Sustainability is a Team Sport

Recently, I spoke with Erik Makinson, Director of Waste Solutions at Ecova, on the company’s sustainability work. Ecova is a total energy and sustainability management company. The company helps their clients manage the financial and environmental impact of three key resource categories – energy, water, and waste. While the programs take a slightly different form for each client, each share the commonality of focusing both on efficient resource utilization and cost control.

I encourage you to join Erik and other business leaders at our annual Corporate Citizenship Conference, The Impact Equation: Stronger Business, Greater Results, Better World, September 8-10 in Washington D.C.

Additionally Erik will be hosting a webinar, The Waste Industry is Evolving: Be Sure Your Margins Don’t Go Extinct! this Thursday August 14th at 2:00 pm ET.

Q. Managing waste is an issue receiving increasingly more attention in the business community. How is Ecova tackling the waste management challenges?

In 2011, we launched a comprehensive waste solution offering. This offering mirrors many of the services that Ecova has historically provided on energy, water, and telecom by layering procurement and sustainability consulting on top of our foundational invoice processing services. Today, we work with over 85 clients representing nearly 50,000 sites across the U.S. and Canada. These client engagements allow us to multiply the scale of our impact. We try to focus on not only grabbing the quick cost-savings wins, but also by bringing creative solutions to our clients for their hard to manage waste streams like foam cups, tires, or pet hair.

Q. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as you work in the sustainability space?

Sustainability is a team sport. This applies within an organization as much as it does in the market place. In order for sustainability projects to be successful within a company, employees must work across functional silos to find solutions that work for all and compromise when necessary. It’s equally important for businesses to place competitive interests aside and collaborate with each other to find more environmentally and socially sustainable ways to create economic value. Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation  provide an excellent forum for this collaboration.

Q. It seems like the cost to disposal of waste keeps going up. How do you control your waste disposal costs?

Yes, in general, waste disposal costs are going up. By in large, this is caused by increases in several foundational cost elements shared by all industry service providers. For example, in the last 10 years, the cost of diesel fuel has more than doubled and tipping fees (the per-ton rate charged by landfills to waste haulers) have increased by roughly 32%. As such, waste haulers have had to pass these costs along to their customers in order to stay in business. That being said, there are absolutely still opportunities for a business to impact their waste costs. Quick wins can be identified through procuring waste hauling services (where allowed) and right-sizing containers to ensure that your business is not paying for more service than you require. Both activities, however, are short-term plays because inevitably, costs will continue to rise, eroding savings achieved. As such, the only way to deliver sustaining value to your business through waste stream management is by deploying the good old 3 R’s – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. After all, disposing of waste isn’t expensive if you don’t have any.

Q. Is a business guaranteed to save money by composting or recycling?

Few businesses reduce their waste disposal costs simply by signing up for recycling and composting services. To realize savings from these investments, the business must dedicate attention to purchasing recyclable/reusable goods, as well as signage, collection bins and employee training to ensure that capture rates are maximized and contamination is minimized. Also, it’s crucial that trash dumpsters are right-sized after waste diversion programs take hold. We’ve seen a number of businesses reduce ½ the material in their dumpsters only to have ½ empty dumpsters hauled from then on. In most cases, it’s actually the right-sizing that creates the savings. While nothing is guaranteed, if a business successfully deploys the steps above, savings are a reasonable expectation. If nothing else, the business will have mitigated the risk of future waste cost increases.

Q. What are some innovative resource recovery programs that you’ve observed or implemented?

  • LeanPath – This innovative system measures the amount of food waste that a commercial kitchen generates and quantifies the impact – both in purchase cost and environmental impact. As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  • Repurposed Materials – Who would have thought that used billboards could make great tarps or tractor tires could become superior livestock water troughs. These guys see a future life for many hard to manage commercial and industrial byproducts.
  • Food Donation Connection – Americans throw away more than 25 percent of the food we prepare, about 96 billion pounds of food waste each year according to the US Department of Agriculture. Much of this is perfectly edible. What’s the best use for edible food?  Feeding people, of course!  This organization has coordinated the donation of over 300 million pounds of quality prepared food from food service providers located in United States.
  • Dumpster Monitoring – While monitoring of compactors has existed for years, several manufacturers have recently commercialized monitors for dumpsters. Through sonar or other technologies, these measure the fullness of standard dumpsters, enabling extremely accurate right-sizing and even routing optimization.

Q. What do you see for the future of managing waste?

Increasingly, businesses are realizing that the byproducts that they’re generating are more than just “trash”. In fact, much of the material in their dumpsters is, in fact, a valuable resource for future use. This realization is the first step in creating a circular economy, one that continually reprocesses materials vs. the traditional linear economy of take-make-waste.

I’m encouraged by the local byproduct synergy networks that are emerging throughout the country (and beyond) that allow a business to sell or trade what may be trash to them, but is treasure to another business. Some synergy networks take the form of Craigslist style online forums allowing businesses to list their byproducts – from bio-sludge to used bricks – while others host “speed dating” workshops allowing businesses to trade materials in real time. While these networks are not a panacea for all waste streams, it provides one more way to close the loop.