A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

15 June 2009

The following is a "reprint" -- an article I wrote for my November 2007 newsletter. Rather than archive some of these articles on my website as I have done in the past, I'm going to let Blogger do that and take advantage of the opportunity to revisit some ideas my newer readers may not have seen yet. It's also an opportunity for me to rethink those ideas and do a bit of editing. I have about a half-dozen, I'd guess, and I'll post them at intervals over the next few weeks.

* * *

"Sustainability" is a buzzword - one with all kinds of connotations about being "green" and "saving the planet." These ideas get embraced by some folks, and dismissed by others who say "there's no good science behind all this global warming stuff." To me, sustainability means something less fraught with political implications, but rich with implications for other aspects of your business and your life. Sustainability simply describes the capacity of your business to continue doing what it's doing.

An interesting statistic in a recent magazine article notes that Americans generate an incremental five million tons of trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Fortunately for people in the landfill business, this staggering spike in waste generation only lasts a few weeks. And as anyone who's ever breathed a heavy sigh of relief on January 1 can attest, the level of consumption and activity that generates all that extra garbage is NOT sustainable throughout the year.

Excessive consumption is a habit that is just as bad for the checkbook as it is for the planet. Even moreso now than in November 2007, people are paying attention to issues of consumption and waste in the context of "eco-friendliness," but for business owners, this issue shoots straight to the pocketbook. By taking a good hard look at everything you are using, you may be able to find ways to reduce your consumption while boosting your local economy (and by that, I mean the economy in your own office!)

What does your business consume? Where do you get it? How much do you pay for it, and how much of it do you throw away? Could you get a quality alternative for less money? Should you be buying a higher quality alternative, that would cost more, but last longer? What do you know about your suppliers' sustainability? Are you aware of, and do you agree with, their policies and behaviors regarding environmental or economic impact in their communities?

A large corporation might carefully track the usage rates of paper, pens, or staples when it would seem as though such things represented a minuscule fraction of their operating costs. That same corporation could then spend millions of dollars cleaning up the industrial waste it gets caught dumping into a nearby lake. (Just in case you didn't see a connection between environmental and economic impact....)

Small businesses tend to have the opposite problem. They rarely make million-dollar mistakes (other than opportunity costs - but that's another article). They do, however, sometimes waste money on small things. If you buy the "cheap" tool or machine and quickly break it or wear it out, it's likely to be more economical to spend for the good one than buy the cheap one multiple times. If you are getting a bargain price for items online, make sure the total with shipping is really still cheaper than it would be to shop locally. If you are sourcing "cheap" ink cartridges or office equipment, be aware that these items are sometimes "factory refurb" rather than new, and may not perform like a new one would. This does not make them bad choices -- as long as you know what you're getting, how long it is expected to last, and how the price/performance scenario stacks up against comparable items.

Last but not least, be just as aware of what goes out of your office as what goes in. A typical office environment goes through a lot of paper, and that is difficult to avoid. But there's no good reason for that paper to end up in a landfill. Many communities will recycle for free that which they would charge you to haul as trash. Recycling programs also exist for most types of electronics and office equipment - check with your municipal government or one of the national office supply store chains.

Sustainability is about being able to keep doing what you're doing. Take a few minutes every day to work on your business rather than in it, and always be looking for ways to improve.


Chip Scholz said...

I agree with some of what you wrote but have to take exception with the recycling part. Having been in the recycling and solid waste businesses for more than 10 years, I have seen the result of small scale recycling.

Let me tell you the dirty little secret that most politicians know but won't admit. Recycling on a small scale costs way more in terms of wasted resources than it saves. Curbside recycling programs are so inefficient that if the true costs were known, no one would support it.

The politically convenient fact is that, like you, many people have some kind of guilt about their footprint (conveniently stoked by those with an agenda) and when they "pitch in" to a recycling program they feel good about it. Feeling good about a program makes politicians feel good and helps them get reelected.

The trouble is, we are doing far more harm to the environment in terms of emissions, hazardous and toxic wastes and lost productivity than if we just took the materials to the landfill.

Further, as more is recycled, the market for those recyclables tanks because there just isn't that much of a use for recyclables. It is not economically feasible to use the materials--they can't be used for their original purposes. How many paint brushes can the market absorb? (The bristles on paint brushes often come from 2 liter bottles.)

Further, most of the recyclables that are picked up in a curbside program are contaminated and end up going to the landfill anyway. A speck or two of glass in a ton of recycled paper renders the paper worthless. Different kinds of plastics mixed together in a bin takes huge amounts of resources to sort, and if they are mixed, the resulting product is unstable and can't be reused.

I don't have any problem with a person that carefully separates recyclables, takes them to a mass recycling center where care is taken and volumes are heavy enough to make it worthwhile. I was instrumental in setting up one of the first large scale office paper recycling programs in Los Angeles at the TransAmerica tower. That kind of program works because the economy of scale makes it work.

I know this is not a politically correct view. But it is accurate.

Tracy Lunquist said...

Good to know, Chip. Obviously most of us don't have the "inside track" and thus can only do what we believe is right according to what we've been told. Which is a whole article, or maybe a whole blog (!), by itself.

I guess it really comes back to "reducing" moreso than "recycling." If we can cut down on the amount of stuff we consume in the first place, it won't matter as much how we dispose of it. For businesses, that includes not only cutting back on what an office or plant consumes for its operations, but also what it creates in terms of material bulk. Cutting back on the amount of packaging around a product is likely to be cheaper AND easier on the planet -- doubly so if the materials used are readily biodegradable or re-usable.

Personal favorite cases in point: Many years ago, U.S. Robotics worked out a way to use recycled paper to create fiberboard molds to package their products instead of plastic or styrofoam. it cut costs and resulted in packaging that was both easy to recycle and biodegradable. I'm generally not a fan of plastic, but I like the fact that one of the food producers (I forget which one) packages lunch meat in the same kind of reusable plastic containers you can buy new - can be used dozens of times before you recycle or throw them away.

Chip, your examples of inefficiencies and problems with recycling mainly talk to plastics. What about paper? By all appearances, our paper recycling efforts are working, but appearances can be deceiving. Can you shed some light?

Chip Scholz said...

It doesn't matter what commodity...it does matter the volume. I didn't make the point very well...but the inefficiencies I spoke about are of scale. Whenever you have a limited supply to work with, collection is inefficient and contamination is inevitable, further degrading the marketability of the recyclables you are picking up.

However, the caveat is that if you take care in separating your recyclables, put them in the car, and then drop them off when you are going by a recycling facility, you keep contamination to a minimum, and your incremental cost is really low because you are combining trips.

I guess it comes down to common sense and taking the time to make an effort, doesn't it? If it is too easy, ask yourself, "Why?"