The Drive toward Zero Waste

published

05.11.2021

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While engineering involves many hard, technical calculations, a lot of human creativity is needed to approach its most complex problems. Engineering requires the clever ability to examine problems from all angles and think of new possibilities. For example, when we think through all the ways a product could fail, we also focus on innovative ways to improve its overall performance. But, what if we also focused on how a product impacts the planet as a point of performance? Shifting our perspective to consider environmental consequences reveals new points of failure that are equally as important to find and eliminate.

Waste represents failure—a failure to use Earth’s finite natural resources as efficiently as possible. That’s why our 2030 Corporate Impact Strategy includes a goal to achieve Zero Waste at all NI-owned buildings and reduce waste at leased facilities by 2030. While the waste we generate at our facilities is just one aspect of our total environmental impact, reducing waste through our everyday actions is still a critical goal that requires dedication from every NI employee. When you start looking for ways to eliminate waste, you start finding opportunities everywhere. Eventually, waste hunting helps you to adopt an overall mindset of environmental conservation.

Rooting Out Waste at NI Aachen

NI’s team in Aachen, Germany, has many expert waste hunters and officially started a Zero Waste project in 2011. The site is now capable of diverting 95 percent of its waste from the landfill. Achieving Zero Waste is defined as diverting at least 90 percent of a facility’s waste from the landfill through recycling, composting, or reusing materials—so, the Aachen team went above and beyond targets and significantly reduced costs, as well.

The first step was to identify the Aachen site’s main sources of waste. Like most offices, paper and plastic make up much of the waste stream. However, one of the top sources of waste was surprising: the community garden. Employees maintain the garden and harvest fresh fruit, but many of the clippings were going to the landfill. Organic waste makes up 44 percent of the world’s waste, and as it breaks down in landfills, it emits large amounts of methane and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Composting transforms this waste from a carbon source to a carbon sink, instead acting as a solution to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. 

NI Aachen’s community garden uses rainwater collected from the roof.

The team knew that setting up a collection system would be the easy part, as its waste management company had the infrastructure to handle both recycling and composting. The hardest part of most Zero Waste initiatives is getting people to consistently dispose of their waste properly.

The Aachen facilities team realized that making small changes to peoples’ physical spaces prompted them to build new habits. They analyzed employees’ waste disposal habits and thought about all the points of failure that can prevent a plant clipping from making it into the compost bin or a water bottle from making it into the recycling bin. Ultimately, they swapped out each employee’s personal office trash can with a recycling bin designated only for paper. They also installed a waste disposal station in the middle of each floor of the building with bins for recyclables, organic waste, and trash. The new setup required employees to walk to a common area to properly dispose of waste. While site leaders initially educated employees about bins in meetings, the mere act of traveling to the bin was what really enforced behaviors.

“It sounds simple, but when you have to get up and take your waste somewhere else—and you see all your teammates doing the same—it makes you realize the environmental impact of your actions,” said Stefan Kaiser, principal field IT engineer at NI Aachen.

Eliminating Other Sources of Inefficiency

The Aachen team has expanded its “finding failure” mission to look for other forms of natural resource waste around the site. The building has a green roof, which means it’s covered with vegetation planted over a waterproofing membrane. This regulates temperature by reducing heat flux through the roof, ultimately reducing energy use and costs year-round, as well. 

A green roof regulates the building’s temperature year-round.

From conception, the building has housed a solar water heater along with rainwater collection on the roof. Rain from the roof collects in a barrel and is used in the community garden. Any excess runoff is diverted to an area below the building to recharge the nearby aquifer, which prevents water from going to waste and significantly lowers the site’s water bills.

In 2020, NI Aachen also finished a project to install sun blinds on windows throughout the building. The blinds can reduce solar heat through the windows by up to 80 percent, which effectively eliminates the need for air conditioning and further reduces energy use, emissions, and costs. 

The NI Aachen team installed sun blinds to reduce solar heat.

Analyzing Our Product Life Cycle for Other Points of Failure

Through our new Zero Waste working group, NI teams around the world will share their waste reduction successes, and of course, failures in the pursuit of new knowledge. 

Additionally, we’re spending most of 2021 conducting a life-cycle analysis of NI products. This means we’re measuring natural resource usage during each phase of our products’ lifecycle throughout design, manufacturing, packaging and shipping, use, and end of life. We’ll also take a closer look at the amount of waste generated during our operations and manufacturing. The results of this analysis will help us find and eliminate resource waste throughout our entire company. Stay tuned for more information in our 2020 Corporate Impact Report this fall. 

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