What is Waste Minimization?

A couple of weeks ago we did a post on how the government is addressing waste minimization. Here we’ll talk more about what waste minimization is. According to the EPA, “Waste Minimization refers to the use of source reduction and/or environmentally sound recycling methods prior to energy recovery, treatment, or disposal of wastes.” Ergo, treatment of a wastestream does not constitute waste minimization. The EPA takes this further by clarifying that “compacting, neutralizing, diluting, and incineration are not typically considered waste minimization practices.” So in the hierarchy of materials management source reduction and recycling come before energy recovery, treatment, or disposal.

What is Source Reduction?

Source reduction (which is also known as pollution prevention or P2) is a practice that reduces or eliminates the creation of wastes at the source. Additionally, source reduction “refers to any practice that reduces the use of hazardous materials in production processes.” The EPA lists the following examples of source reduction:

  • “Early retirement of equipment such as mercury-containing devices like switches and thermostats;
  • Reformulating or redesigning products, such as creating new PVC compounds without using lead;
  • Using less toxic feedstocks, such as switching to the use of lead-free solder in manufacturing;
  • Improving work practices, such as reorganizing paint batches in order to reduce cleaning operations.”

How is Recycling Utilized?

While most of us know about recycling from a personal standpoint we probably still can learn about recycling at the manufacturing level. In most cases recycling is used when source reduction is not seen as practical economically. In the manufacturing process, “Recycling includes the reuse or recovery of in-process materials or materials generated as by-products that can be processed further on-site or sent offsite to reclaim value. Recycling is a broad term that encompasses the reuse of materials in original or changed forms rather than discarding them as wastes. Recycling can also be thought of as the collection and reprocessing of a resource so it can be used again, though not necessarily for its original purpose.” The EPA provides a few examples of the types of recycling that can be used for waste minimization:

  • “Direct use/reuse of a waste in a process to make a product, such as reusing a purge product used to clean paint lines rather than disposing of it by incineration.
  • Processing the waste to recover or regenerate a usable product, such as collecting vapor from dry cleaning operations, turning it back into liquid, and reusing the liquid to clean more clothes.
  • Using/reusing waste as a substitute for a commercial product. When mercury is recycled from old equipment like switches, it can be used in new products that still require mercury, such as fluorescent bulbs. Recycling of mercury has been so successful that there is now enough recycled mercury in the U.S. that manufacturers do not need to use new mercury from mines.”

How can Waste Minimization help companies? 

Aside from being good for the environment, waste minimization can help companies on an economic sense by eliminating wasted materials, improving production efficiency, and improving product quality. Additionally, the EPA states that “reducing waste generation through waste minimization has helped some companies change their RCRA regulatory status from large quantity generator (1000 or more kilograms of hazardous waste generated per month) to small quantity generator (between 100 and 1000 kg of hazardous waste generated per month), or to conditionally exempt small quantity generator (up to 100 kg of hazardous waste generated per month). Some have managed to eliminate the generation of hazardous waste and avoid RCRA regulatory requirements altogether.”

What do you think about waste minimization? Does your company have plans and processes in place to achieve waste minimization goals? Have you seen a good ROI on your efforts?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

Quoted and cited information (unless otherwise noted) for this blog post was gathered from the EPA FAQ Page on Waste Minimization. As always, this blog post is not intended to be comprehensive and it is always best to check with the EPA and local government for full, up-to-date, rules and regulations.


How is the EPA Addressing Waste Minimization?

According to the EPA, “The National Waste Minimization Program supports efforts that promote a more sustainable society, reduce the amounts of waste generated, and lower the toxicity and persistence of wastes that are generated.”[1]  They are working to do this in a few different ways. Firstly, the EPA has a list of 31 “priority chemicals” that they are working to reduce. They are doing this by identifying where these chemicals are found in “our nation’s products and wastes [and] finding ways to eliminate or substantially reduce their use in production. If these chemicals cannot easily be eliminated or reduced at the source, [they] focus on recovering or recycling them.”[2]

In addition to working to eliminate the priority chemicals, the EPA has four major tools and projects they are supporting that help with waste minimization. These four main tools are lean manufacturing, energy recovery, environmental management systems (EMS), and green chemistry. Each of these is explained in more detail below.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

According to the EPA, “Lean manufacturing is a business model and collection of tactical methods that emphasize eliminating non-value added activities (waste) while delivering quality products on time at least cost with greater efficiency.” Engaging in lean manufacturing allows companies to “create a culture of continuous improvement, employee empowerment, and waste minimization.” What this means is that companies who support and implement lean manufacturing initiatives see benefits outside of the scope you might expect. [3]

What is Energy Recovery?

Energy recovery is done through a process called gasification. According to the EPA, “gasification converts carbon-containing materials, under high temperature and pressure, into synthesis gas… or syngas… Syngas can be used as a fuel to generate electricity or as a basic chemical building block for use in the petrochemical and refining industries. Syngas generally has a heating value that is approximately two-thirds that of natural gas and, when burned as fuel, produces emissions that are similar to natural gas. In the petroleum refining industry alone, about seven to ten million tons of hazardous byproducts containing carbon, currently managed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), could be converted into useable fuel or chemicals using gasification methods.” [4]

What are Environmental Management Systems?

The EPA defines Environmental Management Systems (EMS) as “a set of processes and practices that enable an organization to systematically assess and manage its environmental “footprint” – the environmental impact associated with its activities, products, and services.” Environmental management systems are variable in scope and practice but all have rather similar goals; to improve environmental performance by providing a company with the tools they need to manage their environmental activities and impacts in the most beneficial and cost effective manner.

The EPA lists several benefits of EMS including:

  • Helping to comply with regulatory responsibilities and providing a way to address non-regulated environmental aspects like energy use and the conservation of resources;
  • Facilitating the assessment of risks and liabilities;
  • Increasing operating efficiency by creating standard operating procedures;
  • Increasing the environmental awareness of employees;
  • Potential for environmental and financial benefits; and
  • Providing a competitive edge over competitors not using EMS. [5]

What is Green Chemistry?

The final of the four primary tools being used by the EPA for waste minimization is green chemistry. The EPA defines green chemistry as, “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances.” Green chemistry prevents pollution at the molecular level and applies to all areas of chemistry. The result is “source reduction” because it actually prevents the generation of pollution. It also “reduces the negative impacts of chemical products and processes on human health and the environment, lessens and sometimes eliminates hazard from existing products and processes, [and] designs chemical products and processes to reduce their intrinsic hazards.” [6] We will talk more about Green Chemistry in a future post.