Though compressed to a fraction of their original size, a small stack of foam logs at the ProFish warehouse in he District of Columbia still smelled of their original purpose: foam containers for schlepping seafood.
That reek was one of the reasons it took years to find a second home — other than the landfill — for the hundreds of used, polystyrene boxes that bring fish and shellfish to the city’s largest seafood distributor each week.
But, with the help of a new in-house compactor that can handle soggy material, and a new recycling contractor, ProFish has in recent months been able to divert 99.5 percent of its waste to other uses. That’s not quite zero waste, but it’s close.
“When you say zero waste, almost no other company has the hurdles that a fish company has,” the company’s president, Greg Casten, said.
Nationwide, more industries and municipalities are starting to embrace “zero waste.” But that usually doesn’t mean they’re totally eliminating refuse. Experts say the phrase is, first and foremost, aspirational, and an entity’s commitment to reducing refuse rarely means they throw nothing away.
Zero waste is “a goal…where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use,” according to the Zero Waste International Alliance, an advocacy group. Environmentally, reducing the volume of waste extends the life of landfills and curbs the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, along with the polluted water that can leach from such sites.
The term has become popular in Europe and on the West Coast of the United States, where a handful of cities set zero waste goals in the mid-2000s. Most of those plans aim for “close to zero” by 2030 or 2040, which leaves 10–20 percent of their waste still going to landfills.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the District of Columbia set a goal to divert 80 percent of its waste from landfills by 2032 and has taken steps toward it by requiring retailers to charge for plastic bags and by banning polystyrene use in food service.
“Zero waste is a great goal,” said Nancee Lyons, spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Public Works, which manages the city’s waste. “Will zero percent be achievable? Probably not. But if you go for zero percent, you’ll get as low as possible.”
Other Bay area jurisdictions are pushing to divert waste from landfills, if not reduce it altogether. In 2014, Maryland drafted a 25-year plan to divert 85 percent of residents’ waste and to double the state’s already high recycling rate to 80 percent. In Virginia, Arlington County resolved last year to divert 90 percent of its refuse by 2038, largely by making it easier for residents and businesses to recycle and compost.
There’s a long way to go to achieve even those goals. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled just 34 percent of their waste — a far cry from zero — according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For ProFish, shooting for zero waste dovetailed with the seafood company’s efforts to source sustainable products, Casten said, but he had no idea how hard it would be to achieve. Company executives started throwing around the term a decade ago, he said, “and we’d get one piece done and then realize how much more we had to do.”
“The genesis for this all was really the runoff that was going to the river and how that was hurting, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay,” Casten said.
The company warehouse sits less than two miles from the Anacostia River, where crews used to hose the fishy residue out of the building into the streets. A 12-cubic-yard dumpster outside had to be emptied around 15 times a day to get rid of fish carcasses and all of the equally fragrant foam and cardboard boxes that transported products.
“Seafood is a dirty business,” said John Rorapaugh, ProFish’s director of sustainability, who has been working to change that image.
The company recently opened a new smokehouse, market and restaurant across the street from its warehouse in the District’s Ivy City neighborhood. It also renovated the facilities to capture runoff from hosing down the fishy floors.
The sheer cost of trash disposal gave ProFish another reason to look for ways to reduce its waste stream. The filets that the company’s mostly restaurant clients order account for just 30 percent of the whole fish that come in the door. The 35,000 pounds a week of heads, bones and extra flesh were considered waste until a decade ago, when ProFish started selling the excess as a protein source to a pet food company.
The company switched to re-usable containers for some outgoing shipments of its products, and did what it could to recycle. But there was no easy reuse for the foam shipping containers that brought 100,000 pounds of salmon a week from the West Coast, or for the wax-coated cardboard boxes that convey other seafood.
“We can control what we send out, but that packaging comes to us,” Rorapaugh said. Polystyrene, he added, “was the evil that every seafood company just has to put in the landfill.”
So ProFish decided to get into the foam crushing business. The company spent $80,000 last year on a compactor that can crush the soggy, fishy plastic into dense logs. It also found a recycling company in Rockville, MD, that can turn that polystyrene into door frames, car bumpers and other items and can melt the wax off coated cardboard boxes before recycling them.
Now, the only trash generated at the company’s warehouse are the labels sliced off of boxes, other small tags and plastic liners with fish residue. Those are all compressed into smaller bundles. Casten said he would still like to find some way to recycle or reuse the bags.
Meanwhile, the company president said he’s looking for a way to boost the company’s bottom line with its “zero waste” drive.
The next step? Turning that fish waste into plant fertilizer, a byproduct that could make the company far more money than pet food and provide a nutrient-rich alternative for local farmers. ProFish has been working with University of Maryland researchers for the last five years and recently secured a patent on the process.
“In 10 years, we’ll be a bigger fertilizer company than anything else,” Rorapaugh predicted.
The company hasn’t marketed its zero waste efforts much yet, the sustainability director said, because the term is still nebulous to customers. But other businesses are jumping on the zero-waste bandwagon, and more people in the Bay region are being introduced to the concept at events or via signs at their local grocery store.
Wegmans Food Markets, for instance, has launched a pilot project at one of its stores in New York to eventually divert 80 percent of its waste from landfills. The grocery chain plans to apply the lessons from that trial to all of its stores, including those in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland.
The store outside of Rochester, NY, already has increased its waste diversion rate from 63 to 72 percent since the pilot began, said Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans’ sustainability manager.
Still, there’s a risk the public may regard “zero waste” as an empty marketing claim if it’s not backed up with meaningful actions.
Many Wegmans stores, for instance, already feature solar-powered, compacting trash bins, emblazoned with the incongruous slogan: “Zero waste is our goal.” While compacting the trash on site saves about 2,000 plastic trash bags per machine per year, according to the company, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount going to a landfill.
“There’s been a bit of confusion about those, because it’s a trash bin that says zero waste,” Wadsworth acknowledged. “We’re changing the language on that.”