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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

Book Review: “Lean Waste Stream” by Marc Jensen

10 min read
lean waste stream book review

The newly published book, “Lean Waste Stream:Reducing Material Use and Garbage Using Lean Principles” is full of resources and information that will make you look at garbage from a new perspective. Normally, we cringe at the thought of digging through the garbage due to uncertainty or embarrassment at what might be found, along with the smell often associated with garbage.

lean waste stream lean principles

It has become “taboo” to allow anyone except waste handlers to interact with our garbage. The public stigma of “dumpster diving” or fear of being “contaminated” by our trash is also working against efforts to analyze garbage.

We are not even held accountable for what we throw away today (aside from hazardous materials), so what would we gain from sorting through the trash and rubbish? A few redeemable plastic bottles, some unused sheets of paper, and some items that could be resold for a few dollars?

If the perceived rewards of doing this activity do not seem to be worthwhile, then why would someone take on the risks mentioned above (odor, stigma, embarrassment)?

The reason to analyze your garbage is because the rewards are highly underrated. This effort can help us identify numerous ways to save money and make smarter buying and disposal decisions, both at home and within our businesses. At work, garbage can reveal how efficient our processes are actually operating, and provide insight into new opportunities to improve that are difficult to identify through other techniques. Processes that produce very little garbage will also have lower operating costs, which improves a company’s bottom line. Garbage can point us in the right direction for where there are inefficient processes that need improvement.

The value of a piece of paper found in the trash is not the cost of the paper, but the printer costs, electricity costs, ink costs, floor space required for the printer, paper ream storage and filing cabinets, and all the labor that went into generating the content on the paper.

Consider that even at minimum wage, the cost of a worker spending three minutes handling a piece of paper is 10 times greater than the cost of the printed paper itself.

The value of a cleaning wipe found in the trash is not the cost of the wipe, but the chemicals used on the wipe, the cost of managing and disposing of the chemicals, the labor costs associated with using the wipes, the process transactions and paperwork required, the tools and containers needed, and many other related costs.

The value of an aluminum soda can found in the trash is not the potential value of the aluminum, but the cost of the soda at purchase, the time spent going to the vending machine to select it and drink it, the environmental impact of processing and shipping the can to the vending machine, the cost of disposing of the can in the trash (landfill charges), and probably the biggest cost, the healthcare costs associated with high sugar drinks.

These examples show why the analysis of garbage has a high reward. For us to reduce our environmental impact, save money at home, and improve the bottom line of our businesses, the mindset around how we look at garbage has to change. “Lean Waste Stream” provides examples and support for you to help change the minds of those who still look at garbage in the traditional way.

The author is Marc Jensen, a director of the University of Oklahoma (OU) Lean Institute. He specializes in applying Lean techniques to environmental sustainability and conservation efforts. He explains the intent of this book on pg. 1.

The purpose of this book is to reimagine the problem of garbage through the lens of Lean manufacturing: streamlining operations, improving material flow, and reducing costs. This is done by analyzing and eliminating the contents of our garbage streams while also incorporating garbage reduction into larger efforts at Lean transformation and resource conservation.

This book is a good resource for both Lean professionals and environmental professionals. For the Lean professionals, it provides a new way of applying lean tools and techniques to garbage (rubbish) and solid waste reduction. For environmental professionals, it helps connect garbage reduction efforts to the cost impact in operations.

The book is broken up into the following chapters:

Chapter 1 – The Garbage Can
Chapter 2 – Getting Rid of Our Waste
Chapter 3 – Garbage Auditing
Chapter 4 – Interrogating the Garbage
Chapter 5 – Making Improvements
Chapter 6 – Effective Recycling Programs
Chapter 7 – Composting Programs and Organics
Chapter 8 – Transportation and Storage of Garbage
Chapter 9 – Reuse and Repurposing
Chapter 10 – Waste Prevention through Design
Chapter 11 – Paperwork Reduction
Chapter 12 – Regulated Waste Segregation
Chapter 13 – Afterword: Maybe Don’t Call It Green

I’ll provide a summary of each chapter, along with some personal comments to reiterate his points.

Chapter 1 – The Garbage Can

Jensen starts out by defining two definitions of garbage:

  • Garbage (waste from use): Solid waste produced by the use of goods; occurring when goods are consumed, transported, used up, or worn out.
  • Material waste (source waste): Solid waste produced in the design and manufacture of goods; occurring when goods are designed and produced.

The book provides real-world examples of garbage and material waste reduction throughout. These definitions will help separate consumption (garbage) versus production issues (material waste), to better understand where the root cause investigation of the problem should be focused, and will require different behavior changes to address the solution.

Chapter 2 – Getting Rid of Our Waste

A brief discussion is provided on current waste disposal techniques, to establish baseline knowledge about what happens today (which many people do not understand today).

• Landfilling
• Energy Recovery
• Recycling
• Downcycling
• Upcycling

In addition, problems with these systems, along with incentives to continue “business as usual” are also mentioned.

Cocoa Landfill dump

For example, most people are surprised to know that recycling is one of the last resort options for waste.

A higher level of thinking is required to see past this thinking. The focus should be on NOT generating the waste in the first place, and having an empty recycling bin actually represents better environmental stewardship.

In fact, most companies report recycling volume as a measure of success to protecting the environment, but it needs to measured as a percentage of the available waste that could be recycled (see image below).

diversion recycling rate metrics

Waste avoidance strategies are then presented, with a discussion of reuse, minimization and prevention.

Chapter 3 – Garbage Auditing and Chapter 4 – Interrogating the Garbage

For those unfamiliar with a waste audit, dumpster dive or other similar term for garbage analysis, this chapter provides tips and tricks for setting up an event.

The garbage audit is a kind of Lean gemba walk, dissecting the waste stream through direct observation.

iowa football waste sort dumpster dive
Students at the University of Iowa sort garbage during a waste audit held after a football game in 2012

Topics include: capturing a true sample of the trash, safety practices, dealing with squeamish participants and potential vomiters, scope of the event (trash and recycling), and data collection sheets for compiling and reviewing the results.

Chapter 5 – Making Improvements

Once the results from the audit have been reviewed, improvements need to be made, just like any other business problem.

…the garbage auditing process can identify garbage reduction projects that will be facilitated just like any other Lean project and woven seamlessly into larger Lean efforts. In doing this, environmental work can be understood as efficiency work rather than focusing solely on its ethical or political implications.

Jensen suggests combining any company “green teams” with the Lean Six Sigma department, since they have the same outcomes in mind, even though they approach it from different perspectives (environmental impact vs efficiency opportunities).

He suggests publicizing the results of the audit, and staying away from training and awareness to solve problems (not effective solutions to these problems).

The book also provides templates for Project Planning and Project Charters, used for getting organized and support for the improvements.

Chapter 6 – Effective Recycling Programs

Since recycling programs are very common, Jensen suggests some ways to make them more effective:

  • The act of recycling needs to be as easy as—or easier than—the act of conventional waste disposal
  • Less sorting and handling is involved if material is segregated earlier
  • The employees whose productive time is of the lowest productive value to the business should sort the material
  • Custodial capacity may need to be adjusted to account for recycling

Chapter 7 – Composting Programs and Organics

Most people are surprised to learn that biodegradable items that are not composted properly, they will not degrade in the landfill.

If these materials are landfilled, the fact that they are biodegradable is essentially irrelevant, since landfilled materials will theoretically be sequestered away for the remainder of human history and are disposed of in ways that inhibit decomposition as much as possible.

Most landfills cover up the trash and remove all oxygen, sunlight and water, which would normally start the degrading process. If your home or business is not setup to compost, then it’s pointless to purchase biodegradable items until you’re committed to moving in that direction.

Chapter 8 – Transportation and Storage of Garbage

Some of the waste and environmental impact associated with garbage collection is the transportation to and from the collection locations. Garbage contains a lot of air, so the volume of garbage is much larger than the actual material weight. Opportunities to save money and greenhouse gases can be found by installing a trash compactor, which reduces the number of pickups required at your facility, saving money.

Other tips for reducing transportation waste associated with garbage include:

  • Reduce the physical volume of the trash as much as possible (compacting)
  • Remove any inert filler that is in the garbage but is not really garbage (usually air and water) at the earliest possible stage, dumping only full containers of real garbage
  • Transport garbage the shortest distance using the least possible amount of labor

Chapter 9 – Reuse and Repurposing

Jensen provides two major approaches to reuse programs (going back to the two definitions of garbage from Chapter 1):

1. Redesigning an existing process to stop using a disposable product and using a reusable one instead (material waste)
2. Designing a new use for a waste product that had been previously discarded (garbage)

Unfortunately, most require some amount of process reengineering in order to be effective.

Subtopics in this chapter include:

  • Reusable Containers
  • Relationship with the Supplier
  • Repurposing and Reusing Containers
  • Specialty Markets for Materials
  • Material Exchange Programs

Chapter 10 – Waste Prevention through Design

When selecting the right products and materials up front, a Source Reduction Comparison Worksheet can be used (template provided in book).

Biomimicry (replicating nature in the design process) is also discussed, along with a helpful list of principles to remember:

  • Use waste as a resource
  • Gather and use energy and resources efficiently
  • Diversify into niche markets that allow for the full utilization of an environment’s resource potential
  • Network and develop cooperative arrangements with other organizations in the environment.
  • Constantly evolve in response to the environment
  • Do not toxify your environment. The by-products of your activities should not prevent those activities from taking place in the future. This is at the heart of sustainable practice.

Chapter 11 – Paperwork Reduction

As mentioned earlier, the cost of paper is very small to an organization or business, but the true cost of the paper is where the opportunity lies.

With the exception of things like diplomas, the value of the paper is almost never in the paper itself, but rather in the information that it contains. We take what we need from the information that the paper carries, and have to dispose of the container when the information is obsolete or no longer needed.

Jensen also discusses advantages and disadvantages of paper (for use with employees who still like hard copies). He also warns that companies that go “paperless” can often see an increase in printing costs until the employees start to trust the new processes and retention systems.

He also provides guidance for conducting and quantifying a paper audit. The worksheet below shows how to capture the true labor and handling costs of paper.

Chapter 12 – Regulated Waste Segregation

The book provides details on a few specific types of waste that need to be regulated and controlled differently.

• Hazardous materials
• Regulated medical waste
• Confidential paperwork

Finding these in your waste audits can be serious problems, and immediate steps should be taken to address them, as they can increase safety problems for your employees, or lead to fines and negative publicity.

Chapter 13 – Afterword: Maybe Don’t Call It Green

Jensen suggests alternative names for this effort, in order to tie these efforts back to business efficiency (which he has clearly shown in the book), not something external and altruistic like the environment.


My personal experience is that I have been involved with 3 waste audits, taken 3 landfill tours, and setup recycling programs, but I learned a lot from this book. It gave me a new perspective of looking at garbage, and also gave me ideas on how to convince others that analyzing the garbage in your home or business can outweigh any perceived concerns they might have.

Order the Lean Waste Stream book from Amazon (Kindle or hard copy) >>>lean waste stream garbage principles




Now available on CRC Press website: Spreadsheets and templates from the book, including:

  • Garbage Audit Data Collection Worksheet
  • Garbage Interrogation Worksheet
  • Source Reduction Comparison Worksheet

Learn more about the waste audit performed at Kinnick Stadium at the University of Iowa >>>

Depressing trip to the landfill >>>

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