Waste not, want not: how projects can drive reductions in waste

I recently watched the first episode in a three-part series on waste produced by the government broadcaster in Australia. The War on Waste (check it out here) examining various aspects of waste and how Australian’s waste significant amounts of money and produce the fifth largest producer of municipal waste in the world, producing over 52 million tons per year.

800 million people are hungryIn Episode 1, the presenter explored how most Australian households throw away over 1500kg (3300 pounds) of food each year at a cost of over $3,500. But this pales into insignificance when the volume of waste on farms and in supermarkets is examined.

Globally, enough food is produced to feed the entire world population, so in effect, we should not have any hunger issues in the world. However, the reality is that 800 million people in the world are hungry and one-third the food produced (approximately 1.3 billion tons) is wasted, and often just goes to landfill. In the US alone over 50 percent of all food produced is wasted!

The show highlights the issue of the unrealistically high ‘cosmetic’ standards supermarkets have for fresh fruit and vegetables that result in tonnes of completely edible fresh produce with no blemishes being thrown away each day only because it is too long, too short, too straight, too bendy or too thick, and therefore not meeting the supermarkets exacting standards. One banana farmer commented that she throws away up to 40% of the pick each day, which is a staggering number when the farm ships over 30 million cases of bananas each year.

Check out this short film on waste


It isn’t just your fruits and vegetables!

But this issue isn’t confined to just fresh produce. In 2016 alone, Foodbank (www.foodbank.org.au) collected over 33 million kilograms (36,000 tons) of food from farmers, manufacturers, and retailers that were either out of specification, close to date code, has incorrect labeling or damaged packaging or is just simply excess stock or deleted lines. This food is collected and donated to schools and charities who prepare meals, food hampers and emergency parcels and in doing so, provides on average 166,000 meals a day, or 60 million meals a year.

Fortunately, this food is recovered and stopped from going into a landfill where it breaks down and generates methane gas, which as a greenhouse gas (GHG) produces more than 25 times more damage per cubic meter than CO2 and produces more GHGs than the airline sector worldwide.

So, what can projects and project management do about this?

Waste is an issue relates to the inefficient or ineffective use of resources. Whilst in projects we are not specifically dealing with food and food waste, it is more likely to relate to human resources or materials.

The P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management suggests that project managers minimize waste, rework and optimize the use of all available resources and ensure that waste is disposed of responsibly.

So how is this done? I will explain by way of an example.

A number of years ago I was engaged to manage a large IT infrastructure refresh project by an Australian government agency. The agency was responsible for environmental and biodiversity conservation legislation and so wanted to demonstrate leadership in reducing packaging and waste.

As part of the project, we specified in our procurement documents that the supplier was not to provide PCs or monitors in packaging that was non-recyclable or contained Styrofoam or plastic. Instead, they were required to provide equipment in recycled (or recyclable) cardboard.

The supplier who did the work and provided the equipment worked with a packaging company and the IT equipment supplier to deliver PCs and monitors in large, specially designed boxes with as many as 10 units per box. There was little to no damage despite the many hundreds of boxes and there was also no Styrofoam or plastic to dispose of. Estimates at the time suggest that this approach eliminated over 85 cubic meters (3000 cubic feet) of Styrofoam and over 120 kilograms (264 pounds) of plastic.

Somewhat surprisingly, we discovered that the shipping costs were also lower, as the volumetric size of the larger box was less than the 10 individual boxes that the PCs would have normally been packed in. As transportation costs are based on volume above a certain weight, with a reduced volume, the transport costs are lower.

As we discovered first hand, not only did this simple change reduce the amount of waste, but it also helped save money.

So how do you as a project manager make this change?

It’s really quite simple. By examining packaging, where waste might be produced in the products you develop, or the materials and products that use in the project you may quite easily find a more cost effective or better way to do things, and as you do we reduce waste and thus have less going to landfills.


See a related article in our SDG Series on clean water and sanitation

Michael Young

Michael is the GPM Vice President for Membership and Research. As a program and portfolio management consultant, he specializes in sustainability, working with C-level executives around the world to reduce risk, save money and improve their reputation. Over the past 20 years, he has lead the development of national and international standards in project, program, and portfolio management standards for ISO, IPMA, AIPM and PMI. He has authored over 50 articles, papers, book chapters and edited books and my work has been featured in Business Review Weekly, Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. Michael has also been recognized as a winner of the Australian Business Awards in innovation, sustainability and project management, the Telstra Business Awards, Project Management Achievement Awards and the awards.

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