Managing Solid Waste - Southern Style

April 1, 2000

12 Min Read
Managing Solid Waste - Southern Style

Kathleen M. White

As a thriving economic center, Atlanta, site of this year's WasteExpo, is home to a variety of well-known American businesses. Indeed, some of the country's most recognizable and successful ventures - The Coca-Cola Co., United Parcel Service and The Home Depot, for instance - are headquartered here. In addition to these major corporations, other local conglomerates such as the state's premier utility provider, Georgia Power, also call the peach city home.

In honor of WasteExpo's - and Waste Age magazine's - host city, samplings of these businesses' solid waste and recycling programs are spotlighted here. Just as each business varies in its size and scope, so does the way each handles its solid waste and recycling operations. Still, when it comes to waste management and recycling goals, these businesses share common philosophies.

The Coca-Cola Co. Perhaps no other Atlanta business is as recognizable as The Coca-Cola Co., which has called the city home since it was founded here in 1886. Indeed, of the businesses presented, Coca-Cola clearly leads the rest in terms of national and international appeal.

This recognition reflects the company's size, which encompasses 30,000 employees in 200 countries. Because of this notoriety, the company has taken what it describes as a proactive approach to environmental issues, including solid waste management and recycling locally, nationally and internationally.

At the forefront of the company's solid waste agenda is a waste management strategy that encourages all its business units to operate waste minimization and recovery programs, says Jeff Foote, director of corporate environmental affairs for Coca-Cola. In the United States alone, this includes seven major syrup manufacturing facilities, numerous subsidiaries and hundreds of bottling partners.

To support this strategy, the company has developed the Waste System-Wide Minimization and Reduction Techniques training program to help associates begin new or improve existing management programs for source reduction, waste minimization, reuse and recycling. "Our goals are continuous improvement facility by facility," Foote says.

Over the years, the program also has been responsible for packaging initiatives such as reducing the amount of raw materials in its aluminum can, glass and plastic beverage containers. In 1993, for instance, the company shaved 4 millimeters off the necks of some of its aluminum cans, thereby reducing aluminum use in the United States by approximately 20,000 tons per year.

During the past 18 months, some of Coca-Cola's bottlers have begun using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in their plastic soda bottles. Originally developed in the early '90s, the manufacture of recycled-content PET soda bottles was put on hold, amid criticism from environmental groups, because of declining recycling markets at the time, Foote says.

According to Foote, because of the sheer size of the company, solid waste disposal and recycling figures for Coca-Cola's overall operations have not been tracked. "Our facilities [track their] waste generated and material recycled, but that's not something we request," he says.

Indeed, because most of Coca-Cola's bottling plants are independently owned and operated through licensing agreements, waste management and recycling contracts for these facilities also are handled by the local owners. At the company's production facilities, however, approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of total materials are recycled, Foote adds.

Recycling also is emphasized at the company's corporate headquarters, which at press time employed approximately 5,000 individuals. (On Jan. 26, 2000, Coca-Cola announced that the company would undergo a major organizational realignment, which eventually will eliminate 2,500 jobs at its corporate headquarters.) According to Scott Vitters, environmental project manager for Coca-Cola, the company has set up an elaborate centralized collection area where employees can drop off everything including wastepaper, toner cartridges and aluminum cans. Because two major counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area do not offer curbside recycling for residents, employees are encouraged to bring their recyclables from home to work, he says.

American Recycling is among several companies currently under contract to collect recyclables from the centralized collection area at Coca-Cola's corporate headquarters; Waste Management Inc., Houston, handles the majority of the Atlanta facility's waste hauling.

Prior to the company's January announcement of employee layoffs, Coca-Cola's environmental department had planned to conduct a waste composition analysis at its Atlanta headquarters to determine its recycling and disposal rates, as well as ways to better its in-house recycling program, Vitters says. The company has postponed the analysis until the realignment has been completed.

"During this transitional time, it does not make sense to conduct a waste composition analysis because the numbers would be skewed due to the fact that we will have significantly fewer people here," Vitters says. "It's definitely still on our agenda," he adds. In the meantime, Vitters' assessment of the company's recycling program is positive: "Every time I go out [to the collection area], the bins are filled."

Georgia Power Although its name is not likely to be recognized beyond the state, Georgia Power's influence within Georgia rivals the businesses mentioned here. The largest subsidiary of Southern Co. and the nation's No. 1 electricity generator, Georgia Power serves 1.8 million customers. Founded in the 1930s, the company now employs approximately 8,500 individuals in Georgia, 1,500 of whom work at Georgia Power's corporate headquarters.

According to Jobie Dickerson, a Georgia Power environmental analyst, solid waste disposal at the company's corporate headquarters is handled by Carter and Associates, a solid waste management firm. "They handle everything from our solid waste contract to light bulb replacement - they have a contract to manage our whole facility," Dickerson says. Waste Management Inc. primarily handles solid waste disposal at Georgia Power's power plants, which are located in all but six of the state's 159 counties.

While American Recycling handles recyclables collection at the company's corporate headquarters, recycling at the company's individual power plants takes place facility by facility to employ local recycling companies and take advantage of these companies' expertise with local recycling markets, says John Sell, a Georgia Power spokesman.

"There's a financial benefit to recycle in that we can avoid a lot of landfill costs," Dickerson says. "We also are very conscious of what recycling can do to help the environment."

In 1999, Georgia Power recycled 784,007 pounds of wastepaper and 907,167 pounds of cardboard at its corporate headquarters. The same year, at its power plants throughout the state, the company recovered a total of 63,475 pounds of paper, 347,043 pounds of cardboard and 2,086,733 pounds of wood for recycling.

In addition to collecting conventional recyclables, Georgia Power also has established ash recovery programs at various plants throughout the state. Ash comprises the company's largest byproduct, Dickerson says.

"We have a group within our company that is dedicated to coming up with ways to use ash," she says. "A very big part of our business is trying to manage ash as much as possible."

Currently, Georgia Power has contracted with various concrete manufacturers to take the byproduct, which is used as a major ingredient in concrete.

Working alongside Georgia Power's ash recycling group is a department called Working Assets, which aids the company's power plants in their recycling operations. For example, the department helps plants consolidate materials to better market their recyclables. Additionally, Working Assets has helped the company reuse office furniture and other equipment by identifying plants that need equipment and those that are looking to get rid of some.

In addition to dedicating a department at its corporate headquarters to recycling, Georgia Power also recently adopted environmental goals for 2000 that include establishing pollution prevention teams at all its power plants throughout the state. The teams, which will be made up of five to seven volunteers from each plant, will provide feedback on waste minimization and recycling initiatives.

"The idea behind the teams is that it looks to employees to tell us what process changes to make," Dickerson says. "They are the ones who really can tell us how to improve our systems."

Overall, Georgia Power encourages all its employees to get involved in recycling. "Stewardship is a core trait that makes up an employee here," Dickerson says. "When we think about stewardship and the Southern style that we expect from our employees, recycling is very much a part of that."

The Home Depot Founded in 1978, The Home Depot is the youngest of the companies mentioned here, although its success rivals any one of them. Indeed, the company boasts being the world's largest home improvement retailer, and operates more than 950 stores employing more than 200,000 people in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and Chile. Of that figure, approximately 3,500 employees work at the company's corporate offices in Atlanta.

Although The Home Depot prides itself on being a decentralized company, waste disposal for all company owned operations is handled by one entity - Computerized Waste, Louisville, Ky. This national company negotiates all of the company's waste hauling and recycling contracts in the United States.

According to Kim Woodbury, manager of environmental programs for The Home Depot, Computerized Waste is tracking the company's solid waste disposal and recycling rates. "We're also looking more at how we can create new metrics that measure success - such as pounds of trash per dollar of sales - something that helps us understand how our waste is created," she says. "Because we have a unique waste stream - unlike Walmart and other stores - of metals, construction waste, wood waste, organic waste and plastic shrink wrap, we have to come up with unique solutions. We're constantly experimenting with ways we can reduce or recycle the materials."

Several established reuse and recycling programs currently being implemented by The Home Depot include the use of reusable pallets in the company's Canadian stores. Home Depot's vendors lease and reuse, over and over, high-quality wooden pallets. These pallets replace the lower-quality and less durable wooden pallets that can create a tremendous waste stream in a retail environment. In addition to the reusable pallets, the company has recycled more than 1 million pounds of plastic high-density polyethylene (HDPE) slip sheets, another shipping alternative to single-use pallets.

More recently, one of The Home Depot's vendors developed a 100 percent recycled-content wood product made partially from discarded wood from the company's Riverside, Calif., store. Called All Green MDF of the CanFibre Group Ltd., the wood product's feedstock comes from broken pallets that can't be reused, excess wood packaging material and "shorts" that result from cutting wood for customers, Woodbury says. "For the moment, a single store is contributing to CanFibre's stream [of feedstock], and we are examining whether we can increase the number of stores supplying wood waste to produce this value-added," she adds.

In addition to All Green MDF, The Home Depot sells hundreds of products made from recycled materials, Woodbury says. "We sell everything from garden hoses that are made from recycled tires to recycled-content fiberglass insulation."

At the executive level, the company several years ago developed an environmental council that encompasses specific task forces representing each functional area of the company, including solid waste management. One of the task force's more recent endeavors has been in green store planning and building design.

"Not only are we looking at where we build our stores, but how we build them," Woodbury says. A training task force helps reinforce the company's emphasis on recycling by creating educational and training materials for new and existing employees.

"While recycling is a critical element of our waste program, we're really working with our vendors to reduce our overall waste stream. We're trying to hit it on both sides," Woodbury says. Still, she adds, "Recycling has been a good catalyst for our environmental programs in general."

United Parcel Service United Parcel Service (UPS) rivals Coca-Cola in terms of name recognition and international appeal. Worldwide, the company claims close to 340,000 employees in 200 countries; approximately 1,800 to 2,000 of that number are based at the company's Atlanta headquarters.

According to David Guernsey, a manager in the environmental affairs department at UPS, the company has had in-house recycling programs in place at its Atlanta offices since the early 1990s. Although materials such as glass and aluminum have consistently been recycled, the company primarily collects mixed wastepaper for recycling, Guernsey says. "Generally, we've tried to stay with the premium products, such as paper," he says. "Our recycler has given us the ability to accumulate all our paper waste," he says.

As a result, UPS' recycling amounts have increased every year. Solid waste disposal contracts at its Atlanta headquarters - and the 1,200 regional and district sorting facilities UPS operates throughout the United States - are in the process of being consolidated. At press time, UPS was working on finalizing selection of one company to handle its solid waste management issues on a national level. The company that is selected will compile company waste disposal totals for UPS' U.S. facilities, Guernsey says. Recyclables collection at these facilities, which the company encourages, is handled locally, he adds.

UPS also has focused on waste minimization nationally, in particular, as a means of reducing the amount of waste it disposes. For example, in 1998, the Boston-based Alliance for Environmental Innovation (AEI) approached UPS to participate in a pack- aging reduction project aimed at the delivery and transportation industry. Working with AEI and its suppliers, UPS increased the post-consumer recycled content in its express packaging to 80 percent, light-gauged its plastic pack, developed a reusable letter and eliminated using bleach in manufacturing.

"It wasn't an easy process," Guernsey says. "We had a cross functional team representing cost, appearance and functionality - we wanted to win on all fronts - working with our suppliers to come up with a suitable top liner to replace our bleach top liner," he says. "Engaging our suppliers in this way was a very critical thing. We found some of them to be extremely responsive and creative as a result."

In addition to reducing its packaging waste, UPS has found ways to reduce waste during the transport of its packages as well. The company developed a nylon mesh bag to replace disposable plastic bags that were being used to hold multiple packages headed to the same destination. According to Guernsey, one reusable nylon bag now replaces 600 plastic bags. "This has certainly had a significant impact on the amount of waste that's being generated," he says.

In addition to its waste minimization initiatives, UPS recently signed up with the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WasteWi$e Program. As a result, UPS is developing system-wide waste minimization and recycling goals.

"We're always looking for ways to reduce waste and to recycle," Guernsey says. "We recycle just about anything we pretty much can. To us, it makes good business sense."

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