Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's the Buzz Over Burt's Garbage?

Photo via Editor B

Probably my favourite company has to be Burt’s Bees. All of Burt’s products are approximately 99% organic plus they have an ethical commitment to both the environment and their customer. It doesn’t get much better than this company. I’m always telling my friends (and sometimes complete strangers) that Burt is so organic he knows every bee by name. Burt must be so proud to have me has his customer (**can someone help me get my tongue out my cheek?**)

Burt’s Bees is one example of how companies across the US and; hopefully, the world are taking a closer look at what’s in their garbage bins. Companies are beginning to realize that by making big changes in the way they handle their garbage they can not only reduce the level of garbage they produce; but, also save money. Many companies have set sustainability goals of curbing trash and improving recycling. The only truly effective way to do this is “hands-on, in the dumpster” inspection of the garbage and Burt’s Bees did just that.

After dressing for the occasion (in HazMat suits) Burt’s employees (no, not the bees) inspected two weeks worth of garbage for recycling opportunities and ideas that would further cut the company’s waste. Was it worth it?

According to John Replogle, president and CEO, “Employees … found recycling opportunities that cut the company's waste in half while generating $25,000 in estimated annual savings.”

"We found money in the dumpster," he declares. "We've turned our waste stream from a cost center into a profit center."

Businesses are also finding new revenue streams in their garbage by taking items that were hauled away to the landfill in the past and instead selling them to someone else for cash -- a boon in a slow economy. A bigger boon for the landfill that will now have a longer life to be used for items that truly can’t be dealt with in any other way.

“Dumpster diving helped move Burt's Bees closer to its goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2020. Set 18 months ago, the company quickly made great strides at reaching that target and went from producing 40 tons of waste per month down to an impressive 10 tons per month by aggressively recycling and introducing composting at its Durham, N.C., corporate office and manufacturing plant,” says Replogle.

"Then we were stuck and needed to reinvigorate the effort again," he recalls.

The superheroes of the company, The Green Team, saved the garbage for two weeks, placed it in the parking lot and; with the help of employees, took a good look at what did or did not need to be there.

They made three piles: things they already recycle that weren’t and did not belong in the trash; things that could be recycled if an outlet were located (eg. Plastic buckets); real garbage that couldn’t be recycled for sanitary reasons (latex gloves, hairnets).

"Once you've seen your garbage up close, it's hard to ignore it," jokes Shira E. Norman, a research consultant in the Chicago office of YRG Sustainability.

Norman adds, “Experts insist the (dumpster diving) exercise makes a strong impression on employees that can inspire behavior change with far greater impact than any written report or e-mail alert.”

I believe we as a planet have become so desensitized to news that is reported to us via written report, spoken word, email or other forms of communication where the visual impact component is missing that it goes unheard by most of us.

Burt's Bees' Replogle felt the visual component to be a huge part of the exercise. He says they used their dumpster diving effort as a teachable moment and urged its 300-plus workers that day to inspect what they were throwing away

"That walk through the parking lot and seeing all that trash translated into a collective 'aha moment' and we all realized we could do a better job at recycling," says Replogle.

“After that experience, the company quickly jumped from 80 percent compliance in recycling to 98 percent,” he says. "Now we have a shared ethos of taking responsibility," he adds.

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