3 Waste & Recycling Lessons from the Environmental Leader Conference

July 19, 2016
By Zach Johnston

Recently, I had the chance to attend the inaugural Environmental Leader conference on June 21-23, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. This first conference hosted by EL had an impressive turnout. Enablon not only had the pleasure of attending the event, but also had the honor of seeing its enterprise-class platform named . In addition to the awards ceremony, the conference also featured a wealth of information on a range of topics. We’d like to share some takeaways regarding waste management and recycling best practices and strategies from our favorite sessions of the event, given by representatives from Toyota, GM, Dish Network and others.

1) Waste Is a Good Place to Start

In their addresses, Mari Kay Scott from GM and Ryan McMullan from Toyota pointed to waste as one of the key areas any developing sustainability practice should focus on. McMullen referred to waste as the “gateway” to promoting sustainable practices into the company culture. Waste is something tangible, and something that every employee produces, making it easier even for less environmentally concerned employees to get involved. According to Ryan, most employees want to do the right thing, when given the choice. It’s all about educating your employees on why it matters and offering easy ways to get involved.

Beyond individual employees however, it still has to make financial sense. This, Graham Russell pointed out, is another reason waste is the perfect place to start: “So many solutions to waste problems are cheap, the payback is quick, and they don’t require an enormous amount of capital investment up front.” Every company may want to be more environmentally conscious, but it’s up to the Environmental Professional to be strategic and make these initiatives financially sustainable, not just environmentally friendly. For example, for Dish, making the choice to invest in recycling and refurbishing operations wasn’t a difficult one. Sites now refurbish 6 million receivers a year and recycle 12,000 tons of electronics a year, making a tremendous impact not only to the environment, but to the profitability of the company as a whole.

2) Companies Are Going Beyond Recycling

For McMullen and Toyota, waste management needs to be about more than just recycling. In its North American facilities, Toyota reduced, reused, recycled and composted over 96% of non-regulated waste during 2014 according to the company’s most recent sustainability report. This is an incredible achievement. However, to reach the goal of zero waste by 2050, recycling and incinerating waste to convert it to energy aren’t enough. McMullen illustrated how sustainable waste management has evolved through the company’s “waste management hierarchy.” McMullen stated that, originally, environmentally-conscious companies would simply try to ensure waste was properly disposed of, then they used incineration and waste-to-energy (WTE) initiatives, and now they are focusing on recycling and reusing.

The best method according to McMullen however, is what he calls “waste avoidance or waste aversion.” He went on to give an example of wood pallets. Toyota, in the past, used to send pallets off to be processed, and ultimately to be reused as mulch or another related wood product. This, however, was a waste of a material, as most of the pallets were still salvageable. Toyota was able to identify this waste and create a program to refurbish and reuse its own pallets. McMullen termed this as “waste averted,” meaning they were able to stop the material from becoming waste. He went on to explain how this is the most sustainable waste practice possible. The ultimate goal for Toyota’s sustainable waste practice is to identify new ways to stop producing waste. While this sounds like an audacious goal, by reflecting on McMullen’s pallet program alone we can see the potential here. Toyota saved thousands of trees, and dollars this year through only one of these “averted waste programs.” This type of practice isn’t just environmentally-friendly, it’s economically beneficial as well.

Looking at waste management in this light and incentivizing employees to do the same can lead to surprising opportunities. In fact, in the Q&A session of the keynote, Terry Foecke shared some insights from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s waste management program. He stated that “When the commodities markets started collapsing, we were paying three times as much to recycle. So we said we will fund projects for you to figure out how to avert waste. The program has now grown to the point where it not only pays for itself, but the average return on investment is more than 2-to-1.”

3) The Right Metrics Must Be Selected and Communicated

McMullen from Toyota and Scott Chizanskos from Dish Network both stressed the importance of choosing the right metrics. You can’t create change without tracking the results and you can’t expect your employees to understand unless you invest in educating them. Chizanskos discussed how their field installers, after a long day, may not want to drive and sort their waste at a refurbishing station when they could easily drop them in the trash at home. This makes it essential for organizations to create a culture around sustainability. For Dish Network, they did this by hiring a waste management consultant to help keep individual sites accountable. Toyota took a different approach, and prominently displays their waste metrics to all their employees. They focus on delivering a message by translating waste into more understandable terms, highlighting ‘trees saved’ or by using pounds instead of tons to track recycled waste. “These may be gimmicks,” McMullen says, “but they work, and you shouldn’t be above using them.”

This inaugural conference did not disappoint regarding the knowledge shared with attendees. It will be interesting to see the insights that emerge from next year’s Environmental Leader conference.

If you are interested in other conferences where insights are shared, check out our webpage on , which will take place on October 4-5 in Chicago, and will bring together more than 500 EHS, Sustainability, Risk and IT professionals from the world’s largest corporations. Register today and don’t miss out on 50+ sessions and countless opportunities to network with your peers.

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