Waste Management: On the Road to ‘Zero Waste’

Author: Joachim Geiger

Jun 05, 2024 Sustainability / Environment

In Europe, there are many directives and regulations governing the sustainable management of waste and disposal. But how can companies realize a completely waste-free management? A special DIN standard for the ‘zero waste’ concept provides the perfect guide.

The focus on sustainability management in operational processes is increasingly gaining momentum. What would you think, for example, of a company that questions its status quo and that of its suppliers when it comes to waste and recyclables management to consistently reduce or eliminate the amount and potential dangers of waste? A company that is committed to the transparent use of its resources, waste avoidance, repairs, re-use, composting, fermentation and recycling? This visionary concept is called ‘zero waste’ and propagates solid added value for society and future generations.

Companies are responsible for their own waste disposal

In a report on waste management published in April 2023, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) estimates that over 3.6 million companies in Germany manage their own waste disposal and recycling. Then again, pursuing a sustainable circular economy by preventing and recycling waste is not an entirely new concept. After all, the European Union's Waste Framework Directive (EU WFD (2018/851)) amended in 2018 requires its member states to commit to doing just that when translating the directive into national law. So, is ‘zero waste’ an idea that can be put into practice?

Can ‘zero waste’ serve as a model for sustainable waste management?

“’Zero waste' is an ideal concept in principle, but one that can serve as a model for sustainable cycles. More specific, it is about keeping the used resources in the cycle for as long as possible and minimizing the amount of non-recyclable waste,’ explains Andreas Biermann, Head of Logistics, Supply and Disposal at DEKRA Certification.
Biermann, who certified his first waste management facility in May 1997, is not only a pioneer in the industry. As a waste management expert, he has also been actively involved in the development of a standard that organizations can use to measure and improve the sophistication of their waste and recycling management. This standard, published in May 2021, is called DIN SPEC 91436. The official title of the technical regulation is ‘Reference model for operational waste and recyclables management oriented towards a vision of ‘zero waste’.

A DIN SPEC is a very specific type of standard

Searching for this particular norm in the body of standards of the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN) would be a futile endeavor. Standards with the addition ‘SPEC’ (specification) are generally not part of the canon of official DIN standards. Nevertheless, a DIN SPEC looks like a regular standard, sounds like a regular standard, and also offers the option of the relevant certification. The crucial difference to official DIN standards is that SPECs are not developed by the DIN Institute itself, but a consortium of market participants set up specifically for this purpose. The driving force behind ‘zero waste’ was an international trade group of 550,000 employees in 32 countries operating in the food retail sector. In addition to other companies in the sector, the consortium included the Institute for Waste and Recycling Management at TU Dresden as well as DEKRA Certification. The DIN, in turn, has taken over the project management and provided its own resources.

Holistic reference model: What the standard governs

“Working on the DIN standard had its own rules and challenges. The language and references to existing standards alone were incredibly complex,” Biermann recalls. Despite its visionary nature, the set of rules has a strong practical relevance. Part of the reason being that the initiating company also wanted to implement the standard in its own shops on an international level. According to Andreas Biermann, the work on the standard has been worthwhile. At its core is a holistic reference model that offers users a carefully developed guideline with which the necessary organizational processes and structures can be set up and designed. The document follows a thread: Avoiding the use of resources takes precedence over reusing them, reusing them takes precedence over recycling and recycling takes precedence over other forms of utilization such as fermentation or composting. Landfilling and incineration should be completely avoided wherever possible.

Reality check: the ‘zero waste’ vision can hit system boundaries

The standard does have certain limits, admits Andreas Biermann. There are types of waste that simply have to be incinerated or that cannot be recycled: In a hospital, for example, syringes and dressings used in daily patient care always end up in incineration for legal reasons. And for materials such as carbon, which are used in vehicle construction and in the manufacture of wind turbines, there is still no means of recycling the material on a larger scale. However, the bottom line is that the standard does work for a large number of companies.
To support the ‘zero waste’ mission, DEKRA certifies companies in accordance with the DIN SPEC 91436 standard - this entails document review and an on-site audit to check whether the material cycle meets the required standards.