Lean Green Waste: Linear Materials

This article was originally posted in the Lean Green Institute website by Kelly Singer.

Most of the things we extract from the earth and manufacture end up in landfills. An estimated 90 percent of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States become waste almost immediately in the manufacturing process. Once the product is made, it’s used for an average of six months before it’s tossed (often deliberately due to planned obsolescence).  

This “trash” is made from valuable materials that required effort and expense to extract and make.  In this sense, a landfill is full of billions of dollars’ worth of material assets.  Organic waste has value too — things like food and wood could decompose and return nutrients to the soil.  Unfortunately, all these things are heaped in a landfill where their value is squandered and they further contribute to climate change.

Landfills contain two types of waste: Linear Waste and Salvageable Landfill Waste

Linear Waste

Linear waste is any product, process, component, or material that has a linear lifecycle by design.  It’s incapable of being “nutritious” to the earth or reused at full quality by humans through recycling.  This waste includes:

  • Hazardous Waste Chemicals, solutions, and metals like automotive supplies, hair dyes, nail polish and remover, hair spray and other hair products, certain cosmetics, thermometers, home improvement and garden supplies, household cleaners, light bulbs, medicine, nicotine substances, batteries, and many others.  These items should not be thrown in the trash for the landfill or poured down the drain, but they are in large numbers.
  • Non-recyclable materials What can and cannot be recycled varies depending on local jurisdiction and waste management companies.  The only destination for these products and materials is the landfill either because they don’t meet recycling center standards (like cardboard pizza boxes, wet newspapers, and used paper napkins/towels), the market demand for a recycling solution doesn’t exist (plastic bags, less common types of plastics, bottle twist tops), or a recycling solution does exist but it’s specialized, expensive, and rare (toilets and other ceramics, styrofoam, wire hangers).  

In addition, the label, bio-degradable is actually one of the worst non-recyclable items (don’t be fooled by the bio in the name) because the product or material has been designed to quickly break down into “microplastic”.  These particles contaminate the soil and water if the product is added to your compost bin, and contributes to methane gas emissions if tossed into the landfill.  

Likewise, hybrid products are  products, components, or materials that combine both high quality metals or materials and organic materials (such as recyclable paper, poly-vinyl-chloride, shoes, furniture, mixed material clothing, wax-lined food containers, etc. etc.) in a way that cannot be easily separated, thereby rendering it unable to be recycled or reused by people or nature.

Salvageable Landfill Waste

These materials have the ability to be recycled, reused, or composted but are instead sent to rot in a landfill or burn in the incinerator causing methane gas and other major environmental problems.  This waste includes:

  • Compostable materials Food is largest type of municipal solid waste that ends up in landfills and throwing it out with the trash leads to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas far more harmful to climate change than carbon dioxide. Raw food, wood, natural fibers, non-color treated paper, coffee grounds, and tea bags can all be composted but most are not.
  • Recyclable materials As mentioned above, what is considered “recyclable” is largely dependant on where you live.  In theory, many solutions exist to recycle a large number of materials and products, but they do not exist in one place.  To shuffle this category further, recyclable materials like glass,paper, metal, plastic, tires, textiles and electronics are separated by two types of recycling:
  1. Downcycling: a process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality.  This is the most common type of recycling and unfortunately most downcycled products eventually end up in a landfill.  
  2. Upcycling: a process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless and/or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.  

The Goal:  Zero Linear and Landfill Waste through Kaizen

Of all the lean green wastes, eliminating linear materials can seem the most challenging as our population and consumption continue to grow at acceleration.    The average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic per year (more than half is from single use plastic) and we currently only recycle or reuse about 10 percent of the plastic we produce.   Sounds like a losing game.

However, step by step, kaizen by kaizen, it’s possible to take actions that will eventually achieve the goal of zero linear and landfill waste.

Several lean companies have embraced the environmental and economic potential of being landfill waste free.    One company in particular – Toyota – has achieved a 94% recycling rate or better at multiple factories around the globe for the last decade.  

In 2015, Toyota furthered this mission with the challenge of establishing a “Recycling-Based Society and Systems” in their Environmental Challenges 2050.  With a better understanding of linear and salvageable landfill waste, Toyota is striving to operate in a circular model with four strategies heavily dependant on innovation, team-led kaizen, and technological advances to stop contributing towards, and manufacturing, linear waste and to stop sending salvageable waste to the landfill from operations and products.   

They’ve spearheaded this challenge with the following four strategies:

  1. Utilize eco-friendly materials by making the best available eco option decision and by developing their own green products like eco-plastic and recycled (non-petroleum) resin.
  2. Reusing old parts in new ways like power generation and storage technology using HV units from end-of-life vehicles.
  3. Creating an upcycling, circular infrastructure through the development of a carbon fiber recycling technology to promote the reuse of rare resources already in play.  Creating a recycling technology for lithium ion batteries, nickel hydride batteries, and magnets.
  4. Designing new cars with a circular lifecycle by designing new cars that have dismantling and part-retrieval in mind for easy recycling and by opening 100 dismantling and recycling model plants (10 plants by 2020) around the world.

You can read more about Toyota’s Recycling-Based Society and Systems challenge and tactics here.

What would it take for your company to operate with Zero Linear Waste?  What would the impact be?