RECYCLING: Businesses Join Forces To Close Recycling Loop

What goes around, comes a-round - at least in the circular world of closed-loop recycling systems. Now that many recycling programs have been established a-cross the country, participants are going one step further: ensuring a market for the collected materials by pairing the generators and the processors of recycled materials in a win-win situation.

A closed-loop system provides a built-in guarantee that the materials will be recycled into a useable product and then sold back to the institution that generated the materials in the first place (see recycling chart).

AT&T, Atlanta, Ga., and Fort Howard Paper Co., Rincon, Ga., have formed one of the state's first partnerships to close the recycling loop. AT&T's Alpharetta Center in Alpharetta, Ga., collects about 48 tons of office paper and cardboard from 49 metro Atlanta locations per week. Materials are sorted, shredded and/or baled at the Alpharetta Center for shipment to Fort How-ard Paper Co., where it is made into toilet paper, paper towels and napkins that AT&T purchases. Fort Howard is a 100-percent recycled-paper mill.

AT&T has saved $75,000 in collection costs and has generated $40,000 from selling recyclable materials in the Atlanta program. Also, since employees are now responsible for disposing their own non-recyclable trash, the company saves about $19,000 every year in their cleaning service. The program has been so successful that AT&T has established its own 60-percent, corporate-wide waste recycling goal for its 18,000 employees.

In a similar program started last October, Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y., contracts with Stevens & Thompson Paper Co. Inc., Green-wich, N.Y., to recycle 190,000 tons of the college's waste paper each year into toilet paper. The college hopes to save $3,100 on its normal bill for toilet paper and another $11,000 in hauling costs and landfill tipping fees in the first year of the agreement.

"This is a great program because everybody wins," said Rick Couture, superintendent of custodial services. "The college saves money by being environmentally conscientious; the company saves money because it can make its product from material it doesn't have to buy; the amount of waste going to the landfill is reduced; and recycling has become easier for the college community."

Ithaca's students and staff can now recycle a typical college's menu of discarded paper, including brochures, junk mail, computer paper, copier paper, file folders, magazines and textbooks.

But not all closed-loop recycling programs involve paper products. Orlando, Fla.-based T. G. Lee, Florida's largest dairy, and Piper Industries, a plastics reclamation facility, developed an innovative use for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) through necessity.

When T. G. Lee began packaging milk in yellow containers, the company approached Piper, which was recycling the community's plastics, for help. Piper found a way to recycle the yellow jugs, along with other colored plastics such as detergent bottles, into milk crates that the dairy buys back.

"Dairies are a relatively untapped market," said Caroline Mixon of the Macc Group, environmental consultants in Winter Park, Fla. "This will get them involved and will open the door to other end markets."

The only obstacle to the system came when the dairy's trademark blue milk crates were changed to black because of the mixture of colored recyclables Piper processes. T. G. Lee bought the first black crates in April, said Mixon, and while the decision to switch to black "impacted the company's whole identity," it proved that the dairy is committed to using recycled content.

The risks involved in such cooperative recycling initiatives are often outweighed by the programs' savings - and the growing numbers of companies that are willing to gamble are setting a good example by closing the recycling loop.