Disposing of packaging and other municipal solid waste has undergone significant changes over the past 30 years as consumers and businesses look for ways to lessen their impact on the environment.

In 2010, containers and packaging made up the largest portion of municipal solid waste in landfills — 30 percent or 76 million tons of waste, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Corrugated boxes ranked among items with the highest rate of recycling at 85 percent.

Recycling, composting and energy recovery through combustion have contributed to declines in municipal waste streams flowing into landfills, according to the EPA. The total amount of waste going to landfills declined by approximately 10 million tons to 135.5 million tons in 2010 from 145.3 million tons, according to the EPA. In turn, the number of landfills in the United States has steadily decreased, although the size of landfills has climbed, EPA says.

Diving in

Landfill-free practices can help reduce the environmental impact of commercial and institutional entities by redirecting waste streams into recycling, composting and/or combustion. Large manufacturers, such as General Motors and DuPont, have developed landfill-free sites. Iowa-based West Liberty Foods LLC is unique because it is rare for food processors to achieve landfill-free status and because West Liberty’s landfill-free status is verified through a third-party audit. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International conducts the audits for West Liberty Foods. It is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides standards development, product certification, auditing, education and risk management for public health and the environment.

West Liberty Foods became part of the movement after company president Ed Garrett attended a presentation about landfill-free initiatives. The company has three locations: its headquarters in West Liberty, Iowa, and facilities in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and Tremonton, Utah. The Tremonton and Mount Pleasant sites have landfill-free status and the West Liberty facility is expected to come online sometime in December.

In order for a company to be considered landfill-free, the total waste that potentially ends up in a landfill must be 1 percent or less of a company’s total waste stream, with diversion of the balance of total waste going through recycling, composting and/or waste-to-energy schemes.

“We are very low in that percentage,” says Michele Boney, environmental officer who is based in the company’s headquarters. “We do have a little bit that we claim is going back into the landfill, but it’s actually used for an alternative purpose in the landfill. In our Utah facility, some of our waste is sent to an incinerator. The incinerator uses that as power, generates steam, sends it to a nearby Air Force base and that Air Force base utilizes the steam in some of their equipment instead of natural gas.”

The ash that is left over is used as landfill cover, Boney says.

The first step toward landfill-free status involves going into the landfill and looking through the trash, Boney says.

“It wasn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is,” she says. “Let’s face it – you are in this mountain of trash, but we could see our impact on the landfill by the colors of our plastics. We have colored plastic and so we could really see what our impact truly was and so we’re diverting 5 million lbs. of trash from two plants and two different landfills a year.

“When we went back out and looked at the landfills afterward, I could see we were making an impact on that landfill,” Boney adds.

Co-packer challenge

Initially, packaging didn’t play a large role in the company’s efforts to achieve landfill-free status. But, it is one part of a bigger picture.

“As a co-packer, we need to provide packaging options to our customers,” says Gerald Lessard, vice president and COO of the company. “It’s truly their decision, at the end of the day, on what type of package they would like their product to be produced in.

“The real challenge, operationally as an organization, is to reduce the waste that packaging generates and reduce the material variance,” Lessard adds. “But whatever configuration the customer chooses, our objective is to reduce waste around that configuration.”

One way the company accomplished reducing waste was the peelable/re-sealable package, which uses 25 percent less plastic compared to lunch meat tubs. WLF also invests in fact-finding missions, which send representatives around the world in search of packaging innovations.

“A lot of us travel internationally to be able see what trends are in various parts of the world, and be able to introduce those domestically or at least have that as an option,” Lessard says.

“Peelable/re-sealable technology is an example of that,” he says. “It was used quite extensively throughout Europe. It wasn’t something that was happening here domestically. But when the opportunity presented itself…we were able to advance that technology very quickly because we were aware that technology existed.”

The company’s current focus is on taking waste generated through the manufacturing process — trim from a package or non-barrier plastics — and diverting it from the landfill. In the near future, core teams at WLF will research ways packaging will play a role in maintaining landfill-free status.

“Now, we want to review why we have so much waste that we have to recycle, incinerate or compost,” Boney says. “I think packaging will play a big part in that.

“We’re looking at lifecycle analysis of our products and packaging will play a big part there, too. We’ll be looking at how we can reduce a box, make it fit into a trailer [and] get more product onto a trailer using a different size of a box or a bigger box,” she says.

A natural progression

WLF is an ISO 14001-certified facility, which means it must adhere to environmental management standards developed by the International Standardization Organization. Each year, the company must demonstrate continuing progress toward reducing consumables it uses in order to maintain its certification. Pursuing landfill-free status was a natural progression from the ISO 14001 certification, Lessard says.

“The bottom line is that each and every operating day we have our facilities are not disposing waste in a landfill,” he says. “Not only have we diverted waste from the landfill, but throughout this whole process we have been able to increase the amount of recycling that our facilities have always done. We’ve just taken that to another level.

“Consequently, our impact on the environment has been significantly reduced not only because we’re not going to the landfill, but we’ve also been able to increase the amount of recyclables in our waste stream,” he adds.

The company was able to reallocate existing resources and refocus them on landfill-free objectives. West Liberty already had established “core teams” of employees charged with reducing the company’s consumables in accordance with ISO 14001 requirements. When issued the challenge to transition the company to landfill-free status, the infrastructure was already in place to tackle the job.

The company also reached out to recycling and composting vendors and to a cement kiln in Iowa, Boney says. Representatives of those vendors joined Boney and others from the company in the landfill dive. Trash generated at the company was spread out, and the West Liberty team sorted through the pile with the vendors. Boney says that most of the company’s waste could be recycled, composted or sent to the kiln.

“We had composting waste streams,” she says. “Paper towels that we use in our facilities go to composting. We have cardboard, which is recycled. We have hard plastics in our cafeterias that are recyclable. Whether that is bottles of water, milk bottles – things like that are recycled.”

Customer support

West Liberty Foods’ customers will have a major influence on how the company proceeds with the landfill-free initiative because the customers decide the type of packaging they want. But the company has received kudos from customers who are curious about achieving landfill-free status or working with other vendors who also are landfill-free.

Lessard says other companies in the food industry and from other industries contacted the company to learn more about the approach that West Liberty took to gain landfill-free status. Boney says some West Liberty customers have said they would like to see other vendors achieve landfill-free status. Boney and others at the company are willing to share ideas and information.

“I tell them they need to do the basics,” she says. “They need to get out there with their recycling companies, with their composting facilities and cement kilns if they have one available. Get down to the landfill, have them pull it out and just see what’s in there.

“I think they will be amazed that most of those companies can take everything they’re generating,” she adds.

Doing the right thing

It took West Liberty nine months to achieve landfill-free status at two of its facilities. And while it’s still early in the process, company leaders believe the benefits of the program will far outweigh the costs.

“It’s challenging to fully understand the economics of this,” Lessard says. “As we get further into this, it will be cost-neutral for us. Even if it does cost us a little bit more, it’s still the right thing to do.

“There are very few opportunities to make a sustainable change for future generations,” he concludes.