Learn about zero-waste programs and other green business ideas

July 11, 2017



Listen and learn about zero-waste programs and other green business ideas

Have you considered implementing a zero-waste program in your organization? Are you wondering what that might entail or how long it would take? You’re in luck.

In this episode of the SunPower Business Broadcast, pod favorite and SunPower’s head of sustainability, Marissa Yao, joins us to answer the question: “What does zero-waste mean?” Marissa talks about other well-known zero-waste companies, and how implementing sustainable practices might not be as difficult as you think. In fact, they could even lead to additional green business ideas.

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Jeff Allen: Hello and welcome back. I’m Jeff Allen and this is the SunPower Business Broadcast. When I say the term "zero-waste" as it relates to business, what does that mean to you? I mean, if you answered "not much" or "I’m not quite sure," well, you’re in luck because today’s edition of the podcast once again features a good friend, Marissa Yao. You might remember Marissa. She is the resident sustainability expert here at SunPower. She’s going to fill us in on the concept of a zero-waste program, what that might mean for you and for your organization. Marissa Yao, it’s great to talk to you again. Thank you for making the time.

Marissa Yao:  Thanks, Jeff. I’m glad to be talking trash with you today.

Jeff Allen:  So to speak, of course—Marissa, talking trash with us. What a delight this is going to be. We’re talking about zero-waste, Marissa. This means different things, I think, to different people. We sometimes think of—I guess maybe we should think of zero-waste as meaning completely no waste; no waste at all. But when you stop to think about it, an organization that produces absolutely zero-waste, it doesn’t sound like it’s really possible or even a viable concept.

Marissa Yao:  That’s a great question, Jeff. Zero-waste is a concept. When you hear those two words, it resonates with a lot of us. The concept of not wasting anything is appealing and, certainly in a corporate environment, you hear more and more companies pursuing this goal of zero-waste. So what does it mean? Yes, you’re right. For many of us who practice sustainability in corporate and manufacturing environments, our goal is to do just that, which is to rethink the concept of waste. It doesn’t mean that no waste is generated in terms of scrap materials, excess materials; but it’s rethinking what we do with that.

We can talk a little bit more about it but I think what zero-waste helps us do is provide a tangible example of what corporate sustainability aims to do. It’s very similar, I think, from the last podcast. I made parallels between sustainability and lean manufacturing and it’s not surprising that zero-waste is an illustration of both of those frameworks. In lean manufacturing, the goal is to design out waste; to rethink waste. Waste can take different forms. It could be solid waste in terms of materials. It could be chemical waste. It could also be the intangibles—it could be wasted time; wasted effort. Again, the goal being efficiency and resource conservation.

Jeff Allen:  So recycling is then a big part or complement to a zero-waste program. When someone says "zero-waste," they’re really talking about "zero-waste to landfill." Is that correct?

Marissa Yao:  Most of the time, yes, it does mean "zero-waste to landfill." You’ll hear other terms like "landfill-free" but, absolutely, "zero-waste" is the most commonly used phrase and often times, the ‘to landfill’ is omitted but, yes, that’s what is intended with zero-waste programs.

Jeff Allen:  Now, Marissa, does zero-waste mean exactly the same thing to every company out there?

Marissa Yao:  No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t need to be really. Here, again, I think the main benefit of a zero-waste program or a landfill-free program is, it’s a great first step for any company that wants to kick off their sustainability program. The reason why I mention this is because it’s very tangible. It requires the participation of multiple organizations and it also has not just environmental benefits but financial benefits as well. So I think when you read about corporate sustainability initiatives, oftentimes you will hear or read about companies that have pursued a zero-waste program. When you do find these case studies, yes, you’re absolutely right, Jeff, it is a zero-waste to landfill goal that they started out with but I think that’s just a first step. Certainly, recycling is one step but not the only step to a zero-waste to landfill program.

Jeff Allen:  Why do you imagine, based on the conversations that you have with business owners or business leaders in the community, that companies will engage in a zero-waste effort? I mean, is it primarily to pare down costs or is there another reason that they engage in these types of programs?

Marissa Yao:  Sure. There are multiple benefits and I would imagine multiple reasons why a company would want to pursue a zero-waste program; hence, my really encouraging companies who haven’t embarked on their sustainability journey to look really closely at starting with a zero-waste program. The reason why I say that is, again, for manufacturers, and I’ll start with this example—for companies that manufacture goods who run factories or outsource their manufacturing, often times, there will be scrap materials, waste—solid waste, as we often refer to it. So what we’re trying to do here is rethink that concept of waste.

Let’s just take the scrap material as an example. I mentioned previously that recycling is a step but certainly not the only step. Obviously, going to the often-cited waste hierarchy, we first want to reduce, reuse, and then recycle. For sustainability practitioners who have dealt into, let’s say, circular economy and other concepts like that, it goes beyond that. What’s exciting is that it opens up a lot of opportunities—rethinking business models, for example. That’s why I think a zero-waste program is a great first start for a company. 

For example, going back to the factory example that I mentioned, there are scrap materials there. The first step is, engage your product teams, engage your supply chain to perhaps reduce the amount of scrap material that’s produced. Can you work with suppliers to better size the materials that are shipped to your factories? Can you work with your engineers to modify your equipment or your process so that there isn’t as much waste generated? Thirdly, you can work with your facilities groups and see what happens to that scrap material. Is it sent to landfills? Which is often the most convenient, cost-effective approach but I think that’s a misconception because if you just took a step back, if that waste is usable to you, it most likely will be usable to another party.

One thing that we’ve learned through our own experience is that maybe disposing of that material to landfill isn’t the most cost-efficient way. Maybe we can find someone who will buy that material from us because they can use it as well. Again, I think this is an exciting area. Maybe your trash isn’t exciting to most people but I hope that if you just start to look into it and read about what other companies have done, it really is very exciting. You’d be surprised at the opportunities to innovate that lie in the zero-waste realm.

Jeff Allen:  Well, if you think about it, Marissa, I don’t know exactly what it’s like in your community, your part of the world, but there is so many of these commercial recycling companies that are popping up and really because they’ve created this cottage industry now. It’s like they say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” Of ten times, that treasure to that second person may result in not just cost savings but they’ll actually take and they’ll provide you with payment for your recyclables. I mean, it’s just what we’re finding out in many parts of the country today.

Right now, speaking with a very smart person on the other side—her name is Marissa Yao, Sustainability Expert at SunPower—on the SunPower Business Broadcast. My name is Jeff Allen. Speaking of zero-waste—oversight regulations pertaining to zero-waste, let’s talk about certification. Is there a governing body or some kind of organization or agency that provides certifications and validation that an organization has in fact actually gone zero-waste? Or can anyone really make that claim when they feel that they have gone zero-waste, Marissa?

Marissa Yao:  Sure. Whether it’s at the federal or at the state level, there are regulations that govern waste. We do have compliance requirements. In terms of zero-waste or landfill-free programs, you’re absolutely right, Jeff. These are often certification programs. By that, it’s voluntary. It goes beyond compliance. It really is meant to show leadership amongst companies—going beyond compliance, taking that extra step, devoting additional resources in terms of manpower and funding to reach these goals and be able to make these claims of being zero-waste or landfill-free. Certainly, third party certification is not required. However, just personally, I do think it has benefits in terms of giving your customers and your communities that additional confidence in your claim that you’ve gone that step of getting third party verified. You have that extra assurance. I do think that it is worthwhile to pursue certification.

Certainly, for a company just starting a program, really, certification should come later. I think what you’ll find is that achieving zero-waste will take some time and take creativity. I wouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself if you’re a sustainability practitioner within a company to pursue certification immediately. In SunPower’s case, we didn’t pursue certification until about eight months after we formally created a zero-waste program. Certification certainly has benefits. Again, it lends that extra credibility and assurance but it’s not required or regulated. 

There are several organizations out there that have their own zero-waste or landfill-free guidelines. There isn’t one standard yet and certainly it varies globally. Here in the U.S., there are several organizations—NSF Sustainability, Zero-Waste Alliance, UL; to name a few—that have created their own guidelines and certification programs. That’s a great resource for companies that want to pursue certification. At the same time, there are a lot of resources open to companies who are just looking to embark on this program. One of the key suggestions is to reach out to waste vendors. I think, more and more, you’re seeing waste vendors wanting to partner with corporate customers in zero-waste programs because there is a financial benefit to both parties.

I think I’ve mentioned earlier that manufacturing companies obviously have a head-start and have some advantages for zero-waste programs but service companies shouldn’t feel that this is something that doesn’t apply to them as well. If you’re a service company, a financial services company, whatever you may be that you may not necessarily provide a product that you sell to customers, you absolutely still can pursue a zero-waste program. If you have employees or operations, you generate waste. I know that we sit in our offices here and there’s office waste, there’s cafeteria waste, office materials. I shouldn’t discourage, and hopefully, service industries aren’t discouraged from pursuing zero-waste programs because it really is something that any company can pursue and achieve. That’s something that we at SunPower started in about 2014 and we’re now in our third year of our zero-waste certified programs here in our factories.

Jeff Allen:  So that means that SunPower is a zero-waste company then. Is that right?

Marissa Yao:  Yes, we do have a corporate goal of having all of our manufacturing sites zero-waste or landfill-free certified. So we started off with our assembly sites simply because this part of our process generates a lot of solid waste and it’s also a much simpler process. This was a great example of how a program can really kick-start a corporate sustainability program. Our factory in Mexicali, Mexico is our largest assembly site and was our first landfill-free certified factory. Currently we have three landfill-free certified factories and we’re hoping to certify our remaining two factories by 2018.

Jeff Allen:  Well, it does sound like something that has obviously required a certain amount of work and really some focus on the part of everybody involved at SunPower, really at all levels of the company then, Marissa. I think I heard you say something about three years. Is that the amount of time that it’s taken since the implementation of these steps to make SunPower a zero-waste company?

Marissa Yao:  Actually, no. As a company, we had a recycling program long before we pursued our zero-waste program. So our EHS teams across the world have been diligent. Obviously we have compliance requirements, as I mentioned earlier, that govern chemical, solid waste, etc. So we have been mindfully looking to increase our recycling rate. That’s been something we’ve been doing as a company for many years. In late 2014, our sustainability executive, our Chief Operating Officer at the time, had this bold vision of having a zero-waste factory. So he and I worked together to identify who were the leaders in this space. In late 2014, we approached Subaru of Indiana. It’s a company that’s been leading in this area. I think all of us have seen the advertisements and videos about Subaru of Indiana’s zero-waste factory. We actually reached out to them, engaged with their executives and leaders, and even went so far as to make a trip out there. It’s a great lesson of how companies can learn and share ideas together. Certainly that helped us formulate our own strategy for our zero-waste program.

We finally kicked it off in January 2015. Like I said, because we had an already existing recycling program, we started off in a pretty good space. I think a lot of companies that have recycling programs will have a similar experience in the sense that our diversion rate was already rather high. For this factory, it was about 72%; meaning, 72% of the materials that we were disposing of were already being recycled. That gave us the confidence to move forward and say, “Wow, we’re pretty close to 100%.” Again, under the guidance of our colleagues at Subaru, they did tell us that the last 10% will be the most difficult. Certainly, that was the case but we did achieve our goal and pursued landfill-free certification towards the end of 2015; so about eight months after we formally kicked off the program, which was pretty impressive for all of us. I think we were all surprised that we were able to pursue certification within a year.

Then we’ve gone through a renewal audit since then so we’re currently in our third year so we will renew our certification for our factories this year again. I mentioned some of the benefits of certification earlier about credibility and assurance. The other benefits, specifically to a company of third party certification, like many certifications, is that it continues to motivate us to continue to improve. If you know that you have to renew your certification, it keeps that motivation; it keeps that pressure on all of us here at SunPower to improve and to maintain performance, to ensure that we continue to run our zero-waste program efficiently, and to obviously, with every renewal audit, we’re expected to innovate and to think of better ways of doing things. That’s certainly a great benefit for a corporate client who has pursued certification. It really is a great way to keep the wheels turning within a company and driving your zero-waste program.

Jeff Allen:  It sure sounds like it. That’s SunPower sustainability expert, Marissa Yao. I’m Jeff Allen. You’re listening to the SunPower Business Broadcast. You mentioned Subaru of Indiana but I’m kind of wondering if there are some other zero-waste heroes out there, Marissa. I mean, we all like stories with heroes. We all aspire to be like them. Are there some other companies you can tell us about that we might either be familiar with, or they might be new to us, that we can kind of look to as maybe the standard bearers or the standard setters – people that we can follow in our own work toward becoming zero-waste companies?

Marissa Yao:  Sure. Speaking specifically about landfill-free or zero-waste companies, the automotive industry and the food service industries have done a lot in this space. If you think a little bit more closely, you can understand why. Because they have high volumes of materials that often times are easily recyclable, biodegradable. The material sets that are used in both of these industries lend themselves very well to a zero-waste program. Here at SunPower, we have that benefit to some degree as well—materials that are easily recyclable. The supplier packaging that we receive within our factories often times are cardboard, wood, plastic, paper—easily recyclable material. Then our panels themselves—80% of the panels are aluminum and glass. Certainly, the companies that you read about that have achieved zero-waste certification or landfill-free certification are industries that have those benefits. Hopefully, that won’t discourage other companies that may have more complicated material sets from pursuing it.

Again, one of the benefits of a program like zero-waste is, it’s a great way for a company to engage various parts of the organization, because in order to achieve this as any sustainability goal, you do need to engage your supply chain, your product teams, your manufacturing teams, even finance. Again, for companies that want to pursue this, I can’t say enough about the benefits. In terms of companies that have done well, again, I mentioned Subaru, but Toyota and GM and Honda also have done a lot with landfill-free or zero-waste. I don’t know if all have pursued third party certification but certainly a quick Internet search will pop up a lot of the case studies and press releases that those companies have issued.

In terms of food service industry, I know this is a particular industry that I know is near and dear to all of our hearts. The brewing industry has done a lot. We have Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. who has done a lot with zero-waste, and their competitors as well. Moving beyond zero-waste, some companies that are also not already—perhaps they haven’t pursued a zero-waste goal per se, but they’ve done innovative things with their waste. I think all of us are familiar with Patagonia. This is a nice case of an apparel company that has really looked at the materials used in their products. They have mindfully thought about the end of life of the clothing that they sell. One of the programs that they have is, in taking back that apparel—those used items of clothing—and repurposing it or recycling the material, if you will. That’s a great example of a company that can move beyond zero-waste.

It’s not just about recycling, as I have mentioned. It’s really a holistic, strategic initiative. I hope, if anything, people leave this broadcast thinking more about going beyond recycling. It’s a first step, it’s a necessary step, but it’s not the only step. There are going to be materials that you can’t recycle. Certainly, we’ve encountered that as well. With these certifications, it’s already acknowledged that not everything can be recycled. What are alternative ways of responsibly managing that waste? Certainly, we’ve had to look at options for our own materials here at SunPower. At the same time, what it’s also encouraged us to do is to rethink the design of materials and of our products. I hope that people take away from this broadcast that zero-waste is not just about your waste and sending it to recyclers. It really is designing out waste and rethinking ways and uses for that material that will leave your factories or your offices.

What’s exciting about this for me is, as I’ve mentioned, the room for innovation and the room for rethinking how you think about these materials. Again, in the case of SunPower, we’ve thought of other ways to manage our excess and obsolete materials; if they’re perfectly functional, for example, and perhaps they’re just not being sold—what are other options or other channels that we can find for this excess or obsolete inventory? Again, here, we’ve thought about, ‘Are there other segments in the population that could use these products?’ That’s an example that I would share with others. Think about your materials and your products and think about the ‘waste’ that you’re generating and disposing of today. What’s exciting is, just think about what are the other options? Think outside the box, if you will. Think outside the recycling bin, I guess, is a more appropriate term because what you’ll find are some pretty creative ideas and one that may have a higher financial return for your company. Certainly, that’s what we’ve found in our case.

Patagonia—going back to that example—they’ve certainly realized that goal, which is, “I have waste materials. My products will eventually live out their useful life. What can I do with it?” In their case, they’re taking back those articles of clothing. They’re either repurposing it, repairing it or just recreating the materials altogether. They’re up-cycling those materials. They found a financial benefit to that. I think that’s an exciting example of how we can all go beyond just thinking about recycling to: "What are some new products or new business models that can be created from these materials?"

Jeff Allen:  What other tips or advice, Marissa, as we start to kind of wrap up our conversation today on this edition of SunPower Business Broadcast, would you give to other companies or organizations out there who are interested in moving towards zero-waste? I mean, maybe zero-waste wouldn’t necessarily be the short-term goal. Maybe it’s something that they see three or even five years from now. What small steps can companies take right now to move toward that long-term objective?

Marissa Yao:  I think most companies, and most of us certainly in our households, are aware of recycling. I think most of us participate in recycling in our own homes. A first step or baby step would be, if your company doesn’t have a recycling program, start one because employee awareness is something that you need fundamentally. It may sound trite but it’s amazing how, if employees are aware of that, then when you introduce a zero-waste program, it’s not a foreign concept; it’s something that they know they can actively participate in. So that’s kind of a prerequisite, if you will. Explore a recycling program even in your office.

Then if you do embark on a formal program and set that goal of zero-waste to landfill or landfill-free, then my second suggestion would be to be methodical about it. Approach it like a lean manufacturing exercise. In our case, with our factories, we conduct Kaizen workshops or continuous improvement workshops. This was a great way for us to have our factory and our manufacturing team lead this effort. It was phenomenal how quickly this initiative was adopted by our employees at the factories. I think I mentioned in the first podcast that sustainability practitioners can’t achieve these goals by themselves. Certainly, I can’t do this by myself here. When you start your zero-waste program, really tie it to your operations. In case of a manufacturer, if you’re a lean manufacturer, use a Kaizen. Conduct one. It is a phenomenal way to get people engaged, thinking structurally, efficiently about how to approach the problem. By doing so, you’ll create an inventory—sort of a baseline understanding of "What is the waste that my factory is generating?" You’d be surprised at all of the new materials that no one really understood or comprehended; let alone the volumes that were being generated. Be methodical. Have a structured process. Take an inventory of all the materials that come into your factory or office and all of the materials that leave your factory or office. By doing so, you’ll have an understanding of what to work with and also all of the exciting opportunities you can do with those materials.

The third step and somewhat related is, make sure that you engage organizations across your company. Like I said, your supply chain, your factory teams, your finance teams are all essential to the success of the zero-waste program. Then beyond your organization, partner with a waste vendor or a waste expert. In our case, during our Kaizen, we did find that partner who educated us. I think most of us here including myself don’t have an understanding of how the waste management industry works. So when you bring in an expert or a consultant, it’s a great way for everyone to just learn the fundamentals of what the recycling or waste infrastructure looks like and what the options are. When people have those fundamentals, then that’s how ideas are bred. In our case, we had no idea that there was a market for these materials if it weren’t for that consultant and that partner that we had. So that would be my other suggestion, is to find an external expert. If you have a resident expert, great; but often times, companies don’t have a resident waste expert. Find one. There are plenty of organizations and consultants who can help you kick-start your zero-waste program.

Then, quantify is my fourth suggestion because, again, in our case, we found, not only did we achieve environmental savings but we achieved financial savings as well. That’s why I really want to impress upon people, landfill-free programs are a great way for a company to kick-start their sustainability program because you do have those environmental benefits; there’s the financial benefits; and you have the social benefits as well in the sense that you can make those claims. For a lot of us, including SunPower, customers care about how environmentally responsible we are. Socially, there are those benefits as well.

Those would be my four suggestions for anybody who is looking into starting their own zero-waste program.

Jeff Allen:  Most companies could certainly aim for, even if they don’t exactly make it 100%, the fact that they made certain strides to improve their organizations. It becomes part of their culture. Again, you’re talking about great environmental and potentially even financial benefits to those companies that do participate. I want to thank you so much, Marissa Yao, for taking time out of your day to share your thoughts with us about this very important subject of zero-waste. Again, my thanks.

Marissa Yao:  Thanks, Jeff. It’s great to be here.

Jeff Allen:  That’s Marissa Yao. She is a sustainability specialist and really the expert at SunPower. We appreciate her participation once again today. You’ve heard her before and no doubt we’ll probably have her again on a time or two. She knows so much and we appreciate her for taking all that time to tell us a little bit about what it takes to become zero-waste or at least zero-waste conscious.

That wraps up another edition of this SunPower Business Broadcast. As always, I’d like to remind you that you can find a wealth of additional information on sustainability, renewable energy, and of course the solar industry by visiting the SunPower business feed at BusinessFeed.SunPower.com. Until next time, we invite you to join us in helping to change the way our world is powered. I’m Jeff Allen. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.


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