates interested and involved by recognizing and celebrating their efforts and results.


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