I'm convinced that smart, hardworking people can profit from practicing what many people call the R's of effective waste management. The R's aren't new, but the order of priority is much more important than people realize. Specifically:
- Reduce or redesign (or both) by using less material and resources and producing less waste. This is where you get the biggest net environmental impact -- and net profit.
- Reuse whatever you have to use by putting materials and products back into service. This is the second biggest waste-saving and money-saving opportunity, much larger than through recycling.
- Recycle what you can't reuse by transforming used materials and products into new ones. Recycling is the buzzword that gets people's attention, but it really is the lowest-priority choice and the slowest payback option.
At my company, Stonyfield Farm, we've learned that reducing waste means consuming less and discarding less. And since source reduction, particularly when it comes to packaging, stops waste before it starts, it's the most economical and ecological choice. What's exciting to me is how many companies now seem to have finally figured this out. Some -- like Wal-Mart, which has received a lot of attention recently for its ambitious plans to reduce its environmental footprint -- are companies that I would have never expected to be a part of this conversation when we launched Stonyfield 25 years ago. The fact that they are is creating an extraordinary opportunity to green our economy.
Incorporating reusable materials and equipment into a production operation like ours at Stonyfield is difficult but not impossible. An example of reuse is with the cardboard boxes that our plastic yogurt cups are shipped in. Over a decade ago we found a company that buys them from us -- and re-sells them to clothing and auto parts manufacturers to ship their products. Hopefully the boxes will be used many times before they are recycled.
Recycling is almost universally regarded as a virtue. I beg to differ. The act of recycling actually means that we have failed to reduce or reuse. The EPA's own numbers delineate that failure: Each of us now produces 4.4 pounds of waste each day, nearly twice as much as thirty-five years ago. Consequently, we have to spend enormous amounts of energy and money carting away all of this waste to someplace else, where it will be made into something different -- a process that releases still more CO2 into the atmosphere.
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What is more, recycling affects only a fraction of solid waste. At best, 5 percent of plastic gets recycled. We do better with aluminum cans, but the recycle rate is still only about 45% percent.
Even when commonly used and supposedly recyclable waste materials are taken to a recycling center, the energy contained in them isn't necessarily recaptured. Take certain yogurt cups and bottles made of high density polyethylene. Look on their bottoms and you're likely to see the number 2, meaning they are made of the same base resin. Yet, your municipal recycling plant likely accepts only the bottles. This is because all number 2 plastics are not the same. The number 2 used to make bottles has a different melting point than that used to make wide mouth containers like yogurt cups. Since they are different, they cannot generally be recycled together. Little surprise, then, that so many supposedly recyclable plastic containers end up in landfills.
At Stonyfield, we still recycle, but only as a last resort after we've tried to design waste out of the product or process. We've been working for many years with a Waltham, Massachusetts-based company, Recycline, that will make toothbrush and razor handles from our used cups.
To me, recycling is an obvious piece of the overall puzzle, but only after all else has failed. It is to waste management what carbon offsetting is to climate change, another issue I'm deeply concerned about. It shouldn't be seen as the point of entry to environmental responsibility. We must first reduce our impact, our resource demand, our climate footprint -- and recycle and offset to make up the difference only when we've done all else we can do.
Wal-Mart is far from perfect, and -- by the way -- the same can be said for any company, my own included. But as the world's largest company, they are worth watching, for there is no doubt that business will need to be a big part of the solution to our environmental challenges. And since they are obsessed with eliminating cost, they help to validate my belief that going "green" can be highly profitable. As part of its quest to become a green giant, Wal-Mart has pledged to eliminate a quarter of the solid waste currently produced by its U.S. facilities. When the company took an environmental impact team up on its suggestion that Wal-Mart bundle for resale the plastic that it used to send to landfills or incinerators, the company saved $28 million a year. Another $2.4 million of cost savings was lopped off by asking the supplier of its private-label Kid Connection line of toys to eliminate unneeded packaging. Wal-Mart now ships nearly five hundred fewer containers each year, reducing shipping costs and saving 3,800 trees and a million barrels of oil in the bargain.
Indeed, here's how CEO Lee Scott wants his employees to think about waste: "If we throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice--once to get it, once to have it taken away. What if we reverse that? What if our suppliers send us less, and everything they send us has value as a recycled product? No waste, and we get paid instead." Now that's smart talk.
Gary Hirshberg, the husband of Meg Hirshberg and the father of three teenage yogurt-eaters, is Chairman, President and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, the world's leading organic yogurt producer, based in Londonderry, New Hampshire. He is also the author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World, published in January 2008 by Hyperion Books (NY), which outlines how consumers and businesses can be forces for positive and tangible change.
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