In the heart of Brooklyn, well known online retailer Etsy has made how it handles waste at its headquarters one of its crowning achievements. When the firm announced the initiative in 2017, it didn’t make flowery statements about the plethora of amenities its new headquarters had or make grandiose statements about how its space represents the future of the office. Instead, the company described in detail how it managed to avoid sending the vast majority of waste created during the building’s construction to the landfill and how it would painstakingly work to produce very little waste in the day-to-day operations.
Etsy’s headquarters occupies a 200,000-square-foot space in a nine-story building constructed in 1924. The property is a former warehouse building in Brooklyn’s industrial-turned-chic DUMBO neighborhood and is a shining example of an office designed to Zero Waste standards. Along with its Brooklyn HQ, Etsy pledged to make its operations zero waste globally by 2020. Since its debut 6 years ago, the Brooklyn office has been certified as a Zero Waste Facility at the Platinum level and has achieved Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, one of the most rigorous green building certifications in the world. Unlike other standards, the certification, administered by the International Living Future Institute, evaluates performance in seven different categories, including health and happiness and impact on the local community. By achieving the Petal standard, Etsy’s office was able to complete three of the seven performance measures. During the building’s construction, more than 90 percent of the waste created was diverted from landfills and instead sent to nearby building projects through a partnership with a local nonprofit.
The vision for zero waste started before the design of the new office began. Company leaders identified more than 750 furniture pieces, food service equipment, and art commissions to salvage and reuse. More than 1,150 linear feet of reclaimed wood from water towers and nearly a dozen industrial doors were salvaged and included in the office as a way to honor the building’s legacy as a printing and publishing house. Finishes in the office included salvaged pieces as well, like reclaimed local wood scaffolding accents in pantry areas and coat closets throughout the headquarters. “Actively working to consume less and divert more can actually be good for business,” Devon Leahy, Etsy’s Director of Sustainability & Social Innovation, wrote in the company’s Zero Waste announcement. “We believe that our efforts to minimize our environmental impact can have a favorable impact on our operating costs in the long term, so this commitment is both good for the planet and for our bottom line.”
The Zero Waste concept first began in the early 1980s but has caught fire in recent years in the building sector, driven by stricter legislation around carbon emissions, more companies committing to environmentally-conscious operations, and tenants’ desire to live and work in buildings that have green features. Essentially, Zero Waste is about creating a circular economy, where more than 90 percent of things generated post-consumer avoid going to landfills. Durable solid waste, like rigid plastics, can be recycled or reused, while organic material can be composted or turned into biogas or biomethane, a renewable energy source.
The real estate industry is taking more notice of Zero Waste initiatives, which is a good thing: construction and demolition waste accounts for between 25 percent and 45 percent of landfill waste in the U.S., according to the Center for Zero Waste Design (CFZW). The nonprofit organization was launched in 2017 after a collaboration between New York City’s Department of Sanitation, architects, landscape designers, and other collaborators teamed up to create a framework for the building sector to use to plan waste management strategies at buildings. The Zero Waste Design Guidelines ended up being a more than 150-page report that goes into granular detail about how existing buildings can handle waste and how waste can be better handled during construction and demolition. “It’s a way for architects to really know how much waste they are generating,” said Jennah Jones, a waste consultant at CFZW.
Zero Waste is expanding in the U.S. but tends to be more common around the world, especially in Europe and Scandinavian countries, where waste management practices are more evolved than in many cities in the U.S., including New York City. “No other megacity that’s in a developed world has trash bags on the street,” Jones said, referring to NYC’s infamous sidewalk trash bag piles. The organization looked at waste practices in places like Hong Kong and Singapore while working on the Zero Waste Design Guidelines framework. The huge growth in sustainable development, coupled with more greenhouse gas emissions laws, is driving more cities to adopt Zero Waste legislation. For instance, San Francisco has pledged a 50 percent waste diversion by 2030, and Washington, D.C. has pledged an 80 percent waste diversion by 2032. “The policy movement is happening, and there’s a push to get it to be more mandatory rather than an inspirational thing,” said the CFZW’s Jones.
Etsy is one of the best examples of a large office tenant executing a comprehensive Zero Waste strategy, but there are more recent examples of companies undertaking ambitious waste management practices. Banking giant JPMorgan Chase made a bold statement with its forthcoming headquarters office in Manhattan. The 60-story skyscraper is a ground-up development that is rising on the site of its former HQ, which was demolished. Among the many sustainable features planned, the new tower will be all-electric, have net-zero operational emissions, and will seek LEED Platinum certification. But maybe the most striking effort was what the company planned to do with the remnants of the old building. During the demolition, JPMorgan said it recycled, reused, or upcycled 97 percent of the materials from its previous building.
As more companies look to implement Zero Waste policies, tracking technology is helping them keep tabs on their progress. Etsy and other tenants and buildings implementing Zero Waste practices are able to use tech to track their waste, just like buildings use tech to track any number of activities—from foot traffic to energy consumption. Things like bins with weight sensors can measure how much waste is generated but can also track trends, like how much more is thrown away through the holidays. The data can then be used to help inform decisions about things like what vendors companies choose to buy from.
It seems like a slam dunk—cut down on sending mountains of waste to landfills, meet your own ESG goals, be in compliance with sustainable policies, and, as a bonus, look good for doing the right thing. But there are hurdles to the Zero Waste approach. Compared to other green efforts that might be a lot simpler, Zero Waste commitments can be complicated, and while not necessarily inexpensive, it does require coordinating multiple partners.
As it currently stands, waste is valued by weight and the calorific value of how easy it can burn, as opposed to being valued by reuse or other things. From an operations perspective, it’s a concept that doesn’t always get the most focus these days, and committing to a long-term plan takes work and commitment. “It moved from being about operational energy to embodied energy. Once people have a shiny new energy-efficient building, they stop thinking about how much waste is generated from residents,” said Jones. “Whenever it gets into operations, many people stop caring.”
Like a lot of sustainable and green investments in the building sector, the Zero Waste concept is something that is sure to continue to get a lot of attention from building owners and office tenants. Technology is already helping companies track progress, and given the advances in tech that continue to take place in the built environment, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more tools emerge to help further streamline waste management practices. Many cities around the country are taking aim at cutting down on waste through pledges to sharply reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Given how much construction waste contributes to the nation’s landfills, that is something that will be the biggest catalyst for building owners and developers to get on board.