Zero Waste: Environmental Class Warfare?

ex·trap·o·late
/ikˈstrapəˌlāt/
verb
  1. extend the application of (a method or conclusion, especially one based on statistics) to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable.

Is the current civil unrest in France a window into the uphill problems our country is having with creating a zero waste environment? Is it, as Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College writing in the New York Times recently suggested “a boutique issue, a cause only the well-off can afford to worry about?” As far back as 1995, this question was posed by another prominent sociologist Ronald Inglehart. Inglehart focused much of his work in the form of World Surveys to determine how societies adjusted in the post-WWII world.

Modernized societies would, Inglehart suggested, embrace environmentalism as a part of the new prosperity experienced after the war. This thinking suggested that the better off you are, the more likely you are to embrace environmentalism. France, struggling to come to grips with its own environmental footprint believed that by broadly increasing gas tax prices, they could arrive at a good solution to climate change.

…smart rollouts and messaging matter – Neil Gross

This seems to be the case on the surface; well-to-do nations are assumed to be the leaders in this effort. However, this is not the underlying truth. Studies have shown that less economically developed nations understand the importance of embracing forward-thinking policies to right the wrong of their more industrialized cohorts.

The tax proposed by France’s president Emmanuel Macron to address the fossil fuel reduction effort was met by often violent rural backlash. Beyond the outward appearance of the Yellow Vests unrest are the underlying problems with corporate insouciance concerning environmental issues and the French government’s support of those companies.

Can we extrapolate something from that unrest? Possibly.

What We are Ignoring

In almost every jurisdiction where local governments have provided a means to remove waste from the landfill, the communities have risen to the effort. While there is always room for improvement, the recycling efforts in many municipalities across the nation have proven successful.

However, those same local governments are also frustrated with the lack of participation by the business owners in their communities. There are great strides being made by some companies – at least according to their published sustainability promises. And yet, an economic gap still exists. Small and medium sized businesses still struggle with materials that local governments cannot and do not want. Larger businesses, rather than using the economies of scale to move the needle, simply posture.

Three Things

So what can we extrapolate from what is occurring “across the pond” and what we are facing here in the U.S.?

Somewhat like the so-called elitists Parisians, our corporate leaders need to embrace their significant role in this process. I have mentioned the entanglement of departments within many companies in previous posts, all seemingly sharing the same core values, identical zero waste goals and at the same time, a focus on profitability. And yet, when it comes to waste, logistics doesn’t comprehend the efforts (or lack thereof) of the facilities team, merchandising’s steely-eyed focus on sales seems to trump all other conversations while the operations folks attempt to quantify the efforts of the company as whole.

Local governments are equally bogged down in their own convoluted processes. The “elected” participants in the effort attempt to walk a fine line between the seemingly harsh realities of doing substantial good and the harsher realities of how those efforts will impact their reelection have left the conversation open, a seemingly perpetual grey zone of indecision. In the meantime, armies of dedicated civil servants navigate the ironies of softly written rules and regulations – and do the best they can.

Meanwhile, your customers are caught in-between. They are the well-meaning and far-less vocal yellow vests of our national recycling efforts – and they are waiting.

  1. We cannot look to our government to solve this issue. The current administration in Washington will not to come to our assistance. Local governments are reluctant to embrace innovation and by neglecting those inspired solutions, allow the issue to continue unresolved. It is a reelection issue and they will continue to do as much as they are capable of doing because…
  2. Business leaders do not see the profit in the waste reduction effort. This is an unfortunate result of the inability of interdepartmental cooperation and that falls squarely on those in charge. They could insist on manufacturers they do business with to include more post consumer recyclable plastics in the products they procure or resell (the inclusion of 20% would shift the whole dynamic considerably), use their logistics operations to reduce carbon while at the same time, backhauling important recyclable materials such as organics, cardboard, paper and plastic. And lastly, explain to their shareholders (and stakeholders) that this may initially impact profits but will, in the long-term, have a more positive impact on the future of the business, where their business operates and the future viability of the communities in which they operate.
  3. Or both local governments and companies could defer the effort to businesses that see the solution as a micro effort, somewhat similar to how some banks in third world countries finance micro-entrepreneurs. This will cost money. The grant processes for this type enterprises needs to be simplified and made more available to small and enterprising innovation. I have personally begun conversations with some local partners on how that should look and will keep you apprised as the idea develops. Keep in mind, the credit for this option will fall to the innovators when in fact, your company could have been the environmental hero.

Sure, I can consult within your business on how you can make a difference in your community, do it profitably and put your company in a positive public relations light beyond the promises your business may have made (in your sustainability documents). This is the best option. This is the leadership option. This is the right thing to do in the world you also live.

Let’s talk about your options.  I can help you with a smart rollout and effective messaging.

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