Episode 212: Ushma Pandya helps clients get to zero waste

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November 11, 2019

Umbrex member Ushma Pandya is the Co-Founder and Partner at Think Zero Inc, an environmental consulting firm supporting businesses’ waste reduction and diversion goals.

In this episode, Ushma walks me through the stages of a typical waste reduction project, and shares some of the surprising things she has found in the recycling bin.

You can learn more about her firm at: https://thinkzerollc.com/


Will Bachman: Hey, welcome to Unleashed. I’m your host, Will Bachman. Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, the first global community connecting top-tier independent management consultants with one another. We just heard from today’s guest, Umbrex member Ushma Pandya. Ushma is the co-founder and partner at Think Zero Inc., an environmental consulting firm supporting businesses, waste reduction and diversion goals.

Will Bachman: In this episode Ushma walks me through the stages of a typical waste reduction project, and shares some of the surprising things she’s found in the recycling bin. You can learn more about her firm at thinkzerollc.com. If you’re thinking of seeking an independent consultant to support a project at your firm, or if you are interested in joining our global community of independent management consultants, email me at unleashed@umbrex.com.

Will Bachman: Hello, Ushma. Welcome to the show.

Ushma Pandya: Thank you, Will.

Will Bachman: Ushma, give us an example of something you have discovered on a recent waste audit that surprised your client.

Ushma Pandya: Sure. We do waste audits in commercial buildings. We often pull out clothes and shoes, that is always a surprise to our client. That people are just … I guess people have lots of clothes and shoes in their drawers and closets and just tossing them. The second thing is a lot of company swag. Companies spend a lot of money on branded materials, and their materials don’t seem to care about it.

Will Bachman: A little stress ball, water bottle, right in the garbage.

Ushma Pandya: Hats, mugs, all of that. They don’t want it.

Will Bachman: What have you found in the recycling bin that does not belong there?

Ushma Pandya: Often times we’ll find compostable cups and bowls. I did work with a client once, we were evaluating what they provide in their cafeterias and pantries. They were so excited that they had been paying more for compostable service ware, furnishing their green creds. Then I had to tell them, “You don’t offer composting, so it doesn’t matter.” Because putting it in the recycling bin or putting it in the landfill bin doesn’t mean it actually gets composted. You need a separate stream.

Will Bachman: That is classic virtue signaling. Telling all their employees, “We have compostable bowls. We’re not actually going to compost them, but theoretically they could be composted.”

Ushma Pandya: They could, I guess, if they took them home or found a compost bin out on the street somewhere.

Will Bachman: All right, so that’s pretty funny. Let’s start at the top. Your firm, Think Zero, tell us about what you do.

Ushma Pandya: Thanks. Think Zero LLC is a waste reduction and diversion advisory business. I started this firm with my business partner, Sarah, about three to four years ago. We work with businesses and buildings on their waste reduction and diversion goals. We’ll spend some time with them, figure out what their goal is. Some of them are quite ambitious, they may want to get to zero waste, which is defined as 90 percent diversion from landfill or incineration. Others just want to do their part and reduce as much as they can.

Ushma Pandya: So, we’ll set the goals. We do waste audits where we actually do show up at night, open up garbage, and recycle, and compost bags, and see what’s in them. Make sure people are actually recycling correctly or composting correctly, and weigh their trash, take lots of pictures and videos, crunch the data. We do walkthroughs of buildings. Then, we actually do a lot of behavior change and change management work. So, trainings, setting up programs in the buildings, [inaudible 00:04:27]. You name it, we do it to be quite innovative in how people think about their waste, and helping them reduce it.

Will Bachman: Okay. So, a bunch of questions from that. So zero waste means that 90 percent gets diverted. It actually sounds like it should be called 10 percent waste.

Ushma Pandya: There are some things that are just not able to be diverted, or recycled, or composted. I think it would be great to be 100 percent, but I think 90 percent is a laudable goal, even what we generate today.

Will Bachman: So it’s like a little fudge factory in there. Zero waste … Why are companies trying to achieve this goal of zero waste?

Ushma Pandya: It’s a good question. A couple things. Often times this happens because of policy and regulatory pressure, as well as consumer pressure. On the policy side, many cities are now establishing zero waste goals. There are many cities here in the United States. We are here in New York City. New York City has a zero waste goal that they are looking to achieve by 2030. That means every single commercial building has to achieve their own zero waste, for the city to achieve its goal. San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, a ton of cities have achieved this goal.

Ushma Pandya: On the flip side, on the consumer side, there’s just a lot more awareness about waste as an issue. I still think we’re pretty early, but you’ve seen the campaigns with straws and plastic bags. That would not have … I would not have thought that would have even been possible five years ago, but we are now seeing consumers pressuring government to enact those bans. That means companies also want to do their part, and kind of meet the consumer demand. So, they’re also looking to see, “How do we reduce what we’re doing?” So, they have regulatory pressure and fines, and then they have obviously consumer and employee pressure.

Will Bachman: Okay. They do this through, I guess, just reducing what they buy. Through maybe putting in … I shouldn’t be guessing, I should be asking you. So, it’s basically avoiding stuff to the landfill, and that could be recycling it or reusing it. Walk us through, in a little bit more detail, the different phases of a typical engagement. Maybe we start with even, who is your client? You said commercial buildings. Would you get hired by the building owner and kind of do an entire building or are you working with a corporate rental client who has two floors of that building?

Ushma Pandya: We’ll do both. A lot of our major clients do tend to be building owners and property managers. Because waste is a building problem or a building operational process. Each tenant within a building is responsible for what happens within their space itself. So, we will also have individual businesses will hire us as well, to help us with whatever it is that they’re doing in their own building.

Ushma Pandya: In that case, we then will liaise or work with the building property manager as well to make sure that what is happening within the tenant space also then flows through to the loading dock and what is being carried out of the building and where is it going.

Will Bachman: Okay. What are the key stages of a typical engagement, let’s say, with a building? It sounded like the first thing is a bit of a diagnostic or a waste audit. Could you walk us through what are stages two, three, four, of a project?

Ushma Pandya: The first thing we do is we collect data. The data can come from a couple of different places. One, we do a waste audit to see what is the level of compliance that the tenants have in that building. So, we’ll do that at night. We’ll also do a walkthrough of the building to see, “Are there enough bins? Is there enough signage?” Just, “Is it clear what people have to do with the material in their hand?” Because I would have to say 50 percent of the battle is people don’t know where the item goes. The other 50 is actually changing behavior.

Ushma Pandya: But if you don’t have the right bins with the right signage, it’s pretty hard to do. So, we’ll do a walkthrough of the building. We also will talk with the hauler, or the waste management company, to understand their process. So, we’re collecting data about what happens to the trash, the recycle, and the compost or the organics once it leaves the building. So, we now actually [inaudible 00:09:24] what can and cannot be recycled, what can and cannot be composted, and what needs to go to landfill.

Ushma Pandya: Then we’ll do a … Then we also, sorry, as we’re walking through the building we also do a diagnostic and understanding of what could be eliminated. Because people think about recycling as the first thing you should be doing, and I would say recycling is the last thing you should be doing. The first thing you want to do is refuse or not even … to reduce, so you’re not creating anything that needs to go into a bin. Then you would reuse. So, you would refuse it, you would reduce it, you would reuse it, and only after all of that would you actually recycle or compost or put in the landfill bin.

Ushma Pandya: We gather all that data. We’ll have a conversation with the client to see what their goals are. Are they trying to just meet the rules? Do they have some internal goals that they’re trying to meet? Do they want to try to get to 90 percent? What is their goal with sustainability? How does waste reduction diversion fit into that?

Ushma Pandya: Then we’ll establish what their goal is. Then we, in a typical engagement, a consulting project, we then develop the action plan. So, what are the strategic initiatives that need to happen. Some are operational like set up bins and signage. Working with the cleaning staff to make sure that they have the right process. Then doing a lot of change management and behavior change work within the office. So, trainings, incentives, culture change. Getting people to just change their behavior and think differently about what they do.

Ushma Pandya: I’ll also work with the purchasing department to switch out what they’re buying. Maybe they want to go straight to reusables. We’ve been working with a company on that. Then you’ve kind of got to phase in that and figure out how do you get people hooked to no longer use a paper cup for water and coffee, but all have a reusable that they have to wash at the end of the day. That’s kind of a long winded answer, apologies. But gathering the data, setting the goals, and then establishing the plan and executing on it.

Will Bachman: Tell me a bit about the change management work. What sort of training or what sort of incentives would you be providing for people to stop doing whatever thing they’re doing of throwing reams of paper away or something? Give us some examples of changes that you try to drive in behavior?

Ushma Pandya: It’s surprising how much of this work is change management. It’s all about behaviors because people are used to doing things a different way, which is you just toss everything into a trash, and it gets taken away. Away means that you solved the problem because your area is clean.

Ushma Pandya: What we do is, we have to get people to actually do things differently. For example, if you have water or coke in a can or a cup. You need to go dump that and rinse it before you put it in the recycle bin.

Will Bachman: Wait, what?

Ushma Pandya: Yeah, you need to clean your recycles before they go in the recycling bin.

Will Bachman: Really? You need to rinse out a coke can?

Ushma Pandya: Yeah. I rinse out the coke can, I rinse out my milk jugs, I’ll rinse out a salad container. You want to make sure it’s not dirty. When I do waste audits, I’ll see half a bottle of coke thrown into the recycle. You’ve got to at least dump out the liquid. You’ll find salad, in the salad container, in the recycle bin. So, that’s a big change. You actually need to go into your pantry, dump out whatever is in the container, and then recycle it. So, that’s a big thing for people.

Ushma Pandya: The second thing is that if you have reusable and to go containers right next to each other because sometimes you do need to offer both, getting people to actually use a reusable, is a different change. A different behavior that they need to get to and not complain about it. If you do take away all the single use items, then you need to get people used to a different way of dealing with the material, i.e., you can’t jut throw it in the trash, you need to go put it in the pantry, you need to take it back to the cafeteria.

Ushma Pandya: If you’re offering compost, you need to get people to scrape their food into the compost bin before putting the plate also in the compost bin, if it’s a compostable thing, or if it’s plastic or reusable, putting it into a different bin. So, those are some of the basic behavior changes that we need to kind of get people to do.

Ushma Pandya: We have lots of different incentives. A Draconian incentive is, we have cleaning staff who won’t take away your desk side bin if it’s contaminated. Most commercial buildings have a desk side bin only for paper. Because there’s only one bin an no one wants to get up, that paper bin tends to be the trash bin. So, in some buildings, cleaning staff put an oops card on your desk saying, “Oops your recycle bin doesn’t have recycle stuff in it, so we’re not going to take it. Clean it up and we’ll take it tomorrow.” That actually does change behavior, believe it or not. Property managers are sometimes really scared to do that, but once we do it, it does change behavior.

Ushma Pandya: On the flip side, you can do things such as lunch and learns, or we’ll do, “Come learn about a topic and bring your reusable mug, and we’ll give free cookies to everyone who comes with their reusable mug to the lunch and learn.” To kind of get people starting to have a different behavior. So, we try to do fun things and not so fun things. We’ll also do a challenge where we’ll say, “Hey, whichever floor or department has the best recycle bins at the end of the day, they’ll get a pizza party or they’ll get a shout out.” We’ll try to encourage positive behavior versus punish you for negative behavior. But the desk side oops card is a favorite of mine.

Will Bachman: So you know you’re being watched and someone’s paying attention. That would be annoying to have your trash bin taken away. I can imagine people just go steal a trash bin from somebody else in the office.

Will Bachman: So, some offices are actually having compost bins where you scrape your food and stuff into them?

Ushma Pandya: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes. In New York City, if you have a cafeteria of a certain square footage or more you do actually need to compost. That tends to be back of house, so in the kitchen prep area. But most of them will also offer it in the front of house if you put your plate on the conveyor belt and it goes in the back, they’ll take it and they’ll compost it.

Ushma Pandya: Smaller offices that are trying to be more green, and I’ve worked with some of them, do have their own compost bins. They work with micro haulers or smaller composting services. They have a bin in their pantry area, and they have signage, and people compost.

Will Bachman: How did you get into this waste reduction, zero waste world?

Ushma Pandya: I’ve always been interested in the topic. People ask me why, I don’t know. I lived in California many years ago and we did a lot of environmental education. I think I was aware of it. I also grew up a little bit in India, where waste, you didn’t throw away a lot of things, you kind of reused a lot of things. So, I was just aware of how different it was here in the US. So, it was just something that I was just fascinated by. The fact that we throw away so much and we don’t really care where it goes.

Ushma Pandya: For me, when we throw stuff into landfills, there are so many health and wellness issues with it. Obviously, for those who live near a landfill, but when we throw things away and they leech into the ground, it can leech into our water, it can leech into soil that then eventually we’re growing food in. It’s like there are health reasons for thinking about what you consume and what you throw away, so that’s that.

Ushma Pandya: I met my business partner, we both live in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City, because we both cloth diapered our kids and we shared cloth diapers. We realized that we were both really into this topic. When the New York City recycling rules came out, we realized that this could be an opportunity for us to help businesses or buildings at least get into compliance with the rules. Over time, we’ve been testing, and innovating, and trying things. So, beyond even just compliance, how do we get companies to do different things.

Ushma Pandya: So, we’ve been testing out new ideas. We’ve also worked with the New York City chapter of the Architectural Institute on the zero waste challenge. So, we did that last year, which was fun. We’re trying out different ways of engaging on this topic, with different stakeholders.

Will Bachman: Did you go through any formal training on this? Have you just kind of attended industry events and read up on it, and just kind of figured it out? How did you develop all of your methodologies?

Ushma Pandya: My content knowledge is from reading and attending a lot of events, and talking to people. I also, through the US Green Building council, I received my TRU certification, which enables me to certify facilities as zero waste. I learned a lot about the methodology through that programming. But the work that I do with companies is based on my 20 years of experience. I’m a former strategy consultant, as well as in-house at a Fortune six company. Setting goals, developing the plan, and doing a lot of change management, and behavior change work is been something I’ve been doing for a long time.

Ushma Pandya: I’m now just applying those skills to the topic of waste reduction and diversion. Before, it may have been thinking about how do I get a company to go from X to Y. Now, it’s like, how do I get people to recycle? The skills are the same, I’m just applying it to a different topic.

Will Bachman: Okay, sure. In a previous conversation you told me that you have been developing some templates and some sort of process documents for this. So that, even thinking about potentially packaging something up that clients can purchase as a product. Can you tell us a little bit about that side, about how you’ve been working to kind of streamline and systematize what you do?

Ushma Pandya: Yes. Obviously this is a homegrown business, a bootstrap business. I’ve created, along with my business partner, all of the tools and templates we use. We are hopefully, we’re hoping to do a soft launch in the next month or so, a self guided program on waste reduction and diversion. So, we are taking all of our materials and all of our … the way that we do the work, and are packaging it up into some modules, and checklists, and templates, our training, our FAQs. How to do a waste audit, the form to do the waste audit, all of that, we’re putting it together and we’re going to be enabling corporations to be able to purchase it, and then use it within their own space.

Ushma Pandya: We’re still working out some of the details, but when you and I spoke, I know you encouraged me to think about it as a subscription model. So, we are thinking about that because we are updating our content constantly. We’ll probably also offer the opportunity to do phone consultations with us. But the idea here is how do we take what we have in our head and what we do in a very high [inaudible 00:22:03] way, with some marquis clients here in New York City, how do we enable many more companies to be able to do that? So, scale our work without scaling my business, in terms of people.

Will Bachman: Well, Ushma, this has been fascinating. Where can people find you online if they want to go to your website or reach out to you?

Ushma Pandya: Yep. I have a website, thinkzerollc.com. Then, we are on Instagram, @thinkzerollc. We also have a LinkedIn page and a Facebook page.

Will Bachman: Fantastic-

Ushma Pandya: So follow us.

Will Bachman: All right. Ushma, I’m going to have to check out your Instagram, maybe see some thing that you’ve pulled out of recycling. Thank you so much for being on the show. This is really interesting to hear about the world of zero waste.

Ushma Pandya: Great, thank you so much for the opportunity. Talk soon.