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Governments could learn from business in reducing waste
[Article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Friday, December 22, 2000.]
by Jed Goldberg

While governments engage in vague, seemingly endless and completely fruitless discussions on what to do about climate change, progressive industries are quietly leading the way to a cleaner environment.

The breakdown of the climate change meetings in Ottawa and the failure of the recent meetings in The Hague are an indication that national and state governments are far too conflicted and consensus-driven. It is the focused agendas of private enterprises and local governments that are having a meaningful impact in reducing air emissions and waste.

Private and public sector initiatives have realized economic benefit and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating waste and conserving resources and energy -- being "mean and clean." Decreases in energy demand and waste disposal as well as increases in carbon storage lead to climate change mitigation. Energy demands through resource extraction, processing, manufacturing, transportation and product use contribute carbon-based greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, with additional emissions originating from garbage incineration and landfilling.

While the old "dirty" engines of our economy have put national governments in the position of being unable to ratify meaningful national policies or even to comply with previous emissions reduction agreements, corporations such as Xerox, Sony and Bell are leading the way.

"Clean, mean and green" companies and local governments form the core of a new network called Target Zero Canada, which promotes zero-waste solutions designed to make a significant difference in mitigating climate change. These organizations are part of a new consensus, which regards waste as a product of inefficiency, and environmental performance as a measure of economic vitality.

Zero waste makes good economic sense. Ontario's Beer Store, for example, has incorporated this philosophy into its business model. Its system -- represented by 80-per-cent standard refillable glass bottles -- has a 98-per-cent bottle return rate, and 97.6 per cent of all packaging is diverted from landfill. The standard refillable bottle is reused 15 to 20 times and uses 94 per cent fewer bottles than if they were in one-way containers, saving the brewers about $160-million in packaging costs annually.

Interface Flooring Systems -- the largest modular carpet manufacturer in the world -- has a program that takes back products after their useful life for reuse or recycling. By addressing the needs of the environment in its industrial production, Interface has decreased costs, improved profit, and dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The Belleville, Ont., plant has reduced energy consumption by more than 70 per cent, waste to landfill by 90 per cent and water consumption by 97.5 per cent each month. Worldwide, Interface has saved $90-million (U.S.) over the past five years.

Edmonton's 650,000 residents participated in establishing its Waste Management Strategic Plan in 1994. The plan includes integrated curbside recycling, centralized municipal composting and a deposit-return depot system for beverage containers. As a result, Edmonton has achieved a 70-per-cent solid waste diversion rate -- the highest in Canada.

Canadians are determined to see the growth of these kinds of initiatives and stand strongly in support of environmental issues. A recent Ontario public opinion survey shows that the environment, along with education, ranks second only to health issues in terms of importance. And more than 75 per cent of Ontarians would be willing to demonstrate their commitment to the environment by paying more if companies took measures to eliminate waste associated with their products.

Efficiency and elimination are guiding principals of zero waste -- an approach that uniquely drives economic growth and prosperity while facilitating climate change mitigation.

The concept is "zero," but the benefits are innumerable. Jed Goldberg is the president of Earth Day Canada, of which Target Zero Canada is a program.

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