Waste minimization has long been accepted as an important element in corporate environmental management. But when we think about waste reduction, we tend to think too small, only considering waste as the leftovers and obvious excesses of manufacturing. Even when we talk about zero waste facilities, we’re simply referring to instances where no scrap is going to a landfill. We rarely think expansively about what waste really is or about the ways it can help us rethink the very nature of our businesses. There’s so much more potential for eliminating waste. What is waste? It’s easy to categorize waste as anything that costs money to be carted “away” (wherever that is), but it’s much more complicated. Wikipedia describes waste as "unwanted or useless materials." Wastes exist in solid (refuse and particulates), liquid (spills and effluent), and gas (emissions) forms or as heat. We recognize unnecessary materials or unused product as waste, but what about wanted and useful products that generate unintended and unrecognized byproducts? Or what about the "unwanted or useless materials" discarded as waste that in fact could serve as a resource input for another business? What about the resources being transformed in our economy to no useful end?

Research included in Daniel Goleman’s latest book, Ecological Intelligence, revealed that “4,000-6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers each year, threatening to turn about 10 percent of coral reefs into bleached skeletons.” Doesn’t all of that washed off product constitute waste? It didn’t actually serve a function (to reduce sun damage) and it did have serious collateral effects when it ended up where it shouldn’t be. How many products do we use daily whose “wastes” go unrecognized? How much potential is there to improve both resource performance and business performance if we think of waste more comprehensively?

Waste or pollution is nothing more than lost resources, or resources we’ve brought into the industrial economy and converted to another form, yet failed to derive any benefit from. Waste includes all the resources used by a company and its suppliers that are not essential for delivering customer value.

When you look at waste and resources the same, it’s easy to see that all “waste” has value. More companies are examining all the resources they handle and figuring out how to derive more value from them. Storm Brewery, for example, is growing mushrooms in “used-up” grain. Many organizations, like NYC Wastematch and Wastechange are playing matchmaker between companies with “waste” and companies looking for materials. Many more are converting waste to energy.

A lot more potential remains. Each day we find innovative examples of companies redesigning products to use fewer materials in the first place, whether electronic screens as thin as a coat of paint, concentrated laundry detergent pods, or digital postage stamps. These are the first steps toward the future of products – near-weightless, invisible delivery of value.