Acton Institute Powerblog

Reducing Waste is Good Stewardship

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This Wired News article looks at the practices of various companies committed to reducing manufacturing and industrial waste. Cutting waste makes good economic and environmental sense.

“Anything that’s waste is an inefficiency in the process, and inefficiency is lost dollars,” says Patricia Calkins, vice president for environment, health and safety at Xerox. A cost that is often overlooked is that associated with waste management. “Skyrocketing landfill costs during the late 1980s and early 1990s” helped push companies toward minimization of waste.

Carpetmaker Collins & Aikman, after initiating a carpet recycling program in its plant, reduced its costs for shipping waste to landfills, which “has saved the company an estimated $1 million. It has saved several million dollars more by reducing the amount of raw materials it buys.”

Of course, reducing inefficiencies at any point in the system reduces waste overall. This reality is behind what Hewlett-Packard’s change in “the design of its plastic molding tools, for example, to eliminate a lot of the plastic material that was used between parts as runners.”

“That was all scrap that just went to the floor,” says David Lear, HP’s vice president of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. “The biggest win is not recycling, but engineering the material out of your system so you don’t need to worry about landfilling it.”

The whole phenomena of waste reduction points to the dynamic compatibility of economic and environmental concerns and runs counter to conventional wisdom. Good stewardship of the environment need not be at odds with good economic stewardship.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • You can be sure when corporate PR is putting out such claims, it is mostly fiction.

    I can recall working at a major automotive company 15 years ago that touted cardboard recycling with PR, civic groups, etc. The cardboard was gathered, baled and trucked to a recycling facility.

    One day driving home from work, I noticed a huge bonfire in a field near my home. Looking closer, the boxes we paid to have recycled were being burnt en masse, by the so-called recycling company. Went on for about a year, till our management was convinced to quit “recycling”, as it was fouling up the air around my house.

    I don’t think our company was the only one guilty of this.


  • Um…the post wasn’t about recycling…which is indeed mostly politically-correct fiction that, even when it’s done, consumes more resources than it saves. It was about waste _reduction_.

    And given that waste costs manufacturers _twice_ (when they pay to purchase the feedstocks that go into making the wasted materials, and when they pay to have them hauled away to the landfill), it’s not hard to recognize that it’s in their own financial interest to reduce it.

  • Yes, I realize that it is about manufacturing processes (isn’t logistics just another part of the manufacturing process?)

    No corporation in its right mind tells its competitors how it reduces costs. My point is, that Corporate PR is just that, PR, not the industrial engineering department. Industrial Engineers have been working on waste reduction for 100 years before PR decided to state that they exist.

    My point is, in my experience, corporations do not give a whit about the truthfullness of their PR, for the sake of truth. Public Relations exists to make corporations appear more pleasant to consumers, investors and pressure groups. Any positive effect on costs or the environment is sheer coincidence.


  • Perhaps in this context, “recycling” as it is commonly understood (a government-underwritten third party activity), isn’t really applicable. The old “reduce, reuse, recycle,” model might illustrate the difference. I would think that what the carpetmaker is doing is more like “reusing” than “recycling.”

  • Well Jordan, I disagree.

    What the carpetmaker PR department is doing is PR. One should never interpret PR as an accurate representation of what goes on inside a company. They may have an industrial engineer working there, or ask employees to “reduce, reuse, etc” but I would not bank on it just because PR thought it was timely to release a story.


  • Well, sure, what the PR department is doing is PR, and rightly so. But the piece I quoted was an article, not a press release, although perhaps too often there is not enough of a distinction.

    And it’s good to have a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when convincing the public your company is “green” has its own economic benefits, which the article alludes to when it says, “Customers are steering companies toward greener business practices as well.” So appearances can be deceiving.

    Even so, *if* what the carpetmaker was talking about is actually going on, then it’s still probably more like reusing than recycling, traditionally understood.

  • More to the point, it’s credible because it doesn’t presume an altruistic motive. They’re not doing it to be “green”, they’re doing it to save money (and maybe get some good PR too). The fact that it’s environmentally better than waste is just a handy little side effect.