The most important thing to understand about any certification is that it is a back-check on sustainability efforts. So we encourage our clients to understand their certification options in order to choose the certification that best supports their organization’s broader goals and values.

Paladino alumni, Susie Westrup has taken a role with USGBC’s TRUE Zero Waste certification program. We interviewed Susie about her role with TRUE and learned more about this certification path for Net Zero Waste. Here are the highlights of that conversation. If you would like to learn more about TRUE, you can reach Susie at

First, can you tell us what TRUE is?

To evaluate performance against zero waste goals, TRUE, or Total Resource Use and Efficiency, provides a comprehensive zero waste certification system. Administered by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) and supported by USGBC, TRUE evaluates how well facilities perform in minimizing their nonhazardous solid waste and maximizing their efficiency in the use of resources. TRUE sets a high bar by going beyond diversion numbers and focusing on upstream policies and practices that make true zero waste possible. With TRUE, a facility or building can achieve its zero waste goals, cut their carbon footprint and support public health.

Why was it important for USGBC to launch TRUE?

Waste affects every part of our communities. USGBC has long been committed to minimizing waste and maximizing resource efficiency and believes that net zero and zero waste are powerful strategies and targets that will help move the entire green building industry forward.

The LEED green building program has always contained credits within the rating system designed to reduce the amount of waste generated from the design, construction, operations and maintenance of our buildings. And recently, USGBC also introduced the new LEED Zero certification program in which LEED projects can achieve certification when they demonstrate any or one of the following: net zero carbon emissions, energy use, water use or waste. This is part of USGBC’s vision to ensure a regenerative future where buildings are generating more energy than they use and removing more carbon than they produce.

USGBC believes that zero waste programs are one of the most effective ways businesses and organizations can contribute to this future, and this is why the organization got involved with the TRUE Zero Waste certification program. Participating in TRUE enables businesses to define, pursue and achieve zero waste goals for their facilities and, in doing so, increase their efficiency, minimize waste, reduce carbon emissions and operating costs, improve their triple bottom line, create green jobs and support public health. TRUE is administered by GBCI, the global certification body for LEED, and supported by USGBC.

We see an increased interest in carbon reporting and reduction. How does Zero Waste fit within the discussion about climate action?

Interest in zero waste as a carbon reduction strategy is growing by the hour. For years, businesses focused on Scope 1 and 2 emissions and on energy efficiency and water reduction to meet their sustainability and corporate social responsibility goals, but companies worldwide are starting to realize that waste reduction is just as important a strategy and can drastically improve Scope 3 emissions. The plastic waste movement has played a big role in increasing interest in zero waste and shining light on the issue.

The production of goods and the subsequent waste this generates contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and environmental degradation. Consider this: resources must be extracted from the environment in order to create goods and materials, generating emissions. Then, these raw materials must be transported to processing and manufacturing facilities where they are used to produce finished goods, which must be transported again to retail facilities or consumers – all of which generates emissions. And then, after consumption, the materials and their packaging are transported several times to landfill, waste to energy or recycling facilities, where they are disposed of, generating emissions and releasing methane and other pollutants into the air.

What kinds of companies or projects should consider a zero waste certification?

TRUE can be applied to any type of facility – small or large! TRUE-certified projects range from manufacturing facilities to distribution centers to grocery stores to breweries to entertainment venues to corporate offices to academic institutions and more. Small businesses, in particular, choose to pursue TRUE because it aligns with their values and they are able to see a return on their investment, while large-scale manufacturing plants, on the other hand, can save resources, reduce their carbon impact, cut costs and generate revenue by viewing waste as a resource through TRUE. Companies who are interested in simply reducing their waste or integrating zero waste strategies into their sustainability planning should consider certification.

What are the biggest challenges to zero waste certification, and what are some common misconceptions about zero waste initiatives?

Not enough companies are shifting towards circular thinking. The goal of zero waste is to move from a linear to a circular economy – or an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. When companies embrace circular thinking, they redesign their processes and operations to save resources and eliminate the creation of waste, pollution, and emissions.

Additionally, many companies or businesses don’t even know where their waste is going, which makes it difficult to even reduce waste in the first place. One of the steps that many TRUE projects start with is conducting waste audits to understand what kind of materials are ending up in their waste streams. These audits can prove surprising to many organizations and provide quick insights into how they are performing and simple solutions they can implement to get on the path to zero waste.

How does achieving zero waste impact small businesses compared to large enterprises?

TRUE is an effective cost-saving approach for small and large companies alike. Milo’s Tea Company eliminated the use of glue in their production, saving them over $250,000 per year, while Tesla saved millions at just one facility by reducing and reusing and, in 2016, the company was able to save over $30 million that year due to reductions in their waste hauling fees, revenue generated from recycling and costs avoided through product re-use programs. Across the board, TRUE has been able to help companies cut costs while also improving their products and protecting the environment.

What’s the business case for zero waste? And what is the business case for a zero-waste certification?

The credits within the certification system provide companies with a guide and a step-by-step plan for implementing zero waste, helping you do the hardest part – get started on the journey to zero waste. While you will have to invest some human capital as new policies and behaviors are required, cost savings can often be found by incredibly simple actions like right-sizing your waste containers and collection, which can, in turn, provide capital for things like cardboard balers or compost collection.

Tell us about one of your favorite projects to achieve a TRUE certification.

One of my favorite projects is Chou Hall at UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business. The TRUE Platinum project achieved an overall waste diversion of 95 percent. And the project shows how academic institutions can create a powerful zero-waste culture. Not only were the students as well as faculty and staff highly engaged in the certification process and zero waste efforts, but they also focused on educating and informing building users. Different groups, semester after semester, will use this building and become more conscious of what and how they are consuming resources and begin to understand how zero waste is for all.

image: courtesy of Chou Hall at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business
image: courtesy of Chou Hall at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Another leading example is Orange Coast College’s Recycling Center, the first project in the world to achieve TRUE, LEED and SITES certifications. The OCC Recycling Center achieved LEED Gold in 2018, and decided to take their sustainability initiatives to the next level by also achieving SITES Gold and TRUE Platinum certification this year. The Center is student operated, providing student jobs and scholarships, student leadership training and funds in support of student services. It handles recycled material from the college and surrounding community and serves up to 300 users everyday. I love that students will be learning about zero waste before they even enter the workforce!

image: courtesy of OCC Recycling Center

How can people learn more?

Feel free to contact me – or visit our website for more details on project certification, our TRUE Advisor certificate program, events, project profiles, and more resources.

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