Zero Waste: The Basic Foundations of Organic Behavior

Most companies with a zero waste goal look at the problem of recycling as either logistical, financial or behavioral. This threefold approach often stops a project from achieving that goal and it is easy to understand why. Moving recyclable waste offsite depends on finding the right industry willing to take those materials. And then, coupled with the sometimes overwhelming and crippling costs of getting those items to the recyclers, those tasked with finding viable solutions often give-up. Logistics and money do play a role. While important, it is behavior that is the key to a successful program.

Once a company embraces the behavior that develops from the top down and inside out, the zero waste goal is not only attainable, it is financially beneficial to the business and often logistically less complicated. How is that possible?

Organic Material Recycling

Let’s focus on organic material recycling and more specifically, the behaviors needed to be successful in this type of endeavor. Not just because this type of recycling is near and dear to what I do best. Instead, it is because the same concepts needed for this type of successful undertaking can be extrapolated across every recycling effort.

And because organic material recycling is probably the easiest zero waste goal to achieve in terms of available technology and science and yet the most difficult to enact in terms of on-boarding the people needed to get the process in place. Those very people are often uninspired and not due to their lack of interest in this or any other kind of recycling. It is something else entirely. So what are the basic foundations of organic (recycling) behavior?

It Begins with Leadership Behaviors

And while there are many noted behavioral psychologists, many of whom I have cited as a financial writer over the last several decades, Robert Beno Cialdini, the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and at one time, a visiting professor of marketing, business and psychology at Stanford University, as well as at the University of California at Santa Cruz may have some insight into changing this behavior.

Professor Cialdini, now 73 has focused his work on the power of persuasion, more specifically on six basic principles as the core elements needed to change behaviors: Reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and finally, scarcity.

Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency

I have spent the last several posts suggesting that there is a communication issue for companies when it comes to achieving their zero waste goals. In a great many situations, the conversation has already begun. However those tasked with the effort often confront headwinds from the most unlikely sources: the executives who have proposed the initiative.

While there are numerous businesses that face difficult waste reduction and material recycling issues, many of which stem from a lack of resources for the successful elimination of this waste, and in some cases, processes that have yet to be developed, organic material recycling is not one of those processes. And while the industry is not yet mature, the path to removal of this wasted food (a term I prefer over food waste) comes in many different forms.

At the center of every recycling effort is reciprocity. Reciprocity or repayment as Professor Caldini suggests, is necessary to the process of changing this behavior. It is the comfort in knowing that your company is forward-thinking, caring about the world you live in. It recognizes the future compensation for activities engaged in the present.

And while the commitments are often proclaimed to the world, it is often done without a good methodology in place. In many companies, leadership doesn’t necessarily involve themselves in the “how”; however they may be guilty of veering off topic when it comes to freeing the necessary capital to achieve those processes. Those inconsistencies leave most good intentions unrealized.

So understanding that the real costs might be financial in nature, the actual payback might be something else entirely. Once a leader commits to the plan, the behavior changes. In other words, the options become worth exploring.

Social Proof, Authority

While the right-thing-to-do is often considered social proof enough to drive a recycling program, a sort of peer pressure that extends well beyond the individual at ground level upwards to the senior executives needs to be created. Few leaders are willing to take a leadership role that is longer-term. Admittedly, and from experience, recycling leadership is hard on every level. To this point: There is a truck ad currently circulating that suggests “if you aren’t in the lead, the view never changes.” Right or wrong, many leaders are comfortable with the current view.

Only leadership possesses the authority to move their business in the right direction. If they do not take an external leadership position in their recycling programs, even if effort that may not have tangible benefits in the short-term, every attempt will fall short in terms of internal successes.

Liking, Scarcity

These two behaviors suggest that leadership does have the ability to inspire. Unfortunately, inspirational leadership in too many instances falls squarely outside the norm. Your company  leadership may be saying one thing about zero waste and doing something quite the opposite. Derek Pangelinan of Derek Rey Consulting LLC suggests that as leaders, “You are always leading by example whether you choose to be or not.” Inspiration cannot be absent from the process. Leadership cannot be a rarity.

Closing the Loop

So let’s talk about about organic behavior as it relates to organic recycling. The intention to achieve a zero waste goal is often lost on a company’s inability to realize how the effort will do more for their profitability. In almost every industry with food as a major contributor to landfills in their operational regions, there are significant underlying financial incentives that are not always easy to explain to the leaders who set those waste reduction goals. It is a close-the-loop problem faced by too many sustainability managers across the country.

This is where we come in. Zero Waste Consultants has partnered with Alternative Organics to close that loop. If your business currently uses your own distribution center (and even if you do not), we should talk – at length – about how we can solve your company’s organic material recycling problems.

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