Moving From Wasteful to Zero Waste

Denise Coogan generates more trash at home each week than her entire office has generated in a dozen years. And her office isn’t some eco-friendly coffee shop or organic farm. Instead, it’s Subaru’s 3.8-million-square-foot assembly plant in Lafayette, Ind. The plant and its 3,700 workers produce 300,000 vehicles a year but virtually no waste. In fact, the plant in 2004 became the first manufacturing plant in the United States to reach Zero Landfill status.

As you might expect, Zero Landfill facilities don’t send any waste to landfills. The concept is related to the more restrictive Zero Waste status, but allows for incineration of waste (which many sustainability proponents decry as being just as bad). For example, Subaru sends a small amount of waste to Covanta Energy Services in Indianapolis, where it is burned to generate electricity.

Not surprisingly, attaining Zero Landfill or Zero Waste status requires a lot more than getting rid of Styrofoam cups in the breakroom. It took Subaru two years—and plenty of creativity—to achieve its goal. Coogan (the plant’s manager of safety and environmental compliance) and her team first did a lot of dumpster diving to figure out just what they were throwing away, then went item by item to develop diversion plans. They found buyers for scrap steel, cardboard, and other materials and turned cafeteria waste into compost workers could take home for their gardens.

They also developed ways to make items last longer. Styrofoam trays that hold sparkplugs are now shipped back to Japan for reuse 20 or more times, and workers in the body shop invented a device for sharpening copper welding tips. “We’ve gone from buying several thousand copper tips a month to buying a few hundred a month,” Coogan said in a Subaru video, which you can see at

Extending the life of welding tips is just one way the Subaru plant has saved money by becoming a Zero Landfill facility. In fact, Coogan said the company has generated $10 million over five years—over and above the cost of the program. As she explained in the video, “Waste is a material that hasn’t found its use yet. You just have to find a use for it.”

That concept—that waste has value—is reflected in the Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition of Zero Waste: “Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient, and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal, or plant health.”

The Zero Waste Alliance has identified 10 business principles that demonstrate how Zero Waste can work (

  • Committing to the triple bottom line and reporting on sustainability efforts
  • Avoiding wasteful or toxic products and practices
  • Diverting more than 90 percent of solid waste from landfills
  • Promoting recycling, reuse, and reparability of products and packaging
  • Buying reused, recycled, and composted products
  • Preventing pollution and reducing waste
  • Finding the highest and best use for discarded products and packaging
  • Offering incentives to customers, workers, and suppliers to act sustainably
  • Selling no wasteful or toxic products
  • Using non-toxic production, reuse, and recycling processes

By following these principles, any office, factory, or Scout camp could help save the planet and perhaps save a few dollars along the way.