Let’s start with some bad news. The U.S. generates close to 500 billion pounds of garbage each year, which is trucked to one of 10,000 landfills across the country. On a global scale, the World Wildlife Fund reports that since the 1970s, several factors, including food production and habitat loss, have contributed to depleting 30 percent of global resources and nearly 60 percent of animal populations.
The numbers might seem bleak, but there’s actually a lot we can do to create a positive impact. Working to become a zero waste company is just one of the ways Thrive Market is making a difference in the environment and encouraging our members to do the same.
Zero waste, defined
The term “zero waste” is a bit misleading. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s WasteWise program, “zero waste” means 90 or 91 percent of material that comes into a facility must leave it in a sustainable way. Therefore, nine or 10 percent can go to a landfill.
At Thrive Market, we’re making big strides towards achieving zero waste by diverting more than 90 percent of waste to a recycling stream or reusing it in some way. It’s the first step in our journey to raise the bar on what it means to be an environmentally responsible company.
To learn more, meet John Winkels, Thrive’s Senior Vice President of Supply Chain. In this conversation, he breaks down what’s working, where we can grow, and the surprising employee program that’s making team members a little extra competitive.
Thrive Market (Thrive): What are some of the inherent challenges in becoming a zero waste company?
John Winkels (JW): Doing it correctly requires that the hundreds of people in our fulfillment centers are consistently following our waste policies. For example, if someone puts cardboard into the cardboard compactor and someone else puts it in the trash, we’ll never get there. We do lots of training and put out multiple color-coded containers for categories like cardboard, plastics, wood scraps, things like that. We even do routine dumpster dives to see what’s going out in the trash!
But when we talk about zero waste in the fulfillment centers, it’s something all Thrivers can get behind and be proud of. It’s our team on the floor that makes this all possible. They’re excited, and we have great adoption rates; it’s not something we have to force.
TM: How often do you self-audit and evaluate how we’re doing?
JW: We haven’t set that process up formally yet, but I mentioned dumpster diving, which we do, and managers walk the buildings daily to look in the containers. Remotely, we can study invoices from recycling companies and waste disposal companies, and just check the weight—90 percent of it should be in the recycling category.
“Ultimately, sustainability is about efficiency.”
TM: Why are these initiatives important for both companies and the environment?
JW: Two reasons: Landfill space and toxic runoff are critical issues. Plastics, in particular, go into landfills and don’t come out, so finding a home for plastics is one of the most important things we can do. In theory, paper will biodegrade in a landfill, but it’s much better to turn it into a new box so that we don’t have to cut down trees to make new ones.
Ultimately, sustainability is about efficiency. When done well and at scale, costs go down. We get money for what we recycle, like plastic or cardboard, and we like to put that money back into running a cheaper operation so we can have lower prices for our members. From an environmental standpoint, it’s bad land use to throw things into a hole in the ground, and we’re running out of places to do that. It creates toxic soup that runs into groundwater.
Personally, I think it’s important because it’s being a good steward of the environment and it’s part of our mission at Thrive to do that. We don’t do this to have a plaque to put on the wall. It’s about making our business run as efficiently as possible and to generate revenue from that waste stream rather than have it be an expense. I can either pay the waste disposal company to take it away, or I can get money back from it.
TM: What are the biggest ways Thrive Market has worked to reduce its waste in the past year?
JW: Out of the gate, we’ve tried to recycle as much cardboard as possible. We used to give it away, but now we have compactors to help us compress the cardboard, and every day two tons of it goes into a recycler instead of a landfill.
We’ve done the same with plastics. This material can come in from our suppliers, or is wrapped around products. It all goes into a bale for recycling. Plastic is actually the most valuable commodity we have—it’s effectively solid oil and gets made into other plastic products.
TM: Let’s talk packaging! What role does it play for members, and what changes has Thrive made to be more eco-friendly?
JW: Our members are really concerned about the impact their ordering has on the environment. We often get questions in the member services department asking about the recycled content in our products or how to recycle materials at home. Members also express concern about the amount of packaging in their shipments.
We teach our packers to be efficient—almost like creating a game of Tetris inside your box— and we’ve reduced the amount of packaging by about half. During the packing process we generate some waste, and it’s important that all of our packing materials can go into our zero waste program. All the paper packaging material—even the tape is made out of paper—can go into our recycling streams. We want to empower members to be zero waste at home, too.
TM: What about those green bags some of the products come in?
JW: In the beginning we didn’t have bags, and then they were virgin plastic—made of nontoxic, flexible material—but didn’t work very well. The packaging bags we use now are green, so it indicates there’s some recycled content in it. It’s a #2 HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) bag, so you can put it in your curbside recycling—check with your city for additional policies— and we also added a ziploc, so members can reuse it at home.
“There are a lot of organizations like us. When we all embrace zero waste, it forces industry change.”
TM: What’s next, and where do we still have room to grow?
JW: We have food waste from Thrive’s employee in-office lunch program and from lunches brought in by employees so we’ll need to compost that and use it on our property to help fertilize the landscaping. One thing we’ve started recently is a weekly lottery for employees so they can take home wood scraps for firewood. Both of our facilities in Nevada and Indiana have very cold winters so it’s a really popular program.
Another cool thing is finding a solution for the waxy paper backing that comes on shipping labels. We ship up to 7,000 boxes a day, and we’re working with UPS to create a system to get that material back to the company so they can generate new labels.
TM: That’s a great example of how one change can have a ripple effect.
JW: There are a lot of organizations like us. When we all embrace zero waste, it forces industry change. We can’t make that happen all by ourselves, but we can participate in a community of companies that are like-minded and want to reduce their environmental impact.