Zero Waste: Bubbles, Silos and Harmony

For some reason, I did not notice that the Grinch was in the waste management business.

The town of Whoville dumped their refuse into a centrally located tube and through Suessian magic, it runs uphill to the liar of widely feared and disowned member of the town. All sorts of waste make that gravity defying journey. The Grinch was a MRF, a one creature sorting operation that removed, reused, and repurposed everything the citizens of Whoville sent his way.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s what it’s always been *about*. Gifts, gifts… gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts. You wanna know what happens to your gifts? They all come to me. In your garbage. You see what I’m saying? In your *garbage*. I could hang myself with all the bad Christmas neckties I found at the dump. And the avarice…

So why do we vilify the Grinch when, from a zero waste standpoint, the town may be an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of our current business recycling efforts? Companies cannot get to zero waste when they operate in silos, exist in bubbles and depend on leadership for harmony. Can removing these barriers be the answer to the lack of success in organic material recovery?

Silos

According to Investopedia, silo mentality within a company “is an attitude that is found in some organizations; it occurs when several departments or groups within an organization do not want to share information or knowledge with other individuals in the same organization.” In my experience, this falls to leadership and confident delegation of authority.

In too many current situations, any attempt to realign a company’s culture towards an effort that one group deems critical (such as organics recycling for instance) but another sees as less-than-relevant to the bottom line (the real impact of a negative margin), often in another seemingly unrelated silo, may be the reason so many companies have not embraced better organics recovery programs.

Bubbles

While the references for bubbles often suggest a financial event such as a run-up in tech stocks or Bitcoins and more recently by the belief that from a social aspect, they are as Sasha Chapin wrote recently in the New York Times, “self-reinforcing spheres of blindness and irrationality”, inside of a company, they can have a detrimental impact on the ability of a company to achieve zero waste. That is, if they really want to.

From a social perspective, once a company isolates internal business groups into separate entities, such as operations, facilities, merchandising and logistics, and tasks them with their own goals and profit targets, the bubble inhabitants adjust their realities to meet those social norms. This is unfortunate.

Harmony

ItayTalgam gave a TED Talk about achieving harmony within a company using his former occupation as a conductor as the template for what is good leadership and what is not. Using his experience with incredibly creative musicians, who, without the restraint of the person with the baton, would exercise their creativity without restraint, Mr Talgam illustrates several different styles currently employed by various business leaders and why they may or may not work.

In companies with silo mentalities for instance, leadership demands precision and detail and blind loyalty. And while creativity can exist under those conditions, the likelihood it will flourish will not. If a group within a silo realizes the value in organic recovery (or any recycling effort), the ability to share that excitement is quickly dismissed as improbable.

In companies with a bubble culture, the illusion of value and creativity exists only within the comfortable confinements of the specific group. Leadership can set the overall tone and actually be the driver in some aspects. However, the ideology of one group (trucking is more important than merchandising because without it you wouldn’t have product to place on the shelves) will always trump the other group’s importance. Within the logistics bubble, and without leadership to identify that blindspot, using those same delivery trucks as a way to recycle will never provide the necessary pinprick in that way of thinking. In fact, reverse logistics is hands down the most cost effective way to recycle – anything. When it comes to removing food waste from the trash via backhauling, it is by far the most profitable effort.

As Mr. Talgam points out, the real harmony of leadership inside a company is done with trust. No leader can know everything and no leader is expected to be an expert. The struggle the residents of silos or bubbles have in moving the zero waste initiative put forth by a business are not from within their groups: It is when those group leaders must explain those struggles/possibilities/potentialities to leadership.

Talgam understands collaboration as the critical element in every company’s success. How leaders conduct themselves – understanding that the profit they may be most acquainted with may not be the only way to achieve a profit – depends on something as simple as an optimistic vision. Too few leaders in silos, bubbles or at the top of the hierarchy are blessed with that trait.

Organic Recovery

I bring up organic recovery because it is, by far one of the most underutilized forms of recycling. It doesn’t matter whether your company has published a sustainability goal. Many have and some are even moving much closer to those targets than they would have without such a document. Even with such a document, like the residents of Whoville, far too many companies are sending recoverable and recyclable waste uphill – the least profitable way.

In a certain sense, we would all do well to be a little Grinch-like, concerned about how waste is handled and frustrated with the way it is currently being removed. If your leadership knew there was an alternative and more importantly, a profitable way to do otherwise, will they listen to you? Or do you need someone like me to bridge the zero waste conversation?

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